Playwright, Brawler, Lover, Spy

Review of David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe

(London: Faber and Faber, 2004),

and of Louise Welsh, Tamburlaine Must Die

(Toronto: HarperCollins, 2005).

Christopher Marlowe, the bad boy of the Elizabethan theatre, is back. Set aside Rupert Everett’s cameo role in Shakespeare in Love: since 1993, the four-hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death, well over three dozen books have been devoted to him, including, in the past several years alone, three critical biographies. And now we have, in Louise Welsh’s novel, a re-imagining of the last week of Marlowe’s short life; and in David Riggs’ biography, important new evidence about the causes of his violent death.

Marlowe was killed, aged twenty-nine, by a dagger thrust through the socket of his right eye: an act of self-defense, the coroner ruled. The Queen’s Privy Council had ordered the poet to be available for questioning at Greenwich on matters of sedition and religious dissidence. Welsh recounts in an Author’s Note the official version of what then transpired. Invited on May 30th, 1593 to feast with three other men in a house in nearby Deptford, Marlowe objected to paying “the reckoning” himself. Snatching one of his companions’ dagger, Marlowe wounded him lightly on the scalp. In the ensuing struggle, the dagger was turned and driven into his own face. An Anglican clergyman declared this “a manifest sign of God’s judgment”: the scurrilous blasphemies of this “barking dog” had been punished by the very hand that wrote them.

Marlowe, as Welsh and Riggs agree, was no choir-boy. The biographers inform us that he’d been involved in street-fights, in one of which his opponent was run through by a fellow-poet. Two members of the London watch, in fear for their lives, had taken him before a judge to swear to keep the peace. The playwright Thomas Kyd, who in 1591 shared a writing-room with Marlowe, described him as “intemperate and of a cruel heart,” and denounced his “rashness in attempting sudden privy injuries to men.”

But archival research has made the story that his death resulted from a tavern brawl look pretty thin. Eleanor Bull, in whose house Marlowe died, was no Mistress Quickly: her husband had held office in the household of Queen Elizabeth I, whose palace at Greenwich stood less than a mile away, and the widow Bull had high connections at court. Moreover, Marlowe and the men with whom he spent his last hours all had close links to the Elizabethan secret service. The poet had been recruited, while still a Cambridge student in the mid-1580s, to infiltrate potentially traitorous Roman Catholic circles. Two of his companions were small fish in the game, but the third, Robert Poley—a man whose life exudes a dry stench of betrayal and duplicity—had run the conspiracy that led to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Poley had no need to fear questions from a coroner: on his return to the palace at Greenwich he received a warrant specifying that in late May and early June he had been continuously working “in her majesty’s service.”

Oh, and Kyd’s denunciation, which so helpfully corroborates the official story? It was extracted under torture, and Kyd knew when he wrote it that Marlowe was already dead.

In Tamburlaine Must Die, Welsh draws the reader skilfully into this small world of violence and betrayal, sketching with terse economy the menace of the framed poet’s interrogations by the Privy Council, and in several sequences giving a persuasive sense of the eerie brightness imparted to his perceptions by the terror of impending death. Some of Marlowe’s more intriguing contemporaries—among them the turncoat spy Richard Baynes, the mathematician and magician John Dee, and the courtier-poet, adventurer, and skeptic Sir Walter Raleigh—make fine cameo appearances. And Welsh has a lucid appreciation both of the extent to which undercover work of the kind Marlowe had been drawn into is effectively demonic in nature, and also of the contempt which the poet (like the archetypal Accuser) evidently felt for the higher powers he served.

But the twists of plot involving the novella’s only wholly fictive characters—a blind bookseller, and an actor and unsuccessful poet who is also Marlowe’s lover—tip the action into gothic melodrama. Given the extent to which Marlowe’s own plays participate in the “theatre of blood,” it may seem ironically appropriate that he should himself be portrayed here as a slasher-killer. Yet Marlowe’s own habitual defiance of convention and ‘good taste’ does seem, at least intermittently, to have had definable polemical and satirical intentions.

To this reader at least, the basic premise of Welsh’s fiction—that the playwright himself composed this text, which ends at sunrise on the morning of his death with “A Curse on Man and God,” as an angry last testament—is unconvincing. (To impersonate a writer of genius is to set the bar unnecessarily high. Anthony Burgess’s brilliant 1993 novel about Marlowe, A Dead Man in Deptford, managed without pastiche to sound convincingly Elizabethan; its supposed narrator was an actor-companion of the poet.)

The scholars whose work Welsh acknowledges have speculated that the murder, evidently an act of state, was linked to power struggles among Elizabeth’s chief courtiers—notably Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex. But as David Riggs’ compulsively readable biography demonstrates, the documentary evidence leads higher, to a decision by Queen Elizabeth herself.

In the spring of 1593 England’s rulers were panicked by evidence of plots to assassinate the Queen and replace her with the Catholic peer Lord Strange (who was patron of the actors’ company Marlowe wrote for). The menace seemed to come from all sides—from a soldier cousin of Strange’s who had defected to the Spanish with the 1,200 Englishmen he commanded; from skeptics like Marlowe whose blasphemies undercut belief in the Queen’s role as Defender of the Faith; and from radical Protestants like Marlowe’s Cambridge contemporary John Penry, who wanted to free the Anglican Church from bishops and state control alike. The state struck back with a campaign of repression: Penry was hanged the day before Marlowe’s murder, and Lord Strange was poisoned in 1594.

Riggs is a sensitive guide to the radical novelty of Marlowe’s writings. He has a keen eye for the ways in which Marlowe’s knowledge of classical literatures helped him voice sexual dissidence as well as opposition to Christian and monarchical orthodoxies. Yet he and Welsh both overlook what may be the most tantalizing resonances of the poet’s death—its very contemporary-sounding connections (analyzed by Richard Wilson nearly a decade ago) with the arms trade and with insider trading.

Marlowe died a stone’s throw from the warehouses of the Muscovy Company, England’s first joint-stock corporation, whose London agent (we would say, CEO) was one Anthony Marlowe.

The Company’s trade was in armaments, and in imperial geopolitics. High-quality English cannons and gunpowder enabled Ivan the Terrible and his successors to expand with murderous violence into central Asia; in return, the Company imported the cordage that equipped the fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada. This was an early form of the “Great Game”; its goal was English access to the Silk Road and the Far East, by-passing Spanish sea power and the armies of the Ottoman Empire.

The two Marlowes were probably distant cousins, with common roots in Faversham, in Kent. Yet as Richard Wilson has argued, Christopher’s first stage hits, his two Tamburlaine plays, come close to being public relations for the Company’s Eurasian geopolitics. Add to the possibility that these plays were somehow commissioned as propaganda the fact that in 1587, the year they were first staged, Anthony Marlowe and other directors of the Company had just got away with England’s inaugural insider-trading scandal, and we may have stumbled upon a further motive for the dagger in the eye.

A last detail. In one of the bloodiest scenes of the second play, Tamburlaine’s army storms the city of Babylon. He orders his soldiers to massacre combatants and civilians alike, and has the city’s governor hung up on the wall for them to shoot at. (Falluja, anyone?) In one early performance, a gun used in this sequence was accidentally loaded with bullets as well as powder, and when it was discharged killed a pregnant woman in the audience. Call it ‘blow-back,’ if you like.