Scholars face a formidable task when they set out to write the lives of the playwrights and poets of the Elizabethan age. They do not possess the personal revelations, say, of Byron’s letters. They must piece together scraps of information contained in the lawsuits of an astonishingly litigious population; the comments of friends and enemies in the literary world. They must then fit all this together with the supposed personal references in their subject’s works. Park Honan does this admirably in his life of Marlowe from his birth in Canterbury in 1564 to his death aged 29 in widow Bull’s house in Deptford. It is an ingenious piece of informed speculation.
Marlowe emerges as a driven man. Like A. L. Rowse he was determined to escape from humble origins into a wider world by virtue of his literary gifts. Marlowe’s father was a cobbler and Honan detects in his son’s works a pronounced distaste for leather and boots. Both Rowse and Marlowe were scholarship boys: Rowse at Christ Church, Oxford and Marlowe at Corpus Christi, Cambridge. Rowse made it to the Astors at Clivedon. Six years at Cambridge gave Marlowe the mastery of classical Latin necessary to attract an influential patron. By the 1590s he was loosely attached to the Durham house set of Sir Walter Raleigh and the ‘wizard earl’ Henry Percy, owner of one of the largest private libraries in England, now at Petworth. It was in this circle that Marlowe was known as a notorious ‘atheist’ at a time when ‘atheism’ was considered a crime, subversive of the established order in church and state and punishable by death. Marlowe was not an atheist in the sense that A. J. Ayer was and as neo-Darwinists now are; more likely, he was an Arian heretic, what might now be called a Unitarian. But above all he was a freethinker given to theological jokes in bad taste: Jesus and St John were lovers, Moses a ‘juggler’, the Virgin Mary a bawd.
By 1593 Marlowe was the most popular playwright in London. The ringing, bloodthirsty rhetoric of his first play Tamburlaine (1590) was such a success that his fans named their sons after the Scythian peasant turned tyrant who aimed to conquer an empire in Persia:
Is it not passing brave to be a king
And ride in triumph through Persepolis?
Goethe, Swinburne and the Victorian critic A.G. Bradley were among his later admirers. What they could not know was that Marlowe had been recruited at Cambridge as a government spy. To reveal this has been the achievement of modern scholars, particularly Charles Nicholl in his The Reckoning. Nicholl compares him to Guy Burgess, another Cambridge intellectual (Marlowe was a ‘wit’) recruited as a Soviet agent.
Anyone who was a friend of Burgess must be struck by this observation. Both were notorious homosexuals. Marlowe’s Edward II deals with the king’s fatal attraction for his ‘minion’ Piers Gaveston; for Honan the play ‘legitimises homoerotic desire’. What Honan argues, not altogether convincingly, is that what may well be a portrait of Marlowe rescued from a Cambridge skip shows a young man in jewelled clothes when undergraduates were supposed to dress in long black gowns; addicted to handmade shoes and OE ties, Burgess was a slovenly dresser with dirty fingernails. Both were making sartorial protests against the establishment. Marlowe got into trouble with the ‘easy excitement of his talk’; Burgess talked to shock. A sparkling intellectual companion at his best, in his cups he was a crashing bore ranting on about the evils of capitalism and the excellencies of the Soviet Union. After such a rant I remember Philip Toynbee flinging him bodily into the band of the Gargoyle. But there was a crucial difference. Burgess became a Soviet agent for ideological reasons, however mistaken; Marlowe joined Francis Walsingham’s espionage network for cash when playwrights were paid a miserable pittance compared to the fortunes amassed by Lloyd Webber et al.
The aim of Francis Walsingham as Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster was the ‘apprehension of papists and other dangerous enemies’. We do not know what Marlowe was up to in Paris and Flushing; but the Queen’s council considered that ‘he had been employed in matters touching the benefit of his country’ and pressurised the university to grant him an MA. Spies invent conspiracies to prove their use so that they should be kept on the payroll. But the conspiracies that troubled Francis Walsingham were real enough. The Tudor reformation entailed a brutal repression of the old faith and its spiritual comforts, the cult of saints and the Virgin Mary. Marlowe seems to sense the emotional power of the old rituals. Most Catholics kept their heads down, as did Shakespeare if he was a closet Catholic. But there was a steady stream of Cambridge students crossing the channel to Dr Allen’s Jesuit seminary at Rheims where they plotted to assassinate the heretic Queen Elizabeth.
All involvement in intelligence work seems to exercise a lasting fascination on those who have once moved in a world of agents and double agents. Marlowe, Honan asserts, was ‘fed by his fascination with secret power’; this is evident in his Jew of Malta. The same fascination may be said to have possessed the greatest historical stylist of our age, Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Did Marlowe’s involvement in the murky anthill of intelligence where careless talk costs lives lead to his death in Deptford? What Nicholl calls the official version was stated in the inquest on his death. Marlowe had been killed by Ingram Frizer in self- defence during a brawl over a bill. But the circumstances were suspicious: his companions at Deptford included Robert Poley, Walsingham’s most ruthless agent, and Nick Skeres, a swindler who ‘drew young gents into bonds’. Frizer was a servant of Thomas Walsingham, cousin of Francis and as a cosmopolitan Latinist a patron of Marlowe. ‘As patron of a well-known, flagrant “atheist”, [Thomas] Walsingham risked damaging his own reputation and so depriving his agent [Frizer] of profits and security.’ Marlowe was murdered and silenced for good.
Nicholl connects the murder with the fractious world of court politics. Short of some new discovery we shall never know the truth. My own guess is that the inquest’s findings must be taken at their face value. Cursed with an ungovernable, violent temper, in 2004, when engaged in questioning a bill in a Tesco store, I was accosted by a computer nerd determined to explain to the ignorant aged how computers make out a reckoning. I struck him and am now banned from all Tesco establishments. Perhaps the outrageously outspoken ‘kind Kit Marlowe’ had a short fuse.
Honan’s book is more than a fine piece of detective work revealing the seedy under- belly of Elizabethan England. It takes the reader on a round tour of Marlowe’s work. Edward II is the first psychologically convincing and realist treatment of the English historical past. In The Jew of Malta Marlowe serves up to the groundlings the appetising anti-Semitic fare of the epoch only to present Turks and Christians as equally despicable. Honan calls Hero and Leander (1593) ‘one of the most psychologically intense love poems in any language’. His lines ‘Come live with me and be my love/ And we will all the pleasures prove’ have entered into our folk memory. His fellow poet and playwright Michael Drayton wrote of him that he retained ‘the fine madness which should possess a poet’s brain’. He is indisputably one of our great poets. I hope Park Honan’s scholarly book persuades readers to sample Marlowe’s fine madness.