A Great Reckoning In A Little Room …

It was on the 30th of May in 1593 that one of the most brilliant lights of the starry canopy that was the Elizabethan Literary World was extinguished. The poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in “a tavern in Deptford” allegedly in a fight about who owed how much for a food and drink bill.

In the eight years before he was killed, Marlowe transformed the entirety of the Elizabethan Literary World and the whole of English Theater. Marlowe pioneered blank verse in iambic pentameter (measured syllabic stress) as the correct meter for English dramatic writing. For centuries tortuous efforts to force English into the schemes and structures of classical Latin and Greek poetry had proven unsatisfactory. Marlowe’s genius was to understand that in “Modern” English, the stress rather than the length of a syllable was key.

Marlowe’s impact was so great that one may quite usefully divide English poetry into “Before Marlowe” and “After Marlowe.” And his impact upon the theater is greater still. There basically is no “Before Marlowe” in English drama. His plays, Dido Queene of Carthage, Tamburlaine Part I, Tamburlaine Part II, Massacre at Paris, The Jew of Malta, and above all Doctor Faustus, completely redefined and reset the standards for English drama. They were also terrific box office. The Lord Admiral’s Men made more off of one week of running Tamburlaine I than they had the previous six months. Marlowe was a sensation.

Marlowe was also well-paid for his work: in an age when a Cambridge-educated commoner such as Marlowe might do well to earn 10 pounds a year as a country parson, Marlowe was paid 6 pounds or more per play. But Marlowe was also a spendthrift with a desire for the finer things in life, and he undertook other means to increase his income, including counterfeiting and espionage. And he hung about with a scandalous gang of rakehells, scoundrels, and poets. Marlowe was evidently an epic drinker, an inveterate quarreler, and a libertine who was as unorthodox in his religious opinions as he was in his love affairs. In short, as was said of Byron 200 years later, he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

For several centuries, it was accepted that such a dissipated wastrel must naturally have come to an untimely end in some sort of divine retribution. But recent scholarship has uncovered a treasure trove of historical information from the archives of Queen Elizabeth I’s secret service and espionage operations, and court records have revealed a great deal about the behind-the-scenes goings on of that age.

In 2004, we saw the re-publication of Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe and in early 2006, Stanfurd English professor David Riggs’ biography The World of Christopher Marlowe appeared. Both books address the very distinct possibility that Marlowe was not a victim of chance violence but was the target of a “hit” arranged by the Royal Court to silence a man who had become too great a liability, and too popular to arrest or imprison. (Nicholl’s book reads like a thrilling whodunnit; Riggs’ biography is more academic and thus a bit drier.) Elizabethan politics were ruthless.

Marlowe died at the very height of his fame and popularity. His plays were sell-outs and his poetry was widely read among the genteel set. Only one thing could possibly unseat Marlowe from his foremost place in English literature: a genius even greater than his own. And, unfortunately for Marlowe, such a figure was beginning to write even as Marlowe was at his zenith: William Shakespeare.

At least one famous “Shakespeare” quotation is Marlowe’s:

Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?

The line first appear’s in Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander.

Shakespeare uses this line in As You Like it (III:v) but he plainly was not merely plagiarizing, for he makes allusion to Marlowe (as the Dead Shepherd, Marlowe’s single most famous poem being The Passionate Shepherd) in the line immediately before:

Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?

And a more intriguing reference is found earlier in that same play:

When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit
seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man
more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

A reckoning is here both a judgment and another name for a bill. Marlowe’s death was attributed to a dispute over a bill in a tavern in Deptford (which is how it’s reported in the entertaining 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.) But what makes this Shakespearean reference so interesting is this: the Queen’s Coroner’s inquest, with unheard-of speed, took depositions from the three witnesses who were with Marlowe that day, including his killer, Ingram Frizer, on the 2nd of June. These proceedings were not public nor were the records open. In the surviving Coroner’s inquest documents, the Queen’s Coroner concludes that Marlowe was killed in a great dispute about the reckoning in a little room in the house of Dame Bull at Deptford. Case closed. Very closed. No further investigation was conducted.

The odd thing is that this inquest document was sealed and unavailable until 1925. The lines in As You Like It indicate that Shakespeare may have seen the inquest report or talked with parties involved. Some even propose that Marlowe faked his death to escape political pressures and then induced the successful actor William Shakespeare to play the role of celebrity playwright, fronting for Marlowe. That does not seem likely, however. Marlowe’s plays are full of brilliant, immortal poetry, but lack the dramatic deftness and keen characterizations of Shakespeare’s work. But there seem to always be those who look for anyone but Shakespeare to be the author of Shakespeare’s plays.

What new research has been bringing to light is this: Shakespeare himself may have been involved in anti-government plots and espionage! Or maybe not. Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in The World published in 2004 is worth a look, as is Michael Wood’s four part PBS series, In Search of Shakespeare. Things are not always what they seem, And what we “know” is always subject to change.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love,

— Marlowe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s