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400-Year-Old Marlowe Murder a True Shakespearean Tragedy : Mystery: Playwright pioneered blank verse, but his reputation was tarnished by his death, reputedly in a tavern brawl.

August 08, 1993|GRAHAM HEATHCOTE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LONDON — The murder of Christopher Marlowe 400 years ago is one of the great unsolved mysteries of English literary history.

Only 29 when he was slain in a house on Deptford Strand by the River Thames, Marlowe was the most famous playwright in England. William Shakespeare, two months younger, had yet to make his name.

Marlowe's death on May 30, 1593, was said to have happened in a tavern brawl over a bill, or "reckoning." The word used at the inquest was "recknynge."

That led to Marlowe's being portrayed as a ruffian, which damaged his reputation for posterity.

But he is the man who developed the style of blank verse--free of rhyme and flowing to the rhythms of everyday speech--in his great plays, "Tamburlaine," "Doctor Faustus" and "The Jew of Malta."

He wrote the famous line, "Come live with me and be my love . . . " in his poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love."

Shakespeare and John Milton learned from Marlowe before putting their own stamp on blank verse.

"If Shakespeare is the dazzling sun of this mighty period, Marlowe is certainly the morning star," said Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, the Victorian poet.

Elizabethan London was a rough place and Marlowe could have been killed in a brawl. He had twice been involved in violent street fights but there is no evidence that he was the aggressor, and he was never charged with any crime.

In the 400th anniversary year, enthusiasts, amateur sleuths, writers and historians have renewed argument about the death and are producing books and plays.

The Marlowe Society of America came to England for a July conference at Corpus Christi College of Cambridge University, where Marlowe was a student for six years.

"Few of the present spate of books deal with his obvious literary brilliance but mostly cast him as an atheist, blasphemer, counterfeiter, traitor, drunkard, brawler and homosexual," said Charles Michaels, an American Marlowe enthusiast living in England.

Michaels, formerly of Amboy, N.J., said in an interview, "Marlowe's friends were not men of tavern brawls."

They included Sir Walter Raleigh, the statesman, poet, explorer and colonizer of Virginia; Thomas Hariot, mathematician and astronomer, and poets George Chapman and Thomas Watson.

Their advanced ideas and freewheeling conversation led to Marlowe's being accused of atheism, then a capital offense.

He was due to answer before the Privy Council, the monarch's senior advisers, who met in a room called the Star Chamber at now-vanished Westminster Palace.

The council routinely ordered torture to extract confessions. When the poet Thomas Kyd was put on the rack, he accused Marlowe of heresy. Richard Baines, a Star Chamber informer, was then ordered to collect evidence for the charge, which could have ended with Marlowe's being burned at the stake.

One theory is that Marlowe's friends feared he would succumb to torture, dragging them all down, so they had him killed. Dead men tell no tales.

Another is that the tale of his murder was make-believe and that he was at Deptford waiting for a tide on which a ship spirited him away to the Continent to spend the rest of his life in hiding.

The fascination of the Marlowe story is in its exposure of the sinister underside of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a time when Protestant England was at war with Roman Catholic Spain.

The country swarmed with spies and buzzed with plots to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic rival, Mary Queen of Scots.

Marlowe was, indeed, a government agent; six years earlier the Privy Council had commended him for rendering "good service" on a secret mission to France.

The only witnesses to Marlowe's death were three men who moved in a shadowy world of spying, loan-sharking and swindling: Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, curious company for an intellectual like Marlowe.

They were not in a tavern but in the house of Eleanor Bull, a widow who rented out rooms. The four men had spent the whole day there, talking, eating and drinking.

According to the coroner's report, Marlowe attacked Frizer from behind after grabbing Frizer's dagger from his belt. Frizer fought back, got hold of the weapon and stabbed Marlowe in the right eye, killing him instantly.

Frizer was in custody for a month and then received the queen's pardon, returning to his service with Thomas Walsingham. Walsingham was Marlowe's friend and patron as well as the brother of Sir Francis Walsingham, one of two chief ministers of the queen. He was in charge of her espionage network.

No scholar believes the inquest report and more evidence about what happened may yet turn up.

The coroner's report was discovered only in 1925 in London's Public Record Office by Leslie Hotson, a Canadian scholar from Harvard University.

"That is not so surprising," said Dolly Wraight, author of "In Search of Christopher Marlowe" and in charge of anniversary events for the Marlowe Society.

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