With his dark and violent reputation Christopher Marlowe has never been seen as a suitable friend for the gentle Shakespeare. But was he really as violent as his own biographers would have us think?
Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were born only a few months apart. However, aided by his university education, Marlowe rose to stardom before Shakespeare had even begun to write. We know that Marlowe’s writing had a great influence on Shakespeare and lately it has been acknowledged by the establishment, Oxford University Press no less, that he co-authored the Three Parts of Henry VI with Shakespeare. It would be safe to assume, therefore, that Marlowe acted as a mentor to Shakespeare. Could we also hazard that they might have been friends? (see Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare)
Shakespeare’s biographers are loath to make this connection as they do not see Marlowe, with his dark and violent reputation, as a suitable friend for the gentle Shakespeare. However, I would argue that this reputation is undeserved and based on a misinterpretation of the facts, even on the part of Marlowe’s own biographers.
As we saw in A Fateful Day in Deptford, the events surrounding Marlowe’s reported death in Deptford have been contested by Marlovians who believe that the death and inquest was staged so that Marlowe could escape a perilous situation. This might seem fanciful enough, however, one feels that the orthodox biographers are all too willing to accept not only the coroner’s report at face value, but that the fight was instigated by Marlowe himself.
In her biography Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life, Constance Brown Kuriyama goes to great lengths to explore Marlowe’s education and reading and finds him a man of deep scholarship. Yet, when it comes to Deptford, she throws aside all that she has previously found and adamantly declares that ‘the one person in the party at Deptford who was most likely to attack another person physically was Christopher Marlowe.’
If you should read orthodox biographies of Marlowe you will usually find that however much the biographers might admire Marlowe as a writer, they dislike him as a man, and generally depict him as violent, predatory and unpleasant. This assessment of Marlowe is largely based on three platforms: his plays, two dubious letters, and three documented brushes with the law.
Marlowe’s plays are indeed violent, but it is a grave mistake to conflate the author with his writings and we need only look at some of our contemporary writers to understand this. Ruth Rendell and PD James wrote crime novels peopled by psychopaths and murderers, yet neither of these ladies was ever accused of violence or unpleasantness of any kind. In fact, they were venerated and made life peers. (see The Plays of Christopher Marlowe)
The violence in Marlowe’s plays does not come entirely from his imagination. It reflects the world around him, a world where people went to watch condemned men being hung, drawn and quartered as entertainment. Tamburlaine could well have been inspired by Sir Walter Raleigh whose exploits in Ireland included slaughtering the entire population of villages that resisted him. As a member of his circle, known as The School of Night, Marlowe may have heard Raleigh boast of his bloodthirsty triumphs. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre did occur in Paris and within living memory. Marlowe would have met survivors, Huguenot refugees, in his native Canterbury and possibly in France as well. Sir Francis Walsingham, whom he most likely knew well, had been in Paris at the time and it left an indelible impression on him. Neither did Marlowe invent Edward II’s gruesome execution. Though it may have been invented by his enemies, it was described in the historical chronicles. So if Marlowe’s biographers do base their assessment of his character on his writings they are committing an injustice they would never perpetrate on their contemporaries.
Another area where biographers tend not to apply the same standards they would apply to their own time is in the interpretation of documents. If any of them were presented with a contemporary document they would interrogate it critically through and through. However, present them with an historical document and they forget all their critical faculties. They will accept it at face value and as unassailable truth, using as a weak excuse the paucity of documentary evidence to the contrary.
The documents in question here are the list of accusations written up by Richard Baines against Marlowe a few days before Deptford, and the letter written by Thomas Kyd to the Lord Keeper, Sir John Puckering, after Deptford.
This is not the place to go into the details of the Baines letter and its origins. Suffice to say that it is generally believed that it was solicited by Marlowe’s enemies, albeit as yet unidentified, who were determined to have him condemned for heresy. Baines himself was a thoroughly unpleasant man, a suspected double agent with a long history of enmity towards Marlowe. The list was even doctored before being presented to the Queen to better present their case. Although the letter accuses Marlowe of sedition, atheism and homosexuality, it presents no evidence of any violent or illegal act and can only cite examples of what Marlowe might have said rather than did. Most of his reported statements sound like little more than drunken after dinner banter taken seriously and out of context, while intellectual and philosophical discussions are presented as ‘persuading men to Atheism.’
In his letter, Thomas Kyd acknowledges that Marlowe mixed in intellectual circles with men of known dissenting views, but the worst he could say of him as a man was that he was ‘intemperate and of a cruel heart’, characteristics that may have made him a difficult friend but fall short of physical violence. However, it must be remembered that Kyd had recently been cruelly tortured for his association with Marlowe, an ordeal he never really recovered from. When he came to write his letter, he was an anxious and broken man, trying to distance himself from a discredited former friend in a desperate effort to get his old job back. By then he believed Marlowe was dead. And just as he states in his letter that the dead could do him no harm, so could his letter do no harm to the dead. (see Thomas Kyd and ‘The Spanish Tragedy’)
These were not the only written references to Marlowe that can be found. In his overview of the published responses to Marlowe’s death in The Reckoning, Charles Nicholl is loath to admit that those that reviled Marlowe, that found his death cause for religious polemic or lewd gossip, never knew him, and those that did know him defended and praised him.
The last platform is Marlowe’s three brushes with the law.
- On September 18, 1589, Marlowe was involved in a sword fight in Hog Lane alongside the poet Thomas Watson in which a certain William Bradley was killed.
- On May 9, 1592 Marlowe was bound over to keep the peace by two constables after an incident in Shoreditch.
- In September 1592, Marlowe was involved in a fight in Canterbury with a William Corkine.
On the surface this list might seem a grave condemnation and has led some to blithely assert that Marlowe was a violent murderer. However, if we look deeper at each case, we shall see how misleading a superficial reading of these events can be.
On the afternoon of September 18, 1589, Marlowe was accosted in Hog Lane by one William Bradley. Hog Lane ran between Norton Folgate, where the rooms Marlowe shared with Kyd were situated, and Curtain Lane, which led to The Theatre and The Curtain playhouses, and it was no doubt on a route Marlowe took often. Bradley was an innkeeper with a reputation as a brawler. He was probably waiting for the poet Thomas Watson who lived nearby. Bradley and Watson had clashed the previous evening on either side of a protracted and complex argument over money in which Marlowe played no part whatsoever.
However it started, a fight broke out between Bradley and Marlowe and swords were drawn. No doubt alerted by the clashing of blades and a gathering crowd, Thomas Watson soon appeared on the scene. Seeing him, Bradley shouted, ‘Art thou now come, then I will have a bout with thee’, and attacked Watson. Marlowe fell back as the fight continued between the other two. Watson killed Bradley, but not before receiving a wound himself. Watson and Marlowe did as the law decreed and waited with the body for the local constables. As an inquest could not be held until the following day, they were taken to Newgate Prison overnight.
The next day the coroner found that Bradley had been killed by Watson in self-defence. He allowed bail for Marlowe and ordered both to appear before the next Magistrates’ Sessions on December 3. Marlowe was not bailed until twelve days later by two men who may have been acting on behalf of the Privy Council. Both poets appeared before the Magistrates as directed. Marlowe was exonerated and free to leave. Watson was remanded in custody to await the Queen’s pardon and was later released. (At this time, self-defence was not a defence against a murder charge. Instead, anyone who could prove self-defence could apply for a royal pardon.)
So as we can see, no murder took place and Marlowe was not involved in the killing of Bradley. He most likely knew Watson, perhaps through Edward Alleyn as his brother John Alleyn was a party to the argument with Bradley, perhaps through Sir Francis Walsingham for whom they may both have been working. They certainly had poetry in common and were neighbours. Perhaps Bradley had seen them together and, tired of waiting for Watson, took on Marlowe in his place. However Marlowe got involved, it is clear he was an innocent bystander caught up in a quarrel that was not his own.
One question we might ask is why it took Marlowe twelve days to get bail. Surely, if it was the Privy Council (or more immediately, Sir Francis Walsingham) who organised it, what took them so long? Could it be, perhaps, that Marlowe chose to stay in Newgate for that time to care for Watson who was wounded? Newgate was certainly no place to leave an injured man on his own.
So if we look at this incident, what does it tell us about Marlowe? Was he a violent murderer as he has been portrayed? Certainly he carried a sword and was ready to defend himself if need be, but his temper was not so violent that it would lead him to relentlessly kill a man who had insulted him. Instead, as soon as he could, he backed away from the fight. In its aftermath he abided by the law and was exonerated by it of any guilt. In his staying in Newgate with Watson, we might also see a man of compassion and loyalty.
The next incident occurred on May 9, 1592 on Holywell Street, Shoreditch, on which The Theatre stood. Marlowe was charged with ‘uttering threats’ against two constables, Allen Nicholls and Nicholas Elliott, and bound over to keep the peace. No other parties were involved and no physical blows or injuries were recorded. The next day he appeared before the magistrate Owen Hopton, before whom, coincidentally, he had appeared on the earlier occasion. Marlowe was immediately released to appear before the Michaelmas Sessions, but with a rather hefty surety of £20 (i.e. he would have to pay the surety if he did not appear in court.)
As we can see, this incident involves nothing more than the exchange of words. Nothing is said about how the Constables reacted or what led up to the incident. We are therefore left with nothing but conjecture as to what the incident was really about. However, there are a few external circumstances which might shed some light on the matter.
The spring and summer of 1592 was a particularly difficult time of high inflation and unemployment which led to rioting only a month later and the closing of all the playhouses at Midsummer. It was also around this time that Edward II was first performed. One of the complaints that led to the rioting was antipathy towards foreigners. If the Elizabethans were as prone to xenophobia as modern Englishmen, one can easily expect them to also be as prone to homophobia and I daresay many of the good citizens of London were scandalised that one of their kings should be depicted as a homosexual.
So we have a young man in his prime, acting and dressing as a gentlemen (see What Nourishes Me Destroys Me: Is this a Portrait of Christopher Marlowe?) which was by rights above his station, not averse to standing up for himself, walking the streets during a time of social unrest, having himself recently caused some controversy. Is it any wonder that in such circumstances he might find himself in a verbal confrontation? The fact that it remained a verbal confrontation that did not escalate into a fight involving the sword Marlowe no doubt still wore speaks to me more of restraint than a violent temper.
The last event occurred in September 1592 in Marlowe’s hometown of Canterbury. On September 25, a William Corkine brought a civil suit against Marlowe to the effect that on September 15 Marlowe had attacked him armed with a stick and a dagger causing damage to his property to the value of £5. No mention is made of any cause for the quarrel. Christopher’s father, John Marlowe, stood surety for him for the paltry amount of 12 pence. On the following day, Marlowe’s attorney, John Smith, placed a criminal indictment against William Corkine before the Magistrate’s Session which, in much the same words, alleged that on September 10, Corkine had attacked Christopher Marlowe. While this indictment does not mention any weapons, it does allege injuries.
The Grand Jury threw out the charges against William Corkine. The civil case came before the court on October 2 and was adjourned until October 9, by which time the case had been dropped by mutual consent. Marlowe appeared in court but was dismissed.
Marlowe’s antagonist, William Corkine, was his near contemporary, a tailor still making his way in his trade who also sang in the Cathedral choir. He and Marlowe likely knew each other from boyhood when they sang in the choir together. As a tailor with musical tastes, Corkine might not come across as a thug, so one could imagine the fight between him and Marlowe must have been personal rather than random. However, evidence has recently come to light that Corkine was not as peace-loving as one might expect.
Only six months after this case he again appeared before the same court for having assaulted a Reginald Digges on June 30, 1592, only two and a half months before the assault on Christopher Marlowe. Corkine did not contest these charges so we can assume he was the guilty party. In fact, this was just another of fifteen cases brought before the Court of Pleas involving William Corkine between 1592 and 1600. Of the remaining thirteen cases, in eight he was the plaintiff and in five the defendant. It is obvious Marlowe was not the only one to cross swords with him.
On first reading it looks like the two lawsuits are referring to two incidents, the first when Corkine attacks Marlowe, and the second where Marlowe, perhaps in retaliation, attacks Corkine five days later. However, in Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury, William Urry finds that a gap was left in Corkine’s civil suit for the date of the incident which was then filled in later. He believes the date may have been filled in incorrectly and that both charges refer to the same incident. Given his history both before and after this event, it seems most likely that there was only one incident and Corkine was the instigator.
I would suggest, therefore, that, again, Marlowe was the victim of this incident rather than the instigator, and that of the two he was the one who sustained the greater physical injuries. And while the Canterbury jurymen might have favoured the local boy over the citified upstart, the fact that Corkine dropped his civil case suggests that he recognised he was in the wrong.
As we can see, therefore, in none of these three cases can Marlowe be proven to be particularly aggressive or violent. Obviously, Marlowe was no languid gentleman poet, but neither was he an aggressive thug on the lookout for a fight. Such violent incidents are very much a part of a young man’s coming of age, especially in an era when arguments were routinely settled by duels. They do not mark Marlowe as any more violent or aggressive than any of his contemporaries. In fact, they actually suggest that far from being prone to fighting, he was more likely to be the victim of aggression and only resorted to physical violence in self-defence.
Although he might have been ‘highly-strung’ as A.L. Rowse describes him, I would argue that Christopher Marlowe does not deserve his widely upheld reputation for violence and belligerence, and that, on the contrary, he was a man who could be generous with his time and a loyal and considerate friend. We have seen that Marlowe was both mentor and collaborator for William Shakespeare, and it is only a short step to seeing him as a friend as well.
© Pauline Montagna 2021
Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury by William Urry, Faber and Faber (1988)
Christopher Marlowe in London by Mark Eccles, Octagon Books (1967)
In Search of Christopher Marlowe by AD Wraight and Virginia F. Stern, Adam Hart (1993)
The Story that the Sonnets Tell by AD Wraight, Adam Hart (1994)
Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life by Constance Brown Kuriyama, Cornell University Press (2002)
The Reckoning: the Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholls, Vintage (2002)
Christopher Marlowe: Soldier and Spy by Park Honan, Oxford University Press (2005)