Recently I was searching the Canterbury archives and discovered the following information around William Corkyn, the man who sued Marlowe for assault in 1592. My article around this discovery is in the December 2012 issue of Oxford Journals Notes & Queries. The following essay was written on the heels of the discovery, and the Notes & Queries article was extracted from this one. Cynthia Morgan 



Marlowe v. Kuriyama

Cynthia Morgan


To repair the damage done by those who in past ages have falsified, distorted, or destroyed the written record, even in the dustiest corner of literary history or biography, requires detective talents and staying power of the highest order.

                                                                                        Richard Altick, The Scholar Adventurers


In her Introduction to Christopher Marlowe A Renaissance Life, Constance Kuriyama says, “Biographers, like all writers, inevitably bring cultural and personal biases to their work, and, consequently, what they write often reveals more about the author than about the subject.” The rest of her Introduction explains how she is going to avoid the writer’s prejudice pitfall by the ways in which she will deal with documented evidence. This essay proposes to show Kuriyama’s cultural and/or personal biases are revealed by what she chooses to alter, add, and leave out of the documented evidence she presents concerning the 1592 court cases of Corkyn v. Marlowe and Marlowe v. Corkyn.




       Kuriyama presents William Urry’s Latin to English translation of Corkyn’s suit for damages against Marlowe:

William Corkyn sues Christopher Marlowe, gentleman, on a plea of transgression . . . And hence the same plaintiff, by Giles Winston his attorney, makes plaint that the foresaid defendant on the fifteenth day of September, in the thirty-fourth year of the reign of our lady Queen Elizabeth . . . in the city of Canterbury aforesaid, in the Parish of St. Andrew and in the Ward of Westgate of this same city, by force of arms, that is to say with staff and dagger, assaulted the same plaintiff, and then and there struck, wounded, and maltreated this same plaintiff. And then and there inflicted other outrages on the said plaintiff to the grave damage of the same plaintiff and against the peace of the said lady the Queen, wherefore the said plaintiff says he has suffered loss, and has incurred damages to the value of £5.


       Kuriyama says, “The tendency to leap to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence was much harder to resist . . . the best approach seemed to be an extension of one that worked well for individual documents – namely, seeking more information.” She, however, did not “seek more information” about William Corkyn. If she had searched the Canterbury archives for records of Corkyn, she would have discovered that six months after he brought this charge of assault against Marlowe,he was charged with assault by Reginald Digges:


Indictment of William Corkyn, Canterbury, tailor for assaulting Reginald Digges, gent in St Mary Breadman parish, Westgate ward 30 June 1592. Placed himself at the mercy of the court by pledge of Giles Wynston and evidently amerced 3s 4d.


       It is the biographer’s duty to explore the characters of all the people her subject has encountered because this will shed more light on her subject. Perhaps Kuriyama did no further research on Corkyn because her cultural and/or personal biases had been confirmed merely by Corkyn’s charges against Marlowe. Evidently she did not consider what Marlowe considered when writing a play; in order to do justice to the main character he had to reveal that character’s strengths and weaknesses against the strengths and weaknesses of the other characters. If she had explored the Canterbury archives beyond the limited evidence of the single Corkyn document, she would have discovered William Corkyn, tailor, was in court a total of fifteen times during the span of eight years. He had one indictment for assault, was the Plaintiff in nine cases, the Defendant in five.

We know that Corkyn did not contest Digges charges, which fairly tells us he was guilty of the assault. We can also fairly ascertain from these newly discovered Corkyn documents that he was not shy when it came to using the court system, and that many other men in Canterbury had difficulty with this tailor. We now have legitimate reason to question Corkyn’s character.

Kuriyama says she planned to critically scrutinize the Marlowe documents, and, “As part of this scrutiny, I would look for clues that might lead to other, supplemental information, either in other documents or in printed sources. In most cases this procedure simply confirmed what we already knew or suspected.” We have already seen that Kuriyama did not look for supplemental information regarding Corkyn. Kuriyama’s keeping to the one isolated document of Corkyn’s, instead of presenting his other court cases, gives us a partial view of his character. Perhaps this is one of the reasons she discovered, after she wrote her biography of Marlowe, that, “In most cases this procedure confirmed what we already knew or suspected.”




We also have a document stating Marlowe brought countercharges against Corkyn, and the date of Corkyn’s assault on Marlowe is a full five days earlier than Corkyn’s stated date of Marlowe’s assault on him. Readers of Kuriyama’s book would not know this, however, because Kuriyama paraphrases Marlowe’s document rather than presenting it in the text of her book, and her paraphrase leaves out the date of Corkyn’s attack:


The indictment uses formulaic language similar to that of Corkine’s plea, claiming that Corkine “assaulted a certain Christopher Marlowe, gentleman, and then and there struck, wounded, and maltreated the same Christopher Marlowe, and then and there inflicted other outrages on the said Christopher Marlowe, to the grave damage of the same Christopher and against the peace of the said lady the queen, etc. No weapon is specified, however, and the grand jury dismissed the indictment, presumably because Marlowe failed to produce convincing evidence against Corkine.”


The unavoidable contrast is her straightforward presentation of Corkyn’s document against her de-emphasis of Marlowe’s document by relegating it to a mere paraphrase, even though Marlowe is the subject of her biography. While Kuriyama has tossed Marlowe’s document into the back pages of the Appendix where readers rarely tread, Urry has placed it within the text of his book, so readers can plainly see Marlowe’s document states he was assaulted by Corkyn five days earlier than Corkyn’s stated date of Marlowe’s attack on him:


City of Canterbury

The Grand Jury present for Our Lady the Queen that William Corkyn of the City of Canterbury ‘taylor’, on the tenth [sic] day of September . . . did make an assault upon a certain Christopher Marlowe, gentleman, and the same Christopher Marlowe did there and then beat, wound and maltreat, and other atrocities [enormia] did there and then inflict upon the said Christopher Marlowe, to the grave damage of the aforesaid Christopher . . .


Notice that Urry has interjected a “sic” after the date Marlowe stated he was attacked by Corkyn. A “sic” is placed in brackets to indicate that the writer has transcribed the material as it appears in the original document. Of his “sic” Urry says, “Despite the apparent difference in the dates of the two incidents reported it would seem that they refer to the same episode.” By “episode” Urry is conjecturing both assaults occurred on the same day and that Marlowe’s date of the 10th is incorrect. Urry has placed Marlowe’s Grand Jury countercharges against Corkyn both in the text and in his Appendix, where he questions Marlowe’s stated date of Corkyn’s assault this way:


       . . . against William Corkine, tailor, for assault on 10 (15?)


Urry has no evidence that Marlowe’s document is not correct when it states the date of Corkyn’s assault, he is merely speculating that it isn’t correct because it differs from the date of the 15th in Corkyn’s document. Urry has also placed the original Latin document of Marlowe’s countercharge in the Appendix, where the date of Corkyn’s assault was written, “quinto decimo die septembris”, meaning the tenth day of September. It is difficult to understand how Urry came to question the correctness of Marlowe’s 1592 document considering the Latin spelling of “decimo die” for Marlowe’s 10th is a far cry from “quinto decimo die” for Corkyn’s 15th.

Kuriyama says, “I decided at an early stage that I would scrutinize the Marlowe documents firsthand, rigorously and critically, rather than accepting previous scholars’ interpretations of them.”  Her unquestioning acceptance of Urry’s conjecture points to cultural and/or personal bias. What is clear here is that Kuriyama refuses to accept Marlowe’s document at face value but does accept Urry’s mere suggestion the date was incorrect at face value, even though the only evidence we have is Marlowe’s 16th century document. If biographers don’t explore the roots of their citations they might be parroting assumptions, which are in danger of becoming historical truths if repeated by succeeding researchers.

Compare Kuriyama’s unquestioning acceptance of Urry’s conjecture to noted Marlovian scholar A.D. Wraight’s comments on it:


Dr. Urry, who discovered these documents . . . has argued that both suits filed by the protagonists, Corkyn v. Marlowe, and Marlowe v. Corkyn, refer to the same incident, although the legal records clearly state two different dates – that Corkyn beat up Marlowe on ‘decimo die Septembris’ [10th], and that Marlowe returned the compliment on ‘quinto decimo die Septembris’ [15th]. Dr Urry should be the last to suggest that they are incorrect, for he subscribes emphatically to the view that a legal document constitutes ‘unassailable’ evidence, and if this all occurred on one date how is it that Marlowe, armed with ‘staff and dagger’ was the wounded party?


In his 2010 essay “Corkyn v Marlowe: Marlowe’s Role Redefined”, Mike Frohnsdorff realistically explores what Urry’s conjecture would say about Marlowe’s attorney, John Smith:


Crucial to the matter is the date of the alleged attack, which in the indictment is stated to have taken place on the 10th September, and not the 15th!! Urry has led all subsequent commentators into what, I believe, is a fundamental mistake. They all believe that the mistake is in John Smith’s [Marlowe’s attorney] indictment, and it nevertheless refers to the same attack (the one on the 15th). John Smith (or his clerk) must have been a very careless attorney to make such a fundamental mistake, so damaging to his client’s interests.



In her Introduction, Kuriyama says, “Particularly when the biographical record is deeply tinged with actual or potential sensationalism, as it happens to be in Marlowe’s case, the temptation to weave hypothetical scenarios, and to mistake one’s conjectures for fact, becomes all the more powerful.”  But Kuriyama not only accepts Urry’s conjecture at face value, she alters it so that it sounds as if it is not a conjecture. She replaces Urry’s bracketed “15?” with a bracketed “evidently an error for quinto decimo—fifteenth”. This alteration reveals her writer’s prejudice:


Urry: William Corkyn of the City of Canterbury ‘taylor’, on the tenth [15?] day of September ...

Kuriyama: William Corkyn of the City of Canterbury ‘taylor’, on the tenth [evidently an error for quinto decimo—fifteenth] day of September ...


While Urry’s bracketed conjecture contains a question mark, which keeps it within the line of a query “[15?]”, Kuriyama’s alteration “[evidently an error for quinto decimo-fifteenth]” transforms conjecture into fallacious fact, the definition for “evidently” being “according to the evidence available”. Now, the only evidence available is the document itself, which gives us the date of the 10th. This alteration, whether conscious or not on Kuriyama’s part, is so subtle that the hypothetical scenario escapes detection. Where Urry merely questions the date, Kuriyama transforms his questioning into an evident error. Urry’s “Despite the apparent differences, it would seem they refer to the same episode” drew our attention to the fact there was a difference in the dates and that Urry was speculating (“It would seem”). Kuriyama’s readers will not see Urry’s statement because she left it out of her text.

Cultural and personal bias sculpts a biography according to its point of view. Kuriyama leaves out another valuable piece of information Urry gives us, one unrelated to the Corkyn episode but one that casts a positive light on Marlowe and his connections to the Corkyn family:


Curiously, another William Corkine, possibly the tailor’s son, who appears as a choirboy in the cathedral lists, also had a connection with Christopher Marloe. It was William Corkine (II) who first published the air to Marlowe’s poem ‘Come live with me and be my love’ in 1612.


When we find Kuriyama misquoting Urry yet again in another one of her paraphrases, repetition creates a pattern of cultural and/or personal bias. She says, “According to Urry, in a recognizable variation of the strategy he used in Flushing, which was a common practice for anyone disputing charges, Marlowe proceeded to bring countercharges against Corkine.” Urry says nothing about Marlowe using “strategy” by filing his Grand Jury indictment against Corkyn. Urry says:


Unusually, Christopher Marlowe does not seem to have proceeded to submit any counterplea proving his innocence and laying the blame on his opponent.  Instead he and his attorney, John Smith, chose a different course of action. The autumn quarter sessions were now imminent. The court met on the very next day, Tuesday 26 September. John Smith now prepared an indictment for the quarter sessions.


Instead of directly quoting Urry, Kuriyama paraphrases his words, but changes the meaning. It is Kuriyama, not Urry, who gives Marlowe a conniving, strategic mind and robs him of his own indictment’s legitimacy in one breath. Kuriyama’s prejudicial “strategic” gives the impression Marlowe only filed a lawsuit against Corkyn after Corkyn filed his lawsuit against Marlowe because that was what people usually did. Most readers, including the next generation of literature students, will not have read Urry, and these subtle changes of meaning will be grafted into their minds as having the weight of scholar numbers.

Kuriyama’s “a recognizable variation of the strategy he used in Flushing” implies that Richard Baines’s accusations against Marlowe in Flushing were true and Marlowe’s counter-accusations against Baines were mere strategy to get out of a hot spot. Just as she doubts Marlowe’s date of the 10th in his countercharge against Corkyn, she doubts his sincerity in Flushing. She reinforces her “strategy” conjecture when, regarding Corkyn, she says, “Why did Marlowe risk such an embarrassment? Perhaps he was merely trying to intimidate Corkine, or perhaps he was eager to have the case settled.”

       Although Kuriyama has told the reader “a chronic shortage of information makes the urge to leap to conclusions hard to resist” she had before her a 1592 legal document stating Marlowe had been attacked first, yet she leaps to the conclusion through insinuation that he was lying: “risk such embarrassment” “trying to intimidate” “a recognizable variation of the strategy he used in Flushing”.

Kuriyama’s lack of research on Corkyn, her acceptance and solidification of Urry’s conjecture that Marlowe’s date of Corkyn’s assault on him was incorrect, her not including the date of Corkyn’s attack on Marlowe in the body of the text, and her “strategy” conjecture prohibits speculation Marlowe might have been outraged Corkyn had brought him to court even though he’d attacked Marlowe first, and that Marlowe’s countercharges might be taken as evidence he felt he was in the right.

Even though it states right in the document that Corkyn “assaulted a certain Christopher Marlowe, gentleman, and then and there struck, wounded, and maltreated the same Christopher Marlowe” Kuriyama continues to favor her pattern of negative conjecture when she says, “In all probability, any initial assault Corkine may have made on Marlowe was verbal, provoking Marlowe to respond with a physical attack” [italics mine].




Kuriyama says, “And if a biographer deals with too many tangential or irrelevant documents, there is an even stronger tendency to examine the important ones cursorily, overlooking critical details and important connections to other documents.”

       Kuriyama speculates that Marlowe assaulted Corkyn by flattening his coxcomb with his dagger: “Since Corkine was not wounded seriously enough to justify criminal charges, Marlowe’s staff and dagger were very likely used to pummel Corkine over the head, ‘breaking his coxcomb’ in classic Elizabethan fashion.”

       Wraight speculates, “If there had been physical injury sustained this would have been mentioned without question. The claim of £5 is damage to property, and in this instance presumably refers to clothing.” Wraight continues, “Did Marlowe use his dagger to cut off Corkyn’s buttons? (As does the Cutpurse in The Massacre at Paris who cuts off the buttons from Mugeroun’s cloak). A suitable punishment for a tailor! Just such reflections of real life in Canterbury woven into his plays have been discovered by Urry.”

While Wraight’s speculation is grounded in an important connection to another document, Marlowe’s play Massacre At Paris, and the fact that it was most likely written in 1592, the same year he had the Corkyn encounters, Kuriyama’s speculation is grounded only in her imagination. In spite of this, later we find Kuriyama describing the scene in the Coroner’s Report on Marlowe’s death, and asserting that Marlowe, “seized the dagger hanging at Frizer’s back and inflicted two superficial scalp wounds – probably by hitting him over the head with the hilt of the dagger, as he did in the case of Corkine.” It was her own earlier imagined coxcomb scenario that she has now turned into fallacious fact.

Kuriyama says legal documents, “. . . tend to record exceptional rather than routine events” which “can lead to a highly distorted, sensationalized view of the subject.” She says one effect of this is that legal documents encourage negative rather than positive conclusions, and says, “Marlowe’s virtually iconic status as the designated outlaw or bad boy of Elizabethan drama rests mainly on the records of his clashes with William Bradley, William Corkine, the constable and sub constable of Holywell Street, and finally Ingram Frizer.” She has just given us the quartet that is the basis for the traditional view Marlowe was more violent than most Elizabethans, at the same time she is suggesting the documents that bear witness to this quartet have encouraged scholars to view Marlowe negatively because they encourage a distorted view of the subject.

Kuriyama’s lead for the first of the above mentioned clashes, the Bradley Duel, is, “Given the rowdiness of the theater district, we might expect the author of Tamburlaine to be in his element, but during the nearly seven years that Marlowe lived in and frequented this area, he was apparently involved in only two quarrels.”

Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine is one of the pillars that holds up the traditional view Marlowe was a violent man. The unnecessary first part of Kuriyama’s sentence states the prejudicial view that Tamburlaine was a projection of Marlowe’s own violent nature, yet the second part of the sentence states the facts which contradict the idea Marlowe had a violent nature. The second part of the sentence, if written by an unbiased author, could have stood alone: “During the nearly seven years that Marlowe lived in and frequented this area, he was apparently involved in only two quarrels.” The first part of the sentence becomes even more contradictory when we discover Kuriyama does not regard either of the quarrels in those seven years as being expressive of a man with a violent nature.

Concerning the Bradley Duel, Kuriyama says, “In the fight with Bradley in 1589, the innkeeper’s son appears to have been the aggressor.”

Concerning the constable and sub constable of Holywell Street, Kuriyama says, “. . . in itself this was a trivial incident. Being bound to keep the peace was extremely common in Elizabethan England.”

What about the other two clashes that are part of the quartet?

Concerning Corkyn, we have seen that Kuriyama ignores Marlowe’s statement that he was assaulted first by Corkyn, and she did not delve far enough in her research around the Corkyn case to discover that Corkyn himself was sued for assault six months after he sued Marlowe. This new information gives us not only legitimate cause to question Marlowe as the aggressor in that clash, it gives us cause to contrast Marlowe’s two quarrels in the span of seven years while living in a “rowdy” theater district against Corkyn’s fifteen court cases, including one for assault, during the span of eight years in Canterbury. This is an example of how one new archival finding can create reinterpretation in more than just one area of a subject’s life.

Concerning the last clash in the quartet, Frizer, most of Marlowe’s biographers do not take this apparent clash as reported in the Coroner’s Report of Marlowe’s death at face value the way Kuriyama does. She concludes, “The simplest and most probable hypothesis is that Marlowe was not assassinated at all, and that the Coroner’s Report is a reasonably accurate account of what happened.”

It is the clash with Frizer that has become the strongest ground for the view that Marlowe was a violent man, therefore, it is important to include the opinions of a few other Marlowe biographers concerning the validity of the Coroner’s Report.

In The Reckoning, Charles Nicholl concludes the Coroner’s Report was a blind: “I am not the first to doubt the ‘official story’ of Marlowe’s death. Most of his biographers have expressed some unease with it, but they have ended up accepting it for lack of any provable alternative . . . The witnesses are untrustworthy, the story unsatisfactory, the circumstances shady…”

John Bakeless, author of the massive Marlowe biography, The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe (two volumes), questions the veracity of the witnesses to Marlowe’s death, “If the men were lying, their story – which is, medically speaking, impossible – may cover cold-blooded and deliberately planned assassination.

Marlowe’s biographer Frederick Boas cites several commentators criticisms of the Coroner’s Report, then includes his own. “And there is a suspicious similarity between the setting of the Deptford episode and an incident in the Babington conspiracy when a number of the plotters, including Skeres, might have been taken ‘at supper in Poley’s garden’, probably the Garden Inn near Fleet Street.” The man listed in the report as Marlowe’s killer was the personal employee of Marlowe’s patron Thomas Walsingham, and the two witnesses in the Report were secret agents who worked directly under Walsingham when they infiltrated the Babington Plot. Boas draws an interesting comparison between the design of the situation in the Coroner’s Report and these two secret agent witnesses to his apparent death.

Marlowe’s biographer David Riggs finds the details of the Coroner’s Report “confusing”. He also notices the coincidence of Marlowe being killed just three days after the informers’ notes reached the Queen and she proclaimed, “Prosecute it to the full!” He says, “The court bureaucracy that confined Marlowe within the verge cannot be counted on to disclose the truth about what happened there. The fact that the official account trivializes the killing should provoke skepticism not acquiescence.”

Marlowe’s biographer Park Honan thinks it was murder, and he finds the Coroner’s Report describing an “odd, almost hallucinatory scene.”

The three men, Skeres, Frizer, and Poley, sit with their backs to the poet, and they remain squeezed together and glued to a bench. Frizer speaks to a wall, and Marlowe on a bed replies to the ceiling. Possibly, the room begins to contract; one might think that the furniture is on the move, for twice, in Latin and in English, Mrs. Bull’s long table comes nere the bed. Poley and Skeres hear nothing. When violence begins, nobody can move, stand up, shout for help, or even turn his head. The most spectacular, bloody events occur next to Poley’s elbow, but he has no idea that a man is being killed.


In her Introduction, Kuriyama says that all life writing is an amalgam of fact and interpretation, logical inference and speculation, truth and myth. A biographer’s prejudicial interpretation can be known by what is left out of the facts he or she chooses to admit into the text. The details a biographer chooses as relevant are sometimes the ones that are relevant only to the biographer’s personal interpretation of his or her subject. Kuriyama’s treatment of the documented evidence regarding Marlowe and Corkyn seems to reveal she is one who has succumbed to the highly distorted and sensationalized view of the subject. Her methodology keeps intact the flimsy quartet of evidence that Marlowe was more violent than other English Renaissance dramatists, a myth that was conceived to be sensational at its inception by the sixteenth century Puritans who wanted the theaters closed.

A biographer distorts history if she glosses over or ignores relevant details, parrots previous biographer’s conjectures as if factual instead of pointing out they are mere conjectures, alters through paraphrase what previous biographers have written, and leaves out parts of a text that would question her interpretation. This kind of scholarship is no more than the children’s game Chinese Whispers where a child whispers a message to a second child who whispers it to a third, and so on until the last child to receive the message announces it to the entire group, and it sounds nothing like the message whispered into the first child’s ear.





Richard D. Altick: The Scholar Adventurers (New York, 1950), 2.

Constance Kuriyama, Christopher Marlowe A Renaissance Life (Ithaca, 2002), 115

Ibid, 115

Ibid, 6

Canterbury Archives, CCA-CC-J/Q/391(3)


Kuriyama: op. cit., 6

To avoid confusion, it should be noted that Urry has kept to the original spelling of Corkyn’s name, while Kuriyama’s paraphrase has altered his name to “Corkine”.

Kuriyama: op. cit., 116.

William Urry: Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (London,1988) 66-67.

Ibid, 131.

Ibid, op. cit., 131.

Kuriyama: op. cit., 6. Notice that Kuriyama uses the word “accepting” in its adjective form here, when she should be using the word “accept” which is a verb. If she had used the word correctly, her sentence would have been written this way: “I decided at an early stage that I would scrutinize the Marlowe documentsfirsthand, rigorously and critically, rather than accept previous scholars’ interpretations of them.”

A.D. Wraight: The Story That The Sonnets Tell, (London, 1993), 302.

Mike Frohnsdorff: Corkine v Marlowe: Marlowe’s Role Redefined, Marlowe Society Newsletter 35, Autumn 2010, 4.

Kuriyama: op. cit., 1.

Ibid: 213.

Urry: op. cit., 65-66.

Kuriyama: op. cit., 115.

Urry: op. cit., 66.

Kuriyama: op. cit., 116.

Ibid: 2.

Ibid: 116.

Ibid: 4.

Ibid: 116.

Wraight: op. cit., 303.

Wraight: op. cit., 303-304.

The Lord Strange’s Men acted a play titled The Tragedy of the Guise, thought to be Marlowe's play, on Jan. 26, 1593.

Kuriyama: op. cit., 135.

Kuriyama: op. cit., 3.


Ibid: 81

Kuriyama: op. cit., 112.


Ibid: 136.

Charles Nicholl: The Reckoning (Chicago 1995), 117.

John Bakeless: Christopher Marlowe The Man In His Time (New York), 230.

Frederick Boas: Christopher Marlowe A Biographical and Critical Study (London). 274-275.

Ibid: 275.

David Riggs: The World Of Christopher Marlowe (New York), 334-335.

Ibid: 335.

Park Honan: Christopher Marlowe Poet & Spy (New York), 351.

Kuriyama: op. cit., 1.







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