Rewriting the story of events four hundred years old, though intellectually stimulating, can be a tricky business. Revising the reputation of a single individual equally long dead is even trickier, especially when the popular myths surrounding that individual have been alluringly plausible.
The death of Christopher Marlowe—one of the most successful playwrights of his day and so well known that his contemporary William Shakespeare quoted him— has long seemed somewhat ignominious. Marlowe supposedly died at the age of twenty-nine in a tavern brawl on May 30, 1593. A popular account making the rounds some five years after his death had it that he was squabbling with another man over a boy. This reference to a homosexual triangle did not seem an unlikely fate for the writer who reproduced on stage the dangerous, passionate love of a king for a man in The Troublesome Raign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second (c. 1592).
This author of The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus (c. 1588) was known to articulate atheistic, blasphemous ideas, though whether this enthusiasm was the result of sincere conviction or youthful defiance remains murky. Whatever the motive, Marlowe was certainly known to express dangerous doctrines.
The discovery in 1925 of the official story of the inquest—itself a brilliant piece of archival scholarship—seemed to settle the rumors once and for all. The inquest, held on June 1, 1593, noted simply that Marlowe got into a dispute with Ingram Frizer, one of three companions with whom he had spent the entire day eating and drinking at a respectable lodging-house. Their argument about the bill, the “recknynge,” escalated until Marlowe snatched Frizer’s dagger from its sheath and struck him twice. Frizer, the story goes, struggled for the dagger and drove it more than two inches deep into a spot above Marlowe’s right eye. Marlowe died instantly. The inquest, held at the site of the crime, was thorough and efficient, led by an experienced official, the coroner to the royal household. The testimony of the other two companions, Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres, who reported playing backgammon with Frizer sitting between them when he was attacked, was duly noted. Frizer was judged to have killed Marlowe in self-defense.
This official story has seemed reasonable for a man with Marlowe’s reputation for violence. The playwright who penned Tamburlaine the Great (parts 1 and 2, c. 1587) and demonstrated a taste for violent scenes on stage had also been in various other knife fights.
The man, however, is not merely the sum of his writings. Although Marlowe’s plays are enlightening to some degree, they do not explain or justify his death. Nevertheless, while unsolved murders in general offend the human sense of justice, Marlowe’s death in particular remains a matter of historical fascination precisely because he was one of the most brilliant and promising writers of his time—Elizabethan England, which still ranks as one of the great golden periods of English literature.
For Charles Nicholl, the official story of Marlowe’s death simply does not satisfy. Conscientious and thorough as the investigation may have been for its time and circumstances, it continues to raise many questions, according to Nicholl, precisely because of what it leaves unsaid.
To understand how and why this literary genius died so abruptly and tragically is to understand much about the dark side of that golden period of achievement. As Nicholl notes, The Reckoning is quite often “not about Marlowe at all, but about the bad company that he kept.” It is also about a...
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