Marlowe Theatre, The Friars, Canterbury, England
Between 1587 and 1593, six brand new plays by a brand new author were performed for the first time on the stages of London’s theatres. Each one daring, engrossing and hugely popular. They were the plays of Christopher Marlowe. Christopher was born in 1564, to a shoemaker in Canterbury. As a pupil at the city’s Kings’ School, young Christopher did well, and he got a scholarship to Cambridge University where he studied Divinity. But the stage was Christopher’s real calling. By 1587, he was living in London and working as an actor for the Lord Admiral’s Company of Players. And a year later, he’d embarked on his career as a dramatist. His first play was Tamburlaine the Great, the story of a humble shepherd who becomes a great warlord and emperor. But after 30 May 1593, no more new plays by Christopher Marlowe would appear in London’s theatres. Or in any theatres, for that matter. He was stabbed to death during a row in a house owned by a woman called Eleanor Bull in Deptford, east London. Eleanor hired out rooms in her home and served food and drink to paying guests. Christopher Marlowe was one such guest, at a party for four in her house that day. Also there was Robert Poley, one of Elizabeth I’s most experienced government agents who’d just returned from business in the Netherlands; Ingram Frizer, who worked as the business agent for Marlowe’s artistic patron Thomas Walsingham – who was in turn the cousin of the recently deceased Francis Walsingham, the secretary of state who’d set up England’s secret service; and, Nicholas Skeres, a known spy and potential double dealer. It was Ingram Frizer who stabbed Christopher Marlowe to death, just above his right eye. But what was an actor and dramatist doing in such company? Could Christopher Marlowe himself have been involved in the world of spying, secret agents and espionage? No one knows what those four men talked about at Eleanor Bull’s house. One possible hot topic was Christopher’s arrest. Only a couple of days before, he’d been charged with atheism, and released on bail. As for how Marlowe ended up stabbed to death soon afterwards, no one really knows. Some believe a row over the bill at the end of a long drinking session at Eleanor’s got out of hand and Christopher ended up being knifed in the head and killed. Others have speculated that he was assassinated, perhaps even with the backing of government authorities, either for his religious views or because he’d got mixed up in something he shouldn’t have got mixed up in. The assassination theory is supported by the fact that Ingram Frizer was never prosecuted for the murder – he was given a Queen’s pardon and released. And then, there are those who believe the murder never happened. That it was staged. Christopher Marlowe may have wanted the world to think he was dead. He knew those atheism charges against him meant he was in deep trouble. So he faked his death, escaped, and went to live abroad somewhere. And there in his hideaway, he continued to write. The plays he wrote after his death he sent back to London, where his good friend, the actor William Shakespeare published them in his own name. It’s hard to imagine how it must have felt to see another man be so widely recognized and celebrated for your work. But perhaps for Marlowe, that particular fate was preferable to standing trial for atheism, with the possibility of execution looming large if found guilty. Indeed, Shakespeare’s work is full of references to the pain of living in exile. One example is Sonnet XXIX, where he writes; When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate. We’ll never know what really happened to Christopher Marlowe. Perhaps what’s most important isn’t who killed him and why, or even, who wrote his plays and the plays published under the name of Shakespeare. The important thing is that the plays exist at all. As for Marlowe’s secrets and his life, all we have is the outline of a story. This memorial to him, outside the Canterbury theatre that bears his name, is like a mask behind which any face, any story, or any truth is possible. And behind which Christopher Marlowe’s secrets remain hidden forever.