Digging Up Christopher Marlowe

Short of exhuming his bones, could I ever know who Marlowe—playwright, poet, and possible spy—really was?

One spring afternoon in 1593, four men walked into an inn. Some hours later, three walked out. What happened in that room has been the subject of speculation from gleeful Puritans, a solemn, mournful Shakespeare, and generations of critics, because the man who died in that room — although some claim he did not — was the playwright Christopher Marlowe.

Christopher Marlowe is not nearly so well-known as Shakespeare, of course, though he was more famous while he was alive. He was born exactly two months before Shakespeare. He went to Cambridge on scholarship, where he probably became a spy. He wrote about compelling demons, Christian hypocrites, atheist tyrants persevering without punishment, and a king in love with his courtier. Rumors about his own life abounded — necromancy, atheism, sodomy — and likely played a part in his death, allegedly in a brawl over the bill — the reckoning. It’s suspicious that all the men in the room at the time were in some way involved in Elizabethan intelligence networks; the story of the three survivors is a bit hard to believe. If he could summon his own shade, we might get some answers, but everyone knows to speak to a ghost you must make the right offering, speak the right words. For a poet, perhaps, the words themselves are the offering.

Marlowe is buried, they say, somewhere in the corner of a churchyard in Deptford, near where he died. No one knows exactly where his grave is; on the far wall there is a plaque commemorating him, and a rosemary plant, for remembrance. In Westminster Abbey the stone with his name bears a question mark after his death date. Some conspiracists theorize that he faked his death and went on to write Shakespeare’s plays under a pseudonym, which makes for a good spy story but poor reading comprehension; the two men, both brilliant, have such different syntaxes, such different focus, such different pace, that it is impossible to mistake them.

Some conspiracists theorize that he faked his death and went on to write Shakespeare’s plays under a pseudonym, which makes for a good spy story but poor reading comprehension.

There’s a simple answer to this question mark, though, or simple enough to a certain kind of person, which is the kind of person I was in 2013 when I graduated college and followed in Marlowe’s footsteps to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Unlike him, I wasn’t studying divinity, but like him I was using a subject I had only the barest intention of following through to a career in order to get to a place that seemed like a ladder to another world. I was 22, and if someone had asked me to spy for the Queen I probably would have said yes, for the sake of danger, a good story, and a hill to die on. So I also thought it entirely reasonable to dig up a churchyard looking for answers about a long-dead poet whose primary audience these days is English professors and college students who have tried more than once to see what happens if you summon a demon in Latin in the woods.

A plaque commemorating Marlowe’s death place (Photo by Loz Pycock)

Of course, my advisor, the church in question, the University of Cambridge, and probably the British government would likely have had other ideas, and so I could not excavate the graveyard where Marlowe was supposedly buried. I was left to try digging up anything else I could find. I was studying biological anthropology at Cambridge with the vague aim of doing forensic anthropology. A few years earlier, splitting my time between English and anthropology, driving between a forensic anthropology and pathology lab at UMass and my Shakespeare class at Smith, I had thought that I could combine the two by reading narratives into bones. I got into Cambridge on this metaphor; my admissions essays included a long paragraph about how I overcame my fear of death and the dead by studying their bodies, learning their stories, becoming an instrument of a kind of afterlife for them in the capacity of evidence-gatherer, storyteller, witness.

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This was something of a falsehood: I was still afraid of death, and the only immortality I was interested in at the time was real, physical, vital immortality, the kind involving a literal beating heart. I had once been afraid of hell, and then I stopped believing in God, and now I was afraid of dying, of nothingness, and also, still, a little bit, of hell. I read Doctor Faustus and recognized myself in the title character’s inability to ask sincerely for salvation. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on it, a play that a friend directed and I acted in; there was a time I knew the entire play by heart, and that was the same spring I’d wake up with nightmares of red eyes and glowing furnaces.

One of the critics I read for my thesis said something that has stuck with me ever since: To read or watch Doctor Faustus, you must, for the length of the play, enter into the mind and spirit of a Christian. You must believe in it for the trick to work, for the play to horrify you completely. Part of the horror of the play is that, on a basic level, it is completely theologically orthodox: What happens to Faustus is what should happen. But it is not right that it happens, not morally or instinctively or emotionally, and in that dissonance lies a world of subversion. The God of this play has no mercy, and it is in part because Faustus knows this, and knows the moral universe to which he is unwilling subject is unfair, that he is damned.

The Old Court at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Marlowe lived from age 17–23.

Most of what we know about Marlowe is shadowy. A lot of the conventional knowledge that gets passed down is, at its heart, story; scholar after scholar, however brilliant and credible, will note, We are not sure if this is true; however, it seems true, and if it is not, it should be. There is a portrait of a young man, unidentified, from 1585; his age is noted as 21, which is the right age for Marlowe. It was found at Corpus Christi in the 1950s. On it is a motto: Quod me nutrit me destruit, what nourishes me destroys me. There is no evidence other than the age and the college to suggest that it is Marlowe, and probably he wouldn’t have had the money for either the portrait or the elaborate doublet the young man in the picture is wearing. But the face seems right, and the motto is so perfect that it is almost a thing out of fiction.

Even Marlowe’s name could be mysterious. Christened Christopher, he was almost ubiquitously called Kit; his surname is rendered, variously, as Marlowe, Marley, Marlin and even, resonantly, Merlin. Another story, almost certainly untrue, is that Kit’s spy code name was Mercury (there was a Mercury who worked in Elizabethan intelligence)—a trickster, quick and ever-shifting. A figure emerges from these stories: laughing, irreverent, driven by an internal fire. Reckless and grinning, but tortured. Almost immediately after his death, the stories started: Moralists wanted him struck down by the hand of God, a cautionary tale; an anti-theatrical pamphlet published not long after the murder claims that he died cursing. Others have him as a reckless hero, a kind of martyr, the muses’ darling. His story, the way we like to tell it, seems irresistibly to follow the pattern of one of his own plays: the son of a tradesman comes to glory from nothing, is a miraculous success, but is torn apart by his own overreach, his desire for something deeper, his inability to stand still or to be contented. Quod me nutrit me destruit.

One of the stories about Marlowe, one with more meat to it than some, is that he was an atheist. This is implied in the accusations that got him arrested, stated outright in the note written by another spy in an attempt to incriminate him, and bandied about a great deal because of his associations with Walter Ralegh and other freethinkers, and because in his plays he wrote things like I count religion but a childish toy. I tried to imagine what it must have been like not to believe in God in a world where it would have seemed that everyone did. Catholic or Protestant, they all believed, and many so strongly that they’d kill or die or torture in the name of it—surrendering their own souls in hope of righteousness, martyring each other in hope of becoming martyrs.

Catholic or Protestant, they all believed, and many so strongly that they’d kill or die or torture in the name of it.

In the environment I grew up in, everyone believed in God. Everyone went to church. When I was thirteen and my faith shut off like a switch and my sense of God disappeared as though some inner eye was either at once opened for the first time or blinded, I did not at first think there is no God. At first I thought God has taken away my faith, and I am damned. When you feel yourself at odds with the whole world, perhaps the whole universe, you feel, inevitably, a deep sense of wrongness. You can either attribute it to yourself and try to stamp it out, killing some essential part of yourself in the process, or you can cultivate it, nurture the dark seed in you like a flower, take pride in it and show it off, even if it hurts.

The River Stour near Canterbury, where Marlowe was born. Photo: Emily Atkinson

I chose pride, and from his plays it seems that Kit did too. This was what made me first fall in love with him, or a least into obsession. If I could not read his bones, I would read his plays, and what wasn’t in those I would find out from history. While I was meant to be studying primate aggression and head trauma in medieval Irish cemetery populations, I was learning Marlowe’s biography. One critic went so far as to have a medical examiner read the 400-year-old inquest report into Marlowe’s death and write up what he thought that death must have been like. I wondered about that but I wondered, too, who had buried him. His family was in Canterbury, two days’ ride away. Ten days before his death he had been arrested on charges pertaining to blasphemy, but released pending investigation. Had they known? His mother could not read, nor his sisters; his father could scrawl his own name. What would it have been like to go to Cambridge, to speak and write Latin and Greek and French, to wear English like your own skin, and to go home to people who had never had the chance to learn to read? To wonder at your own luck, at what might have happened to your whirring mind had you not been so fortunate?

What would it have been like to go to Cambridge, to speak and write Latin and Greek and French, to wear English like your own skin, and to go home to people who had never had the chance to learn to read?

When I was six, the Calvinist school I went to took away my books and told my parents not to let me read so that the other children would catch up. I would slam my fingers in my desk on purpose so I could sneak a book from my backpack and read it in the nurse’s office, escaping boredom for ten wonderful minutes. By that age I already spent a lot of time thinking that I was damned; that I didn’t really believe in Jesus, I just believed that I believed because I knew that that was what one had to do to go to heaven. Nothing transactional, I thought, could possibly be pure.

Canterbury Cathedral, July 2014. Photo: Emily Atkinson

This is John Faustus’s central problem and Marlowe writes it like someone who has felt it, who has found himself trapped in that unending damning logic puzzle. Sure, Faustus compounds it by summoning a demon, but if you believe yourself to be constitutionally incapable of receiving salvation, why not get what you can while you can? Why not sign your own death warrant, appoint your own time and place, gain some modicum of control?

I did not know what had happened to Kit Marlowe in that little room in Deptford that led to him getting stabbed in the eye, but somewhere at the crossroads of my research into the osteological effects of torture, the history of serial murder, and the life of Christopher Marlowe, I came across a figure straight out of hell who might offer some explanation as to why a knife to the eye might have seemed a kind of mercy. Crossroads, after all, are where traditionally one finds such demons.

Richard Topcliffe was about the same age as Queen Elizabeth, in his 60s in the 1590s. He was from a wealthy, highborn family; he had known the Queen since they were young. Topcliffe was the Queen’s own demon. He hunted priests and tortured them. He loved his work so much he built his own torture chamber in his house and got permission to take prisoners there. He made men who had worked at the Tower of London all their lives cry and resign.

Torture was illegal in Elizabethan England until the 1580s, which may come as a surprise; our modern understanding has everyone before the Victorians racking people on the slightest pretext. But it was held to be morally reprehensible and beneath the Queen’s men — until an uptick in radical Catholic plots on the Queen’s life led to a royal lawyer writing out a justification for torture in specific cases. Something like a torture memo, arguing for the legality of certain methods in extenuating circumstances — you know, for national security. Youthful opposition to the Bush administration doing essentially that exact thing had sparked an interest in human rights abuses and forensic anthropology as a method of investigating and prosecuting them. It was difficult not to see the parallels to Elizabethan England, where an exception to the ban on torture, initially meant for those directly involved in a regicide plot, widened and widened, slipping open until finally it could be twisted to encompass almost any Catholic in England — Catholics whom men like Marlowe were employed to spy upon.

One story about Marlowe is that he was cruel. He wrote violent plays and he met a violent end, and in between, we know, he got in several fights. One ended in a death, though he didn’t strike the killing blow, and had backed off well before it came. But still. His heroes kill and sometimes go unpunished. He writes of blood. Once at a production of Tamburlaine, the bullets in the musket onstage were real, and a woman and her child were shot and killed in the audience. A violent man involved with other violent men ends violently; this is not an uncommon story, and if he was a spy, an informant who turned people in to be tortured, well, that fits with the narrative.

But another story about Marlowe is that he was kind. Another playwright called him “kind Kit Marlowe,” in fact. All his contemporaries called him Kit, even those that didn’t know him well; they were on familiar, friendly terms. He certainly had a lot of friends; he was invited to the great houses, and after his death poets and playwrights wrote glowing eulogies to him and referenced him long after he was gone. His plays are dark but they are also often funny. They are brutal, but in them is a thread of universality: we all suffer, we are all human, we all deserve mercy and it is unkind and unfair that the world will not give it to us. How can we not expect better, from it, from each other, from God?

In his plays is a thread of universality: We all suffer, we are all human, we all deserve mercy and it is unkind and unfair that the world will not give it to us.

Whichever story is the truer one, we know that Marlowe wrote those plays and poems with their brutality and empathy and beauty. We also know he was probably employed as a spy, did dirty, ugly work, and that he died of it. We don’t know what he was like, really, or what he believed, or why he was killed. But we feel like we do, because we know the stories he told, and those stories resonate with something — good or bad — inside those of us who feel compelled to untangle the knots of Kit’s narrative. Somehow, when it comes to a story, the probable answer — that he, like all of us, was sometimes cruel and sometimes kind, and was capable of doing wrong and also of great bravery, and that he did some but not all of the good and terrible things our narratives attribute to him — does not satisfy.

So I found myself asking, knowing the impossibility and foolhardiness of the question: how could a poet and radical himself in danger of prosecution and torture, someone to whom I felt a keen connection, whom I liked — have involved himself in something like that? At a production of Edward II, at the National Theatre, I found myself hit by the full force of this difficulty. Near the end of Edward II, just before Edward is murdered in a particularly horrifying way, he enumerates the trials he has endured: his captors have systematically deprived him of sleep and decent food. They have made him stand so that he has to remain upright and still. They have played loud music. They have shaved his beard.

This isn’t sensationalized torture; it’s not the rack or what you see in 24. It could have come out of the CIA’s playbook on “enhanced interrogation,” except in Edward’s case he wasn’t being interrogated. But the description chilled me because it wasn’t at all the sort of thing someone would make up. It was described in detail, with intimate emotional awareness; it felt, in other words, like the account of someone who had been there.

The description chilled me because it wasn’t at all the sort of thing someone would make up. It felt like the account of someone who had been there.

Edward isn’t a good king. He’s not particularly sympathetic. For most of the play, he’s selfish and overdramatic and makes frustratingly stupid choices. But in this scene, he is undeniably the one with whom we are meant to empathize. He is a victim, quite clearly, and Lightborn, his killer, is literally an Anglicization of Lucifer, a monster who defines himself based on how creatively he can kill. Though certainly the usurper of Edward’s throne could make a compelling argument for killing Edward — on the basis of national security, even — we cannot, watching the play, agree with him (and in fact, he ends up getting executed, too). Marlowe uses brutality to evoke empathy, even for characters we might otherwise think deserve what they get. Faustus knows what he is doing, but in his final monologue, desperately pained, we cannot help but feel for him. Edward has done bad things for the wrong reasons, but when he is brutally killed his scream echoes our own.

For a long time, perhaps since I lost my faith, I thought logic and evidence was the only way to solve a problem or a mystery. But watching that play, I realized I was never going to know how Kit Marlowe knew what kind of torture spies really use. I was never going to know which side of those techniques he had been on, or who he’d heard it from. I was never going to know with any certainty or satisfaction what had happened in that room, not from a medical report or an inquest. Not even from digging up half the graves in St. Nicholas’s churchyard looking for a late 20s male with some kind of orbital trauma and disintegrating finery that didn’t belong in an unmarked grave.

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Maybe if I did it I’d find him and put an end to speculation that he’d run away to Italy and written the plays we call Will Shakespeare’s. But the answer to that is already in poetry; his influence on Shakespeare is monumental and undeniable. Shakespeare gives him an epitaph better than any tombstone: Dead shepherd, now I see thy saw of might/He never loved, who loved not at first sight. Marlowe wrote two well-known poems, “The Passionate Shepherd” and “Hero and Leander,” and it is that latter that that line about true love comes from, the one Shakespeare quotes in As You Like It. Some people think Mercutio is an homage to Marlowe. Prospero in The Tempest is an inverted Faustus, an aging man’s answer to a young man’s fury. Some people live long enough to know when to give up their magic, to know when passion has become danger, when one has verged from grey into black. To know that there is such a thing as grey, and to know too that living in that alone is not always as satisfying as it might seem.

Writing is a kind of necromancy, and a shade from the underworld, if fed with blood, can tell us much more than his bones.

What did Shakespeare think of him? What was it like for the two of them to meet and recognize each other, so different but firing along the same track, working in ways of which no one else was capable? These fictional answers beget more questions, and these fictional delights must have fictional ends. Margaret Atwood’s book on writing, Negotiating with the Dead, references The Tempest as a kind of touchstone; I think she mentions Faustus, too. Writing is a kind of necromancy, and a shade from the underworld, if fed with blood, can tell us much more than his bones. All writing is conjuring, and all ghosts come to us with secret histories. I had made myself a shade of Marlowe, a vivid image of a man I had come to care about, if not to fully understand. But I could understand him with the right magic. With the right words. And so I set about conjuring my spell.

Atwood writes that “all writing of the narrative kind…is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality — by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.” All stories are ghost stories. Stories are what assure us that we will always be more than bones, however insubstantial the facts of their foundations, and if that is the only path out of mortality — the only way both into and out of that little room in Deptford — then I will take it. “Danger is in words,” Marlowe has Faustus say, and that is true, but so is everything else.

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