Who Killed Christopher Marlowe?

The presumed anonymous portrait of Christopher Marlowe

For well over 200 years academics and literary analysts have been at loggerheads over the two major versions of Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus” (the A, radical-quarto printed 1604) and the later 1616 edition (B, conservative-quarto) entitled simply “Doctor Faustus”. The first was registered at the Stationer’s Office on January 7th 1601 stating Rowley’s and Birde’s revisions by the publisher Thomas Bushell. Both versions were written in blank verse and produced as early as 1589, and tackles a Medieval subject “Making a Deal With the Devil”, first printed in Frankfurt in 1587 (Dr. George or Johaan Faust, a necromancer of the late 15th and 16th century). It seems the original German edition of the book was published anonymously in Frankfurt in 1587 under the title of “Historia von D. Johann Fausten, dem weitbeschreyten Zauberer und Schwartkünstler”, later known simply as “The Faustbuch”. Although it is presumed an English translation of it was again published anonymously in England by Thomas Orwin in 1592, the work of an unknown translator who signed himself off as “P.F., Gent”. However, it seems an earlier edition must have been available by at least 1589, as one was discovered in the inventory of possessions of Matthew Parkin, an Oxford scholar who died at the age of twenty one. It was first enacted in England by the Admiral’s Men who later became Nottingham’s Men. The diary of Phillip Henslowe records twenty three performances of Doctor Faustus between 30th September, 1594 and mid-October 1597. Edward Alleyn played the part of Dr. Faustus, who invokes the assistance of the Devil who sends him an advisor, Mephistophiles, in the form of a grotesque beast who will as agreed do his bidding for 24 years until Lucifer calls to take away his wretched and damned soul to Hell. What has confounded academics and scholars alike is which is the most authentic or original of the two and which fully reflects the mind and modus operandi of the great Elizabethan playwright who was in many scholars opinion the equal of William Shakespeare. The other factor, at least in the minds of academics, is whether it would make sense to combine the best aspects of the A-quarto with that of the B-quarto having realised that the scene sequence of the A-quarto differs to the extent that it was probably transliterated poorly or that the compositors were confused over the narratives of both. Other questions remain such as were they pirated or plagiarised copies of a “lost original”? Or, were they the product of ongoing revisions of an original, now lost or destroyed? In an article entitled “Textual Instability and Ideological Difference”, Leah Marcus mentions that some of Marlowe’s manuscripts, letters and notes were found in the bricked-off attic of a London cottage, some encoded but easily decrypted which shed additional light on the mystery. One letter to a friend details Marlowe’s ongoing fears of assassination as a result of his work in intelligence as early as the 1590’s. The author fails to give any corroborating evidence of this fanciful notion of an actual discovery, and I am unable to find any further confirmation of this event except that it was intended by one newspaper as an April Fool’s prank.
One particular difference in these versions is that in the A-quarto Dr. Faustus is a resident of Wittenburg (a well established university town famous for its Lutheran leanings) while in the B-quarto he is said to be a resident of Wertenburg, a corrupted spelling no doubt of Württemburg, a duchy of the Rhineland. The latter was renowned for its uprisings of radical Zwinglian Protestants (radical and left-wing) during the early 16th century, although the Duke of Württemburg was also a Lutheran but accused as having an adherence to crypto-Calvinist heretical ideas. The Duke was actually satirised by William Shakespeare in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” because he was a regular visitor to London’s theatrical milieu and that English actors and theatrical companies made several cultural exchanges to the Duchy of Württemburg during Marlowe’s own lifetime. He was probably around during the time of the War of the Theatres and the Martin Marprelate Tracts debaclè. Marlowe’s atheism was reported to the Privy Council and to Queen Elizabeth in a letter by Richard Baines, a member of the Middle Temple who worked as a government spy during the Spring of 1593. Whether the Queen or the authorities took his letter seriously is another matter since both the Queen and Sir Francis Walsingham were already well-informed of Marlowe’s being himself listed as a spy and that whenever he espoused heretical ideas, (especially in regions where Catholicism and recusants were rampant, it was reportedly to smoke out any potential conspiracy). Furthermore, Marlowe had been openly trained and educated in the precepts of Atheism at Cambridge and had gained a good reputation for his being able to argue the case for “The Devil” and the inconsistencies contained in the Bible (see Alexander Nowell’s “Catechism of First Instruction and Learning of Christian Religion”, 1573).

In any case and for whatever reason his detractors were always at his throat over what he reputedly thought, said and wrote. Historically, the real Dr. Faustus died in Württemburg, although reputedly he was educated in Wittenberg university. The play as well as the playwright were both controversial in terms of their subject matter, their lifestyle and their religious leanings. Apparently, Kit Marlowe was born in the same year as William Shakespeare and it is now known to us that the two playwrights knew each other and had probably collaborated in several plays together. However, Marlowe also “secretly” operated as a spy for Francis Walsingham, and was, like Sir Walter Raleigh, a member of the “School of Night”, which confirmed him as an uncompromising atheist, but of a homosexual orientation and of radical persuasion politically. While I have never found any concrete evidence to substantiate Marlowe as a homosexual, Marlowe’s “Quarrel With God” is aptly documented by critics of his age since other plays by him were equally contentious and the subject of dispute between Puritans, Protestants, Calvinists, Anglicans and Catholics alike. But the greatest opposition to Marlowe could have come from Puritan and Catholic quarters at home and abroad. Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine the Great” clearly and reasonably repudiates Calvinist ideas and theology (The Institutes of the Christian Religion). In it Calvin describes how the human soul aspires to the highest celestial spheres, praising how “the manifold nimbleness with which it surveyeth heaven and earth…measures the sky, gathers the number of the stars with what swiftness or slowness they go in their courses…in order to climb up even to God and to eternal felicity, so that he be joined with God, and therefore is the chief action of the soul to aspire thereunto”.

Title page of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great

However, in complete contradistinction Tamburlaine’s journey or quest does not lead ultimately to God’s paradise but as Marlowe wrote to “That perfect bliss and sole felicity, the sweet fruition of an earthly crown”. In other words religious supremacy is reduced to the use of military force, a contradiction to the Protestant ideal that the state is somehow imbued with power and authority from God (viz: Romans; “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers, for the powers that be are ordained by God”). This presumed that should mankind go astray that history will give birth to someone who would set the record straight, namely “The Scourge of God”. Indeed, four years after Marlowe’s death or execution the Puritan minister Thomas Beard wrote his explanation of the “Wrath of God” entitled “The Theatre of God’s Judgements” (1597) explaining “Marlowe had denied God and his son Christ”. This was followed by a similar view by William Vaughan that “God can punish his enemies” in his narrative, “The Golden Grove” (1600). It was thought quite probable that Kit Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, a condemnation of the practice of magic, was based on the figure and beliefs of Dr. John Dee. Although it could easily have been applied to any other Elizabethan radical occultist or alchemist such as the astrologer Simon Forman, Sir Walter Raleigh (School of Night) Robert Fludd (Rosicrucian Freemasonry) or even John Florio, astrologer and poet. Now I have already discussed the probability of Shakespeare being a member of a Masonic Lodge in my article entitled: “The Secret Alchemy of Shakespeare”.

The two editions of Dr. Faustus with artist’s impression as a woodcut

Another interesting difference in the two editions of Dr. Faustus is that while both were printed in conservative black letter script, the B-quarto edition contains in the title page a woodcut artist’s impression of Dr. Faustus stood holding a magical sceptre or staff and an open book within a magic circle. Also depicted is a dark demon complete with wings, horns and tail sat outside the magic circle which is inscribed with the sigils of the planets and zodiac signs on a tiled floor. It states quite clearly “With New Additions, printed for John Wright, and to be sold at his shop without Newgate at the sign of the Bible” and is dated 1619. Whilst the A-quarto edition has only a printer’s design with an ornamental border on the opening page. In further editions (1609, 1611, and 1616) the use of the woodcut of Dr. Faustus confronting the elemental demon becomes a regular and iconic feature of the book, probably because this increased sales of the play. What is pertinent in the comparison of these two differing editions of Dr. Faustus is the plea by the Old Man character to Dr. Faustus to relinquish the practice of his “black art” which occurs towards the end of the play.

In 1602 John Henslowe enlisted and paid two playwrights to make additions to Marlowe’s original A-text quarto, they were Samuel Rowley and William Birde although some redactions had been made prior to this as a direct result of the Abuses of Plays Act. In fact revisions and alterations to plays was quite common for alternate reasons such as social propriety and cultural or religious affinity. The plays could be banned by the Lord Chamberlain or the Master of the Revels (William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Sir George Buck, together with Sir Edmund Tilney). It seems that John Wright had another version of the play in A3 quarto with all the revisions and additions that the play had received from which the printer’s could work to render the 1616 edition superior to that produced in 1604. According to Henslowe’s diary the play had been performed as early as 30th September, 1594 and was still going strong by mid-October 1597 having achieved twenty three performances in London alone.

An artist’s impression from the German original of Dr. Faustus

Now it has been long presumed by numerous academics that Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” was an attempt to clarify or at least endorse the practice of White Magic, (for the benefit of humanity) against the practice or indulgence of Black Magic purely for personal gain and perverse indulgence.

Christopher Marlowe was the son of a Canterbury cobbler, the head of a feckless and turbulent family who often clashed with the legal authorities for one reason or another. He was educated firstly at King’s School from 1578-80 and matriculated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1580 with a Matthew Parker Scholarship. He obtained his BA in 1584, then took his MA in 1587. He left Cambridge the following year probably to work as a spy in Rheims for the spymaster Francis Walsingham. To all intents and purposes from that time and during his covert operations he was a dramatist, and his first play Tamburlaine the Great was performed by the Lord Admiral’s Men with Edward Alleyn taking the leading role. He is responsible for The Jew of Malta (1592), a play that greatly influenced William Shakespeare’s own play The Merchant of Venice, the occult drama Dr. Faustus (which survives as two fragments from 1604 and 1616) and Edward II (1593-4) which portrays the death of a homosexual English King, his lover Gaveston and the paramour of his wife, Isabella. In actual fact Marlowe “sparred” in a literary sense with Shakespeare and together they polarised the philosophical and aesthetic debate in the English theatre. Marlowe was recruited as a spy while he was still a student at Cambridge since he spent more that his grant could afford. He later became Arabella Stuart’s tutor and was still working for intelligence because, as the niece of Mary Queen of Scots, she was still perceived by many Catholics to be a likely successor or “replacement” for Queen Elizabeth. In 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the English garrison town of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands, for alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, presumably related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was sent to the Lord Treasurer (William Cecil), but no charge or imprisonment resulted. This arrest may have disrupted another of Marlowe’s spying missions, perhaps by giving the resulting coinage to the Catholic cause. He was to infiltrate the followers of the active Catholic plotter William Stanley and report back to Lord Burghley. The English historian and antiquary, Anthony Wood who was educated at Oxford and published his “Athenae Oxonienses” (1691-92) of university life from the time. He wrote as follows:

“Christopher Marlowe, sometimes a student in Cambridge; afterwards, first an actor on the stage, then, (as Shakespeare, whose contemporary he was) a maker of plays…but in the end, so it was, that this Marlowe giving too large a swing to his own wit, and suffering his lust to have the full reins, fell to that outrage and extremity, as Jodelle a French tragical poet did, (being an epicure and an atheist) that he denied God and his Son, Christ, and not only in word blasphemed the Trinity, but also (as it was credibly reported) wrote diverse discourses against it, affirming our Saviour to be a deceiver, and Moses to be a conjuror: The Holy Bible also contain only vain and idle stories, and all religion but a device of policy. But see the end of this person, which was noted by all, especially the Precisian. For so it fell out, that he being deeply in love with a certain woman, had for his rival a bawdy serving man, one rather fit to be a pimp, than an ingenious Amoretto as Marlowe conceived himself to be. Whereupon Marlowe taking it to be a high affront, rushed in upon to stab him, with his dagger; but the serving man being very quick, so avoided the stroke, that withal catching hold of Marlowe’s wrist, he stabbed his own dagger into his own head, in such sort, that notwithstanding all the means of surgery that could be wrought, he shortly after died of his wound, before the year 1593.”

The controversial severity of his plays, their inherent anti-Semitism, their condemnation of their magical Neoplatonic sentiments suggests a man with extremely radical views, at least for the period. Like the controversial film-maker, Ken Russell today he would have been perceived as a ubiquitous innovator. Perhaps either by the company he frequented or his bohemian lifestyle he gained a reputation as an atheist, was accused of blasphemy and perverse beliefs by venerating villains and parodying authorities as hypocrites, bullies and bigots. Nevertheless, at College he also gained a reputation as a free-thinker, poet and translator of works by Ovid (Elegies-1585) and Lucan (Parsiphalia-1600). In collaboration with Thomas Nashe he wrote Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594) taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. The Massacre at Paris (1589) although somewhat corrupt but still attributed to him was for the time a brutal and disturbing play. On October 28th 1589 he was arrested for the murder of an innkeeper’s son along with Thomas Watson in a street fight but they only served two weeks in Newgate prison when an appeal exonerated them both although Watson was the culprit. The official story is vague (and differs from one account to another) but it was said that during a meeting with three of Walsingham’s agents Marlowe attacked Ingram Frizier over an argument about the payment of a bill and was subsequently stabbed fatally in the right eye and later died.

It seems that in early May 1593, several posters had been nailed to doors around London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands who had settled in the city. One of these, the “Dutch Church Libel”, written in rhymed iambic pentameter, contained allusions to several of Marlowe’s plays and was signed, “Tamburlaine”. It may have been that Marlowe was being framed by the agents Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley who were with him on the day of his death. On 11 May the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels. The next day, Marlowe’s colleague Thomas Kyd was himself arrested, his lodgings were searched and a three-page fragment of a heretical tract was found. In a letter to Sir John Puckering, Kyd asserted that it had belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had been writing “in one chamber” some two years earlier. In a second letter, Kyd described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate and “intemperate and of a cruel heart”. They had both been working for an aristocratic patron, probably Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. A warrant for Marlowe’s arrest was issued on 18 May, when the Privy Council apparently knew that he might be found staying with Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s principal secretary in the 1580s and a man more deeply involved in state espionage than any other member of the Privy Council. Marlowe duly presented himself on 20 May but there apparently being no Privy Council meeting on that day, was instructed to “give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary”. On Wednesday, 30th May, Marlowe was killed presumably in a tavern brawl. However, the controversy over his death continues even today and several reasons and agents have been proposed for his elimination:

  1. Jealous of her husband Thomas’s relationship with Marlowe, Audrey Walsingham arranged for the playwright to be murdered.
  2. Sir Walter Raleigh arranged the murder, fearing that under torture Marlowe might incriminate him.
  3. With Skeres the main player, the murder resulted from attempts by the Earl of Essex to use Marlowe to incriminate Sir Walter Raleigh.
  4. He was killed on the orders of father and son Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil, who thought that his plays contained Catholic propaganda.
  5. He was accidentally killed while Frizer and Skeres were pressuring him to pay back money he owed them.
  6. Marlowe was murdered at the behest of several members of the Privy Council who feared that he might reveal them to be atheists.
  7. The Queen ordered his assassination because of his subversive atheistic behaviour.
  8. Frizer murdered him because he envied Marlowe’s close relationship with his master Thomas Walsingham and feared the effect that Marlowe’s behaviour might have on Walsingham’s reputation.
  9. Marlowe’s death was faked to save him from trial and execution for subversive atheism.

One official, but not entirely convincing story was that his death was reported as being the consequence of his atheist views and perverse proclivities. In his own account (The Golden Grove, 1600) William Vaughan wrote:

“Not inferior to these was one Christopher Marlowe by profession a play-maker, who, as is reported, about seven years ago wrote a book against the Trinity: but see the effects of God’s justice; it so happened, that at Deptford, a little village about three miles distant from London, as he meant to stab with his poniard one named Ingram, that had invited him thither to a feast, and was then playing at tables, he quickly perceiving it, so avoided the thrust, that withal drawing out his dagger for his defence, he stabbed this Marlowe into the eye, in such sort, that his brains coming out at the dagger’s point, he shortly after died.”

Another report by Thomas Beard describes a slightly different scenario:

“But see what a hook the Lord put in the nostrils of this barking dog. It so fell out, that in London’s streets as he purposed to stab one whom he sought a grudge unto with his dagger, the other party perceiving so avoided the stroke, that withal catching hold of his wrist, he stabbed his own dagger into his own head, in such sort, that notwithstanding all the means of surgery that could be wrought, he shortly died thereof. The manner of his death being so terrible (for he even cursed and blasphemed to his last gasp, and together with his breath an oath flew out of his mouth) that it was not only a manifest sign of God’s judgement, but also a horrible and fearful terror to all that beheld him. But herein did the justice of God most notably appear, in that he compelled his own hand which had written those blasphemies to be the instrument to punish him, and that in his brain, which had devised the same. I pray to God (and I pray it from my heart) that all Atheists in this realm, and in all the world beside, would by the remembrance and consideration of this example, either forsake their horrible impiety, or that they might in like manner come to destruction; and so that abominable sin which so flourisheth amongst men of greatest name, might either be quite extinguished and rooted out, or at least smothered and kept under, that it dost not show its head anymore in the world’s eye.”

Christopher Marlowe, because of his open adherence to atheism, his supposed homosexuality and the anarchic nature of his dramas, was an anathema to some circles of the mainstream public. He was briefly mentioned along with two other poets when Robert Greene accused William Shakspere of being a parvenu (See “Upstart Crow”). But the object of Robert Greene’s scathing derision we must assume is the person who is of “divers worship” (ie: worthy in diverse fields or admired broadly), is upright in his dealings, honest, urbane, graceful and polished in his writings, at least according to Henry Chettle. Now was Chettle apologising to the actor, the Johannes fac totum? Hardly, this would appear to be a virtually blind apology to a person who of high rank had been injured by some of Robert Greene’s remarks. At the commencement of the letter he addresses “all three of you” playwrights without naming them but it is widely accepted that those playwrights were Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. So, how could Greene in the first place warn Shakespeare and his contemporaries about an upstart crow, when the upstart crow is presumed to be William Shakespeare? Furthermore, why did Chettle feel the need to apologise to the two people who took offense, namely Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare and neglect to offset any libellous remarks made against Marlowe? In Edward IInd, Marlowe openly describes the homosexual relationship formed between the King and Gaveston:

The mightiest kings have had their minions;
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patroclus, stern Achilles drooped.
And not kings only, but the wisest men:
The Roman Tully loved Octavius,
Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.

Marlowe wrote the only play about the life of Edward II up to his time, taking the humanist literary discussion of male sexuality much further than his contemporaries dared or wished. The play was extremely bold, dealing with a star-crossed love story between Edward II and Piers Gaveston. Though it was a common practice at the time to reveal characters as gay to give audiences reason to suspect them as culprits in a crime, Christopher Marlowe‘s Edward II is portrayed as a sympathetic character. The decision to start the play Dido, Queen of Carthage with a homoerotic scene between Jupiter and Ganymede that bears no connection to the subsequent plot has long puzzled scholars. Shortly before his death Marlowe had appeared before the Privy Council in connection with statements and papers associated with Thomas Kyd being suspected of blasphemy and sedition. His poem “Hero & Leander” was written shortly after and published in 1598. A theory exists that Marlowe did not die as presumed but went to live on as a spy and he was strongly suspected as being the real author of Shakespeare’s plays/poems, although this is highly unlikely because their styles are so distinct and Marlowe was dead when Shakespeare’s plays were still being written. There is some support for the theory that Christopher Marlowe was cruelly assassinated on the orders of the state (Lord Burghley or Robert Cecil), being too much of a loose cannon to be of any future use to the Intelligence Service.

Summary Conclusions

At the meeting with the Privy Council Sir Robert Cecil came to the defence of Marlowe (he had secretly employed him in Belgium) when Sir John Puckering insisted that Richard Baines‘ letter condemning Marlowe as an atheist and blasphemer. However, Puckering was a supporter of the Earl of Essex who was jealous or resentful towards Sir Walter Raleigh should he return like a phoenix to Elizabeth’s court after his period in exile for marrying Elizabeth Throckmorton without the Queen’s knowledge or permission. Richard Baines in collusion with Thomas Phellipes (who also “cooked up” the false evidence against Mary, Queen of Scots) attempted to incriminate Marlowe and implicate Sir Walter Raleigh with forged letters and confessions (obtained by torture) from Thomas Kyd. Marlowe meanwhile had uncovered a plot supported by Sir Richard Cholmeley in England by the exiled Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange to replace the Queen by someone chosen by a cabal of Catholic dissenters at Petworth led by Henry Percy, the “Wizard Earl” (The School of Night) and supposedly supported by Sir Walter Raleigh. Under instruction from his master (Sir Robert Dudley?) Thomas Phellips then arranged to eradicate Marlowe with the assistance of Ingram Frazier, Nicholas Skeeres and Robert Poley which would make it seem like an accident or altercation, thereby leaving the Privy Council members free from any further guilt or implication if Marlowe was at some time in the future to testify in court.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Website: www.qudosacademy.org

Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

In the early part of my career I have worked extensively in media, the arts and theatre as an innovator and environmental conservationist and much later took on a role as an investigative journalist and commentator on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy.

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