23 May 1993
Passionate Spy who Rivalled Shakespeare
Four hundred years after he was stabbed to death in Deptford, South London, Christopher Marlowe is still going strong. His plays are regularly performed. The Royal Shakespeare Company has had major successes with Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II. Antony Sher is to bring his acclaimed Tamburlaine to the RSC's Barbican Theatre. Derek Jarman's recent film of an alarmingly modern Edward II is already a classic.
And next Sunday (30 May 1993), the anniversary of Marlowe's death, I will unveil a memorial to him outside the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, a gay actor saluting a possibly gay playwright.
For some, the personality of the man and his death are as fascinating as his plays and poems. On 30 May 1593, after a day of drinking with three friends, Marlowe was stabbed in the eye, with his own dagger. The magistrate accepted his killer's "self-defence" plea; but academics ever since have puzzled over that moment which closed the career of the most promising Elizabethan dramatist.
Shakespeare — exactly the same age as Marlowe — had not then seriously given up acting to write his own plays.
One of the latest attempts to unravel the mystery is a biography by Charles Nicholl called The Reckoning, which reads like a political thriller.
There is no doubting Marlowe's involvement in the secret service of Queen Elizabeth's Protestant regime. Catholics were the enemy. Even while he was still a bright student at Cambridge, Marlowe was skipping lectures to infiltrate papist seminaries in Europe.
In his writing, Marlowe is intensely passionate, often daring to go right to the top, though never over it. He is an imaginative storyteller, who revels in words and soaring sounds. His main characters are all potential fanatics, but their creator avoids melodrama and, at the same time, can believably present the Devil, an avenging Jew, a gay king or Tamburlaine the Great.
Like Shakespeare, Marlowe mixed with the privileged set and dedicated his work to them. But theatres were also considered to breed disease and immorality. So it's not altogether surprising that Marlowe was accused of boasting he was an atheist. Worse still, he is supposed to have said that "all they that love not tobacco and boys are fools". For the tobacco — that was a newish habit; yet, on the floor of the excavated Elizabethan Rose Theatre, I found an ancient clay pipe. And boys? Plenty of young men worked in theatre, some in drag: actresses weren't permitted.
It's difficult to say for certain whether Marlowe was gay in the current sense. One of the problems of the history of homosexuality is the understandable reluctance of anyone, at that time, to risk capital punishment by declaring themselves. Even today in the UK, lesbians and gay men risk being sacked from their jobs, including the armed forces, if they emerge from the closet of silence.
But Marlowe wrote Edward II, the first major play with a gay hero and defended him thus:
"The mightiest kings have had their minions;
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patrocles, stern Achilles drooped."
But the king's lover, Gaveston, is murdered. In his grief, Edward turns tyrant. Dethroned and imprisoned at Berkeley Castle, he is killed with a red-hot poker.
When Marlowe met his own violent death, his glittering reputation was overtaken by law-abiding Shakespeare. Had Will liked Kit Marlowe so much, that he recreated him as the roistering, iconoclastic Mercutio, who so resents Romeo's love affairs with women? — Ian McKellen