It is almost impossible to write a good biography of Shakespeare. His plays contain at once too much and too little for the biographer; his extraordinary impersonality means that he hardly ever reveals his hand. Every voice has its counter-voice; no single character speaks on behalf of the author.
Christopher Marlowe, by contrast, is a biographer’s dream. Whereas Shakespeare vanished into each of his characters, Marlowe stamped his trademark onto his singular anti-heroes: Tamburlaine the Great rising from Scythian shepherd to conqueror of the world, Dr Faustus making his contract with Mephistopheles, King Edward II putting his desires above his crown (with Piers Gaveston in the role of Mrs Simpson). Shakespeare quietly withdraws himself from the worlds he depicts in his plays, just as he eventually withdrew himself from London to his handsome house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Marlowe throws himself into his dramas of power, sex, intrigue and ambition, just as he threw himself into the dangerous world of religious controversy, counterfeiting and espionage. His lurid death in Deptford at the age of 29 was as apt an end to his life as Shakespeare’s leisured retirement was to his.
Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare and from the same kind of stock. Each was the eldest son of a provincial burgher who worked in the leather trade (John Shakespeare the glover, John Marlowe the shoemaker). Both benefited from the Tudor educational revolution that made grammar-school learning available to middle-class boys. But then their paths diverged: Marlowe went to university and Shakespeare did not. Cambridge was the making — and marring — of Marlowe.
David Riggs is right to entitle his splendid new biography The World of Christopher Marlowe. He adopts exactly the right approach, skilfully weaving the fragmentary biographical record into the broader intellectual context. So, for example, Marlowe’s movements in his student years can be traced from entries in the surviving buttery book at Corpus Christi College. This has long been known to scholars, but Riggs goes much further: he investigates the lives of Marlowe’s college contemporaries, the religious and intellectual affiliations of his tutors, the nature of the university curriculum and how it shaped the mind of the dramatist.
Riggs is especially good on the two great scandals that were, in the view of contemporaries, the rotten core of Marlowe’s life: sodomy and atheism. Whereas Shakes- peare’s bisexual imagination gave us the glories of Rosalind and Cleopatra, Marlowe seems to have been pathologically unable to write the woman’s part. The most memorable aspect of his Dido, Queen of Carthage is the play’s opening sequence depicting the pederastic relationship between the god Jupiter and his cupbearer Ganymede. A production of his Edward II with Ian McKellen was, fittingly, the occasion for British tele- vision’s first-ever homosexual snog, whilst Queer Edward II was among the last and finest achievements of Derek Jarman. Riggs makes sense of all this by way of the domestic arrangements in the single-sex university. Cambridge queers, Cambridge spies: that great 400-year tradition brought to an end by the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise of the co-ed college.
When the net closed on Marlowe in the spring of 1593, his room-mate and fellow-dramatist Thomas Kyd was arrested. Under torture in Bridewell prison — he may have been submitted to the ‘scavenger’s daughter’, an iron ring that bent ‘the head, feet and hands together until they form a circle’ — Kyd admitted that it was Marlowe’s custom ‘to jest at the divine scriptures’ and that ‘he would report St John to be our saviour Christ’s Alexis’ (Alexis was the gay shepherd-boy of Virgil’s first Eclogue). Confirmation was provided by a government informer named Baines, who claimed that Marlowe had read him an atheist lecture containing some highly heretical opinions: that ‘Moses was but a Juggler and that one Heriots being Sir W. Raleigh’s man Can do more than he’; ‘that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest’; that ‘St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom … he used him as the sinners of Sodoma’; and ‘that all they that love not boys and tobacco are fools’.
It is an open question whether or not Marlowe really believed these things or whether, in the manner of a perpetual undergraduate, he liked to wind people up by saying outrageous things. If it was the latter, his sense of humour may have cost him his life. Riggs explains that the investigation into Marlowe was part of a wider crackdown on Puritans, Separatists and others of unorthodox religious opinions, who were pursued under a statute, ‘Against Seditious words and rumours uttered against the Queens Most Excellent Majesty’, that effectively collapsed the old ecclesiastical crimes of heresy and blasphemy into the secular offence of treason.
Riggs believes that the order to get Marlowe came from the very top. The conclusion of Baines’s report was that ‘all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped’. On reading this, the Queen said, ‘Prosecute it to the full.’ A few days later, Marlowe was invited to a ‘safe house’ in Deptford where he met with three men who were up to their ears in espionage and racketeering: Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skerres and Robert Poley. Frizer stabbed Marlowe just above the eye. The blade entered his brain and killed him instantly. With suspicious alacrity, Frizer was acquitted on the pardon of the Queen herself.
The evidence is too murky and contradictory for it to be said that Riggs has decisively solved the case, but his reading of events is cleaner and more persuasive than that in Charles Nicholl’s wonderfully atmospheric but historically flawed The Reckoning, which turns on rivalry between different court factions. As a firm believer in the cock-up as opposed to the conspiracy theory of history, I still don’t believe that a contract was taken out on Marlowe’s life. I think it is more likely that he was being very closely watched with a view to subsequent internment, and that the official story of his death — a brawl about money at the end of a long day’s drinking — may come close to the truth of what happened. I suspect that Frizer was pardoned because it was convenient that Marlowe was dead, not because he had been acting under orders.