The Marlowe Studies Entry: July 29, 2011



What The Ancient Historians Taught Marlowe At Cambridge

New Criticism is an approach to literature which was developed by a group of American critics, most of whom taught at southern universities during the years following the first World War. The New Critics wanted to avoid impressionistic criticism, which risked being shallow and arbitrary, and social/historical approaches which might easily be subsumed by other disciplines. New Criticism stresses close attention to the internal characteristics of the text itself, and it discourages the use of external evidence to explain the work. The method of New Criticism is foremost a close reading, concentrating on such formal aspects as rhythm, meter, theme, imagery, metaphor, etc. They are assuming that the interpretation of a text shows that these aspects serve to support the structure of meaning within the text.

This method is of no use when it comes to the writing of Shakespeare, who lived during the post religious reformation, an age of censorship. Censorship always creates writers who use pseudonyms and the art of ambiguity. Just as the Shakespeare works cannot be fully understood outside of their historical context, serious study of Christopher Marlowe demands we take into consideration the historical context of the times he lived in.

After more than a thousand years of Catholic rule Europe had only recently begun to play around with various forms of religious ideologies. Although Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, it was more than a hundred years before most men were able to read the Christian Bible for themselves. During Marlowe's late sixteenth century time most people had never read the Bible. Passages from the Bible were read to congregations in church, and much of a church service was spoken in Latin. Once men began to read the Bible for themselves, new interpretations arose and there was a slow pulling away from the Catholic Church in Europe. There was also a slow pulling away from what had been taken as fact in the Bible.

The Christian Bible was being read by University students at the same time the Latin poets, dramatists, philosophers, and historians were being translated and read. Questions by the educated, Marlowe among them, were beginning to be asked. Riggs says Marlowe recognized early in his career that a full-scale critique of Judeo-Christian morality would require a pagan creation myth and a Greco-Roman cosmology. Unlike Christian theology, the pagan Ovid portrays creation as an ongoing process, the universe as polytheistic. It is quite interesting that Ovid's creation story parallels the account in Genesis, the Old Testament of the Jews. In his Metamorphoses we are given similar accounts of the fall into wickedness, the Flood and its survivors. Riggs says that although these stories, "set out to show that pagan tradition corroborates the Scriptures, the commentator's concerted effort to grasp Ovid's world on its own terms compromised the Bible's privileged status as the master code of revealed natural religion. At the same time, the chronological reach of humanist scholarship made it increasingly difficult to argue that the events recounted in Genesis had occurred at the beginning of history."

He reminds us that the informer Baines' note accusing Marlowe of atheism had quoted Marlowe as saying that, "many Authors of antiquity have assuredly written of above 16 thousand years ago, whereas Adam is proved to have lived within 6 thousand years." According to the informer this was one of Marlowe's heretical statements. In the late sixteenth century Marlowe would have been tortured and hanged -had he not conveniently "died" a few days before he was to go before the Star Chamber Court.

Speaking of the classical learning bestowed on Marlowe due to his Cambridge scholarship, Riggs says, "The ancient historians Polybius, Plutarch and Livy further revealed that Roman statesmen had introduced the fear of the gods in order to fashion law-abiding subjects: 'the only resource is to keep them in check by mysterious terrors and scenic effects of this sort."

In the last book of the Metamorphoses we learn how seriously Ovid takes the truth of his creation story when he has his philosopher-hero Pythagoras pose this question: O race of men, stunned with the chilling fear of death, why do you dread the Styx, the shades and empty names, the stuff that poets manufacture, and their fabled sufferings of a world that never was?

Riggs says, "Pythagoras introduced Renaissance under-graduates to the ancient (un)belief system of Epicurus and his disciple Lucretius: hell is a fable, and belief in hell a craven superstition; the body metamorphoses into the elements after death; poets and rulers invented divine retribution to keep men in awe of authority. Renaissance divines understandably concluded that epicureans were atheists." The word "atheist" comes from the Greek, "A" meaning "without" and "Theist" meaning "belief in deities". Since Christopher Marlowe's informers had charged him with possessing papers of an atheistic "Aryan" belief, it is important we examine the roots of these ideas in history.

In 325 the Roman Emperor Constantine gathered all the bishops of the Christian Church together for the first time in order to establish a uniform Christian doctrine defining the nature of Jesus in relationship to God, the Father. This doctrine is known as the Nicene Creed. This "Council of Nicaea" established the precedent for future councils to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy with the intention of unifying the beliefs of the Christian church. Many Christians are not aware that most of their religious beliefs come from the bishops of the Christian church, not from their Christ. By convoking and presiding over the council Constantine signaled a measure of imperial control over the church and, at the same time, civil unity in Rome among the inhabitants who argued over whether Jesus was or was not the Divine Son of God.

The main question on the table at this first council of Christian bishops was whether Jesus was the same Divine substance as God the Father or whether he was of a similar substance. Alexander of Alexandria (later made "St. Alexander" by the church) led the position that Jesus was of the same substance as God. Arius of Alexandria, Egypt, led the position that the Father was Divine while the Son was a creation of the Divine.

There is historical fact, and then there is what we collectively take to be historical fact. The two are often quite different. One example of this is that Arius of Alexandria has come to be looked upon as our first atheist. In reality, Arius was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. His teachings about the nature of the Godhead emphasized the Father's Divinity over the Son. It was his opposition to the concept of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) that made him a controversial figure in the First Council of Nicea and with the members of the newly recognized Catholic Church. Constantine had Arius exiled because he refused to endorse the new "Creed". He was also excommunicated from the newly formed Catholic Church. It was ordered that his works be confiscated and consigned to the flames.

All positive writings on Arius' theology have been suppressed or destroyed by the Catholic Church. Despite the Church's opposition, 'Arian', or non trinitarian Christian churches persisted throughout Europe and North Africa until 700 years after Christ. Although "Arianism" suggests that Arius was the originator of the teaching that bears his name, the debate over the Son’s precise relationship to the Father did not begin with him. This subject had been discussed for decades before his advent and would continue to be debated. It is merely because the conflict between Arius and his foes brought the issue to the theological forefront, that the doctrine he proclaimed is generally labeled as originating with him.

It has often been mentioned that the cause for Marlowe's arrest was a statement made by Thomas Kyd (while being stretched on the rack at Bridewell), that the heretical papers authorities had found in his room belonged to Marlowe. When we look at what Kyd actually said, taking into account that he was being tortured, the circumstances become dubious. What Kyd actually said was, “Amongst those waste and idle papers (which I cared not for and unasked I did deliver up) Shuffled with some of mine (unknown to me) by some occasion of our writing in one chamber two years since  . . .” This tells us that Kyd was not aware that he had these papers. How many writers find that their papers somehow get shuffled in with another writer’s papers? Not many, and fewer in the 16th century when it was not so easy to obtain copies of ones papers. It becomes a legitimate question to ask if these papers had been slipped into Kyd's “waste and idle papers” by someone else's hand. In other words, planted by the informer Baines who seems to have been the ring leader in the pursuit of Marlowe.

It has rarely been mentioned that the Socinian treatise, the so-called “heretical” papers discovered among Kyd’s papers that May of 1593 were actually excerpts from a small book titled The Fall of the Late Arrian in which its author, John Proctour (a Trinitarian) contrasted the Unitarian views of John Assheton. In 1549 Archbishop Cranmer had the Unitarian John Assheton arrested and made to write a statement of his reasons for doubting the divinity of Christ. That same year John Proctour added his orthodox Trinitarian views to these statements and printed them under the title The Fall of the Late Arrian. This work was copied by various persons interested in theological speculations and circulated among England’s educated for years. There was even a copy of this book in the library of John Gresshop, headmaster at Kings’ School where Marlowe was in attendance on his first scholarship. Possession of a copy had never before attracted the attention of the authorities, but this “evidence of atheism” was used at this time to go after Marlowe. So poor Arius of Alexander had so successfully been demonized by the Catholic Church that he was now taken to be an atheist, which is why the Unitarian John Assheton was labeled "the late Arrian" in Proctour's book.

If we hypothesize that the name William Shakespeare was a pseudonym for Marlowe, we look for autobiographical statements in the Works that support this premise. What do we find in the Shakespeare works that support the idea Baines was a paid informant? We find Sonnet 121.

'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed
When not to be receives reproach of being;
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing:
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown;
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad and in their badness reign.


The Sonnets are where Shakespeare speaks of himself. When we take Shakespeare to be Marlowe's pseudonym, we discover that Sonnet 121’s opening lines tell us Marlowe was not the man described in Baines Note :

Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being.

Line 14 tells us he is being defined by frailer spies (Baines and Drury) who have false adulterate eyes and rank thoughts. We have documented evidence of the spy-informer Baines’ "rank thoughts" in the form of his confession at Rheims. The excerpts below reveal an interesting parallel to his “Note” that accuses Marlowe of atheistic heresy:

I most delited in prophane writers and the worst sort of them, such as ether wrot against the truth or had least tast of religion . . . through nouelties of wordes ioyned with pretty prouerbs, termes and mocking taunts, wherevnto by natural inclination and by my said prophane usage I was much giuen . . . I began to mocke at the lesser points of religion, which is the high way to Heresie, Infidelitie & Athisme . . . to vtter diuers horrible blasphemies in plaine termes against the principal points of religion . . .

When we take Shakespeare to be Marlowe's pseudonym, we also find that Sonnet 125 ends with a couplet that states he is a true soul and the man who impeached his character was a paid informant:

Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul
When most impeached stands least in thy control.

Suborned means “bought, paid to bear false witness” and to “impeach” is to accuse. There is no evidence Shakspere from Stratford was "vile esteemed" or "impeached" (accused) by any paid informer. There is ample evidence that Christopher Marlowe was accused of atheism by Richard Baines and the evidence shows that Baines was working for the Archbishop Whitgift faction of the Privy Council.

It is to be understood that Marlowe's arrest took place at the height of England's Inquisition. Lord Burghley used a “prey” allusion in a letter he wrote to Whitgift in 1584 regarding the Archbishop’s practices employing the clergy:

I think the Inquisitors of Spain use not so many questions to comprehend and to trap their prey  . . . this kind of proceeding is too much savouring of the Roman inquisition, and is rather a device to seek for offenders than to reform any. This is not the charitable instruction that I thought was intended by you when employing the clergy we so need to fortify our church. Therefore I have willed them not to answer these articles except their conscience may suffer them.

 In the sixteenth century careers were made out of gathering libelous information. When making the observation Baines’ Note was a typical informer’s indictment used in character assassination, A.D. Wraight says, “not one of the obscene opinions accredited to Marlowe in Baines’ Note is original to Marlowe. Every single one of these specifically scurrilous anti-Christian statements has been lifted from some clerical authority. And not only were they available in print, but several of them were widely known and are even quoted in Elizabethan secular literature.”

In late sixteenth century England two witnesses were needed to secure a judgment of heresy. Enter Baines with his Note of Atheistic charges against Marlowe, and Drury’s Remembrances which linked Marlowe with that other freethinker, Raleigh. The evidence shows that Richard Baines was working as a paid informant for the Ecclesiastical Court because Lord Buckhurst, the Commissioner for Ecclesiastical Causes, was the prime mover in securing Drury's release from prison in order that Drury should "do some servis”. In his book Christopher Marlowe and Richard Baines: Journeys Through the Elizabethan Underground, Roy Kendall says:

On November 8, unknown to Marlowe, Lord Buckhurst, privy councilor and commissioner for Ecclesiastical Causes, was writing to the new lord keeper of the Great Seal, Sir John Puckering, with regard to the release of the former government agent [spy] Thomas Drury from the Marshalsea Prison, in order that Drury might do the state "some servis.” Whatever Buckhurst had in mind at the time, what transpired was that Drury was asked to track down Richard Baines in order to oblige him to commit to paper his thoughts concerning Marlowe's "damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of Gods word”. What had begun as a search for the person who had posted a call to civil unrest at the Dutch Church, turned into atheistic charges against Marlowe.

Peter Farey has pointed out that Baines was connected with every stage of the “campaign” to get Marlowe.

1. He was the person who, allegedly, knew the author of the Dutch Church libel - the style, content and signature of which all implicated Christopher Marlowe.
2. He provided the reason for Kyd to be arrested and, thereby, for the 'vile hereticall conceipts', apparently from Marlowe, to be found, and Kyd's accusations about Marlowe to be recorded,
3. He was the author of the famous ‘Note’ directly accusing Marlowe of several appalling crimes,
4. This 'Note' provided a model for the letter accompanying the 'Remembrances' about Richard Cholmeley, in which Marlowe is accused of inciting others to atheism.


Marlowe Studies Entry August 4, 2011


The Universities, hence the editors of the books that print and interpret Shake-speare's Sonnets, refuse to see Marlowe's autobiography in them no matter how strongly the text relates to his life. Their interpretation of Sonnet 125 is a good example of this. Let us put the whole of this sonnet here:

Were't aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all and more by paying too much rent
For compound sweet, forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.

Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul
When most impeached stands least in thy control.

You will notice that the couplet is a non sequitur. In 2000 Stephen Booth, who taught English Renaissance Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, came out with the most in depth interpretations ever performed around the Sonnets. When interpreting Sonnet 125, Booth wrote, " . . . although the informer’s sudden presence in the couplet can be explained, his suddenness feels unrelated to the argument of the first twelve lines." The suborned informer’s sudden appearance in the couplet has mystified editors because it seems out of context to the rest of the sonnet, a non sequitur, as were the lines earlier explored in As You Like It.

The editors grope for meanings. Katherine Duncan-Jones expressed the general editorial consensus of 125’s couplet when she defined "suborned informer" as  “bribed false witness, hired spy” and impeached “challenged, accused of treason or other major crime”. After giving this definition that so aptly fits Marlowe’s case, she concluded that the "suborned informer" is an abstract reference to Time. Helen Vendler read the couplet as being part of an impersonal “aesthetic strategy”, and applied a purely literary purpose to the couplet, saying, “Thematically, 125 expresses unequivocally its preference for the simple [English words over the Latin].” She went on to give the Latin meaning for informare “To give a form to a legal charge against someone”, and the Latin meaning for impeach “fetter the feet of”, and concluded that the couplet’s declaration was purely literary in meaning, saying, “it is when the Latinate is being most Latinate that the English is least threatened."

When 125 is read in the Marlowe context, the couplet is no longer a non sequitur, it is a summarization of the preceding quatrains: the suborned informer’s impeachment of the poet has set him free from time-wasting public rituals to lay great bases for eternity through his writing without fear of censorship. After Richard Baines impeached Marlowe’s character, thus exposing him to a Star Chamber inquisition and torture which forced him into exile, he would have been set free to write under his pseudonym without the same fear of censorship. This gives a literal reading to 125’s couplet where the poet states he stands "least in thy control".

When we examine the historical context of Baines' Note accusing Marlowe of heresy we discover a few interesting coincidences. This was not Baines’ first attack on Marlowe. Only a year before this, in Flushing, he accused Marlowe of counterfeit coining and voicing a desire to go over the the Catholic side. These things were most likely brought on by Marlowe's work in secret intelligence, work Baines was not privy to. This 1592 attack in Flushing coincided with the Catholic priest Robert Persons’ English publication Responsio ad Edictum Elizabethan out of which the mythic “School of Night” was born. In this satirical piece Persons wrote of “Sir Walter Rawley’s school of atheism” and  “the diligence used to get young gentlemen to this school, wherein both Moses and our Saviour, the Old and the New Testament, are jested at, and the scholars taught among other things to spell God backward.” In his book The Reckoning Charles Nicholl writes of the similarities between this Catholic propaganda work and the contents of Baines’ Note and Drury’s Remembrances, which were being written a year later.

Many of the charges Baines and Drury made against Marlowe not only echo each other, they echo Persons’ article and elaborate on Persons’ accusation against Raleigh’s "school of atheism", a school that, for lack of evidence as having existed, seems to have lived only in the Catholic Persons’ mind (and now in the minds of academics who don't bother to research "historical context"). Both Baines’ and Drury’s accusations seem to have the intent of legitimizing what began with Persons’ Catholic propaganda several months previously. It was Persons who wrote that Raleigh wanted to create an “atheist commonwealth” in which atheism would become the ‘law of the land’. The purpose of his article seems to have been to drive a wedge further between the already strained Whitgift and Burghley factions on the Privy Council, and to fracture England’s aristocracy.

This historical context coincides with the theory Whitgift used the two informers Baines and Drury to go after the freethinkers, and through torture was going to knock them down like dominoes: torture Kyd to get Marlowe, torture Marlowe to get Raleigh and others of his “circle” that had been stigmatized atheists because of their interest in science and their questioning of certain facts in the Christian Bible -such as the time of man’s creation. Austin Gray has observed that the accusations against Marlowe [Baines’ Note, Drury’s Remembrances] implicitly connected Sir Walter Raleigh and the 9th Earl of Northumberland with the heresy. Thus, it seems probable that the investigation was meant primarily to be a warning to the politicians in the "School of Night," and/or that it was connected with a power struggle within the Privy Council itself.” In 1594, a year after Marlowe's "death" Whitgift did, indeed, investigate Raleigh and his friends at Cerne Abbas.

northumberlandHenry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland was likely part of Marlowe's circle. His ancestors included the character of Hostpur in King Henry VI. His interest in science led to the nickname "The Wizard Earl". He was patron to Thomas Harriot, the English astronomer, mathematician, ethnographer, and translator. He was the first person to make a drawing of the Moon through a telescope, on July 26, 1609, over four months before Galileo. After graduating from Oxford University, Harriot travelled to the Americas, accompanying the 1585 expedition to Roanoke island funded by Raleigh. Harriot was a vital member of the venture, having translated and learned the Carolina Algonquian language from two Native Americans, Wanchese and Manteo. On his return to England he worked for the 9th Earl of Northumberland. At the Earl's house, he became a prolific mathematician and astronomer to whom the theory of refraction is attributed.



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