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bear by san

March 2017



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The brief biography of Kit Marley

In a comment thread, tiggerbone asked where to find a good bio of our boy. This is my response:

My advice is to read the plays and the poetry. And *then* the biography and the criticism, because I think they're almost universally wrong.

The fact we *know* about Kit can be written on a 3x5 card, literally.

His name was Christofer Marley: so he was baptized, and so he signed himself. One signature survives, a witness on another man's will. His intimates called him Kit.

He was the eldest son of a Canterbury cobbler, who was probably a violent man, and he had a fistful of sisters and one small brother, Tom. He attended King's School in Canterbury on a scholarship. (Grammar school was free to all English boys--the great Gift of Great Harry. Secondary education was a gentleman's game, and it cost.)

From King's School he went to Cambridge. Also as a scholarship student. At first, his expenditures there were parsimonious, within the limits of his pauper's portion.

Later, he spent extravagantly.

His tenure at university was oft-interrupted, and he only recieved a degree because the privy council wrote a letter to the university explaining that his absences had been in service to the crown.

These items have lead many to conjecture that he was, beginning in university, an agent of Francis Walsingham's. Especially as he was a friend of Thomas Watson, who is also though to have been a spy for the queen's spymaster. But that's conjecture. We have no proof.

He wrote the translation of Ovid and probably his first play, a treatment of Queen Dido, in university.

He went to London.

He travelled to the Netherlands, with which England was at war, and was arrested for counterfeiting, a capital crime.

He went free.

He was arrested--with Tom Watson--for duelling, and the murder of William Bradley in Hog Lane. He went a free man again.

In London, by 1691, at the age of 27, he was the acknowleged master of the theatre. About his personal life we know nothing, except he was Thomas Kyd's roomate, and Thomas Watson's friend, and Thomas Walsingham (the nephew of the above Sir Francis) was his patron--and, many suspect, lover. And some--notably Anthony Burgess--suspect, architect of his murder.

In London, he created the Renaissance drama as we know it from Shakespeare's pen. The blank verse line. "Marlowe's mighty line," as Ben Jonson called it. It was Shakespeare who brought the brilliance and complexity of character forward--Kit, unlike Will, does not *like* men (although he will write women sympathetically, even women whom history treats ill) and invariably, his male characters get what they deserve.

Which is an awful, bloody, earned death.

He may have been the intimate of Sir Walter Ralegh, and of Northumberland, and an initiate of the School of Night, their arcane mystery society.

In my estimation, he was--at the age of 29--a better poet than Shakespeare. But Shakespeare was humane. And Kit was not.

In 1593, Tom Kyd was arrested and tortured because of some allegedly atheistic papers in his quarters. Under torture, he attested they belonged to Marlowe.

Kyd called Marlowe "intemperate & of a cruel heart," but another--Marston, I think--called him "Kind Kit." I have a sense of a mercurial man, elusive, febrile.

In 1593, in May, Richard Baines--who was, by the way, arrested with Kit in the Netherlands for counterfeiting--claimed that Marlowe was an apostate, a counterfeiter, a sodomite, and so forth. Some fragments of his text eerily echo the allegations attributed to Kyd. I wonder, me, if they were...


Marley, accused for the third time of a hanging offense--

--went free.

Though under a requirement to report every day to officials.

On 30 May 1593, Christofer Marley travelled from London to Deptford. By boat or by hired horse, we do not know. In Deptford, he met with Ingram Frazier, an employee of Thomas Walsingham; Robin or Robert Poley, a moneylender and intelligencer (spy) with connections to the theatrical community; and Nicholas Skeres, at the house of one Eleanor Bull.

They spent the day in conversation, walking together, talking together.

They took their dinner in a private room.

When the dinner was ended, Christofer Marley was dead on a bed beside the wall, with Ingram Frazier's dagger embedded in his brain an inch above the orbit of his eye, and Elizabeth pardoned his killer, allowing self-defense.

In the few years after, the popular story was put out that Marlowe was killed in a brawl over a lad or lass of easy virtue. The Coroner was told he attacked Frazier over the "reckoning." The bill, in other words.

Later, his works were suppressed, some of them burned. (His Ovid, notably)

Marlowe's thought to have been vocally and notably homosexual. We have no proof. But it seems to me that "Hero & Leander" is a stunningly homoerotic poem. Of what he wrote in his 29 years and a fragment, seven plays, one long poem, one short lyric poem, two eulogies, and a translation of Ovid survive. He was facile in English and Latin and Greek. he was four years younger than I am when he died.

I am, at 33, barely finding my voice.

It's anybody's guess if this portrait is actually him, but it's the right year (he would have been 21) and it was turned to the wall and plastered over.


Quite a statement, huh?

What happened in that room? Well. Here's what Shakespeare has to say, in As You Like It, Act III, scene iii:

Touchstone: 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. Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical.

Audrey: I do not know what ‘poetical’ is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?

Touchstone: No, truly, for the truest poetry is the most feigning; and lovers are given to poetry, and what they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.

I, personally, like to think that's the testament of a friend.

That said, Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning does a marvellous job of separating fact from fancy. Riggs' The World of Christopher Marlowe is spoda be good too.

But I haven't read it yet.


Damn, I see this just as I was about to go to bed.

Peter Farey has a pretty good site for separating fact from fiction about Kit. He's one of those who would like to believe Marlowe survived Deptford, but also believes in standards of evidence, even when it debunks what he'd like to believe. [Check the copyright date at the bottom of his essays, because his more recent work is better than his earlier ones.] Farey's also a great source for ASCII transcriptions of the primary source documents, if you should want to translate the inquest from the original Latin.

FWIW, here's his biography and a heavily footnoted account of Marlowe's final days from the coroner's report, contemporary rumors, and modern theories.
Farey rocks.

I'm not a Marlovian. But he's the man.
BTW, I've read both the Riggs and the Kuriyama you mentioned in the earlier post.

Both are good (though I haven't cracked the Kuriyama in a long while)

Riggs does a great job at providing vivid details. Also, as one of the most recent works, he can take advantage of newer research. He spends a fair bit of time debunking Kuriyama's theory of Marlowe's death. [Kuriyama's axe was that Marlowe's death was perfectly straightforward. There's no reason to doubt the coroner's report. None whatsoever. Just a spontaneous murder, and no conspiracies worth theorizing about.]

I did notice one element of "biography by textual analysis" in the Riggs: "The stereotypical figure of the poor scholar recurs throughout his work..." Riggs quotes examples from multiple works, plus further resentments against the ignorant rich to suggest Marlowe struggled financially and wasn't happy about it. [I'm greatly summing up.] Though Riggs derives most of his evidence from textual analysis, Marlowe was a scholarship student and poet, so neither poverty nor comparing unfavorably to his peers seem that much of a stretch.

I haven't read the Kuriyama recently enough to offer a comparable evaluation. I remember feeling particularly enlightened by what she wrote about Elizabethan university life & students.

I'd just like to reiterate something you said, because I think it gets lost a lot. Most of what we think we "know" about Christopher Marlowe as a human being is based on the testimony of other people--people who had their own agendas to promulgate with regard to Marlowe's character. The fact that now, 500 years after Marlowe's death, we tend to admire the very qualities that the Elizabethans found abhorrent ... does not make the testimony any more valid.

Marlowe, like Shakespeare, left nothing written in his own voice.
Nothing but a pair of dedications apiece.

It's *almost* creepy.

You know, I wish he'd lived. Fifty years. My god. Give him what Will got; too short, by far, but more than half again what he got when you speak of productivity.

Imagine Marlowe at fifty.

Imagine the poetry.
Wow! Thanks for all of the information!

I have read much of The Complete Plays. I have not read any of his poetry yet. I shall have to pick up his poetry at my next opportunity!

Most of my familiarity with him has come from his occasional mention in movies, comic books, and other fiction. It is interesting to compare what is known with what has been surmised.

I had never heard about much of this. Especially the multiple jail sentences. And this version of his death is very different than what I had heard before.

Darn it! More to read! :)
The guesswork is endless. He's a compelling creature, our Master Marlowe. And of course, I have a cat named after him, and four books and a novelette that dance his tune.

The poetry that remains is all available online.

All that's left is "The Passionate Shepherd," "Hero and Leander," the Ovid translation, and the two eulogies.

There had to have been more, of course, but it's gone without a trace.
He attended King's School in Cambridge on a scholarship. (Grammar school was free to all English boys--the great Gift of Great Harry. Secondary education was a gentleman's game, and it cost.)

From King's School he went to Oxford. Christ Church. Also as a scholarship student. At first, his expenditures there were parsimonious, within the limits of his pauper's portion.


Did I goof?

And DAMMIT! Your tooth still?

*string of American expletives*

By the way, you have been brave, my lady, and of service. And I am proud.
And hang on, because suddenly I feel like I may be wearing the stupid hat.

Wasn't Kit's father a cobbler in Canterbury?
You've broadened my education again; I've never seen that portrait before, and it was most interesting. I didn't realize that was who is in the stab icon --made my eyebrow go up at the irony. Your humor has layers.

(I trust that's not offensive; I always find it interesting to see layers.)

(BTW, I hope you had a good time at your recent activities.)
Hee. The quote, after all, is his own.

Y. Spen. Then, Baldock, you must cast the scholar off,
And learn to court it like a gentleman.
’Tis not a black coat and a little band,
A velvet-cap’d coat, fac’d before with serge,
And smelling to a nosegay all the day,
Or holding of a napkin in your hand,
Or saying a long grace at a table’s end,
Or making low legs 1 to a nobleman,
Or looking downward with your eyelids close,
And saying, “Truly, an’t 2 may please your honour,”
Can get you any favour with great men;
You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute,
And now and then stab, as occasion serves.

Bald. Spencer, thou know’st I hate such formal toys,
And use them but of mere hypocrisy.
Mine old lord whiles he liv’d was so precise,
That he would take exceptions at my buttons,
And being like pin’s heads, blame me for the bigness;
Which made me curate-like in mine attire,
Though inwardly licentious enough
And apt for any kind of villainy.
I am none of these common pedants, I,
That cannot speak without propterea quod.

Y. Spen. But one of those that saith quandoquidem,
And hath a special gift to form a verb.


The great unwritten

Then again, Marlowe might, like Rimbaud, have put poetry behind him and turned to gun-running.

Re: The great unwritten

Sorry, I've no idea why I came over all anonymous there!
goddammit. Now you've got ME obsessed. Especially with the School of Night...