the murder of Marlowe

In the Milwaukee airport (which has a used-book store!), I recently bought Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning. This is a careful effort to solve the murder of Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Most people think that Marlowe, Shakespeare’s rival, died in a tavern brawl. It turns out that he was killed after a long meeting in a respectable private house, owned by a woman who had government connections. The other people present were all professional spies, as was Marlowe himself. Nicholl painstakingly assembles evidence that suggests–although it doesn’t prove–the following story. (Warning: I’m about to give away Nicholl’s “plot,” so skip if you think you might read the book.)

The Earl of Essex, who had a private intelligence service, wanted to finish off his chief rival, the disgraced Sir Walter Raleigh. In parliament, Raleigh had made speeches against the large population of Dutch merchants then resident in London. Essex’ men posted an anoymous poem on the London streets threatening the Dutch merchants with a murderous riot; it quoted several of Marlowe’s plays. The government formed a commission to investigate who had written this dangerous broadside. They arrested Marlowe’s former roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd. Among Kyd’s papers (probably planted by the government), were “atheist” writings, “denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ our Savior.” Under torture, Kyd stated that the papers must be Marlowe’s, and that Marlowe was a scoffer against religion. Whether or not Kyd said so explicitly, others held that Marlowe had shared his heretical opinions with Raleigh, who dabbled in magic and was often accused of atheism. In general, Marlowe and Raleigh moved in similar circles.

Marlowe was arrested. Perhaps the Essex faction expected to be able to condemn him and tar Raleigh with the association. Or perhaps they hoped he would actually give evidence against Raleigh. Unfortunately for them, Marlowe was released–almost certainly because he was an experienced agent in Robert Cecil’s spy service. Accused, but evidently under someone’s protection, Marlowe represented a risk for several parties. He might provide Cecil with evidence that would reveal the machinations of the Essex faction against Walter Raleigh. Or he might reveal too much about his own work for Cecil. The two major spy networks in the country both had reasons to silence him.

Somehow he was enticed to meet alone with several agents associated with Essex as well as one of Cecil’s leading fixers. The meeting lasted all day and may have involved tense negotiations. In the end, Ingram Frizer, probably a spy for Essex, killed Marlowe. The three spies presented a highly implausible story of self-defense to the coronor’s jury, which accepted it. And so Marlowe was silenced.

A serious literary critic could interestingly explore the relationships between two kinds of “plotting” in Marlowe’s life. Many Elizabethan espionage operations were elaborate fake stories, designed to influence popular opinion or to entrap an enemy. Spies were actors, playing parts. Elizabethan plays also had plots, half invented and half based on facts. Nicholl notes this relationship, but he doesn’t have space to interpret Marlowe’s plays closely in the light of his discoveries about their author’s other life.