Oh good Horatio, what a wounded name,
(Things standing thus unknowne) shall live behind
If thou did'st ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicitie awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in paine,
To tell my Storie.
The Distorted Image
A.D. Wraight from The Story That The Sonnets Tell
THE ASSESSMENT of Marlowe’s character by modern scholars has been detrimentally affected in a slowly mounting crescendo by Baines’ and Kyd’s testimonies, for they are seen to be corroborated by the story told in the inquisition of his alleged violent quarrel with his murderer Ingram Frizer. Marlowe is today increasingly presented as a man given to violence and ‘sudden rages’, his reputation engulfed by the libels of the informer and the perfidious, pathetic Kyd, together with the tale of the loyal servant of his patron who was facing the fallows for slaying a great poet in reprisal for a couple of minor scalp wounds. The questions tentatively raised by Bakeless, and the medical evidence presented by Tannenbaum, have been superseded by blind acceptance of the dubious documentary evidence with no questions asked. The distorted image prevails.
Charles Norman on reading Marlowe’s works sensed that in the maturing of his genius ‘something serene and deeply felt in him was gathering into beauty for a second harvest’, but he also wrote:
‘We know from his work that his spirit was kin to exultation; but we learn from the records of his life that he was quick to grasp sword, voice turning ugly and provocative, fist clenched for threat or striking; that he was a scorner of the unlearned, a scholar and a blasphemer.’
His biographers have not really known what to make of him. The fear of questioning and objectively investigating his death to the fullest limits, in case it turns out that he really did not die, and therefore the inevitable corollary presents itself that he was the pseudonymous author Shakespeare, has apparently paralyzed further research into the circumstances. Bakeless has commented: ‘As witnesses, both Baines and Kyd command very little confidence’. But it has been left at that. After tossing the arguments surrounding his death to and fro, all have opted for a safe harbour. Let sleeping dogs lie, is good counsel. Marlowe safely dead and libeled is preferable to having all those books on Shakespeare outdated. Whether consciously perceived or not, the motive is there.
So it is that the Bradley affray, an innocent affair so far as Marlowe is concerned, is misrepresented as an example of his violent nature; whereas he became involved in a quarrel that was not his own, from which he withdrew when the real protagonist appeared on the scene to confront the notorious brawler Bradley who was harbouring malicious intent against Marlowe’s friend, Tom Watson. Today this is coloured by comments which aim to link this incident with the quarrel at Deptford when he met his death as ‘the coward conquest of a wretche’s knife.’ The Bradley affray is commonly cited as supportive ‘evidence’ to uphold the distorted image of Marlowe as a man of violence, in this case ignoring the legal records that establish his innocence.
By contrast, we know that the self-confessedly hot-tempered Ben Jonson actually killed a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, and only escaped hanging for his crime by reading his ‘neck verse’, proving that he was an educated man – the loophole provided under Elizabethan law. Yet nowhere do we find such a passage stating that Jonson ‘was quick to grasp sword, voice turning ugly and provocative, fist clenched for threat or striking’, although Ben himself says that he once beat John Marston over the head with a pistol. Ben was inclined to be physical, but this is never held against him as reprehensible trait. It was an age where resort to the sword might be a matter of life or death. Dueling, though forbidden, nevertheless frequently took place surreptitiously. The Earl of Southampton fought an extremely bitter duel with Lord Grey at a secret rendezvous abroad, but he is never accused of having a violent nature. By comparison, Marlowe’s brief duel with Bradley was on the evidence in self defense, and more than this cannot be argued without bias.
When Marlowe was returning home one evening in May 1592 he bandied words with two constables of Shoreditch, who subsequently lodged a plea for sureties of the peace against the dramatist, who, they said, had threatened them with opprobrious words. This is again seen by some of his biographers as ‘evidence’ of a man habitually given to unruly behavior. Yet William Shakespeare’s indictment in November 1600 by one William Wayte, who claimed sureties of the peace against him, and a writ of attachment ordering his arrest was issued by the Sheriff of Surrey, is never held to show him in the light of an unruly and violent character. Wayte’s petition names him first: ‘William Shakspere, Francis Langlely’ (and tow aggressive ladies) ‘Dorothy Soer and Anne Lee’, who had apparently threatened him with violence.’
Such incidents were common enough, but why elevate Marlowe’s altercation with the constable of Shoreditch (doubtless marked with his noted wit!) as an example of his allegedly violent nature? Perhaps the day will come when this incident is seen in the light of Much Ado About Nothing, presenting the originals of Dogberry and his fellows who tried to ‘comprehend’ Marlowe – perhaps a bit drunk? – as he was wending his way homeward from the alehouse; not as an instance of his nasty and violent nature (which is a myth of Kyd’s pathetic Letters) but as the inspiration for delightful comic invention. This, as is demonstrated in Chapter 21, ‘Canterbury Tales’, is how Marlowe often drew from life to crate his own divine comedy.
We must now consider the case of Corkyn v. Marlowe, which is the most important documentary evidence on Marlowe to have been discovered in recent years. It finally scotches all the spurious tales of his alleged violent nature in an unquestionably valid, impartial, legal record of the man as he really was, testifying to the way he actually behaved in his life. It is a revelation!
The Rose of Reconciliation
On what was probably his last visit home to Canterbury in September 1592, the City’s legal archives, researched by Dr William Urry, have disclosed Marlowe’s involvement in an incident which throws a unique and fascinating light on his temperament, wherein we recognize ‘that pure elementall wit, Chr. Marlow’, as Thorpe called him, who was also the Poet of the Sonnets – a delightful young man with a wonderfully forgiving nature.
The documents relate an interesting civil case of a breach of the peace in the City’s Westgate Ward involving Christopher Marlowe and the tailor, William Corkyn, who was also a chorister of the Cathedral. We do not learn what their quarrel was about, but it is testified that on 10th September Corkyn had assaulted Marlowe and ‘did there and then beat, wound and maltreat, and other atrocities [enormia] did then and there inflict upon the said Cristopher Marlowe’; which injuries the said Christopher Marlowe revenged on 15th September, inflicting ‘loss’, but (be it noted) he did not wound Corkyn in return. Corkyn thereupon promptly filed a suit against Marlowe for ‘damages to the extent of £5’. What these ‘damages’ were we are not told, but at a guess it was to Corkyn’s clothing. Marlowe thereupon turned the tables by filing his counter-suit for Corkyn’s previous assault on him.
Dr Urry, who discovered these documents (they are resented in his posthumously published Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury, 1988) 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’, and that Marlowe returned the compliment on ‘quinto decimo die Septembris’. 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? And what would he be doing going around armed in this manner anyway? Whereas on the later date it had a purpose – he was out to pay Corkyn back, but as it turns out, in a surprising way!
From the legal depositions it is possible to reconstruct a pretty clear picture of what had happened on the 10th and 15th September. It was, I suggest, the following: On 10th September the two men, Marlowe the poet and Corkyn the musical tailor, who were old friends and had probably been choirboys together, were walking near the West-gate when what was obviously a heated argument broke out, and Corkyn, perhaps getting the worst of the argument in words resorted to physically belabouring Marlowe, as the deposition informs us.
City of Canterbury
The Grand Jury present for Our Lady the Queen that William Corkyn of the City of Canterbury ‘taylor’, on the tenth day of September in the thirty-fourth year of Our Lady Elizabeth by the Grace of God, of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, here in the City of Canterbury aforesaid, in the parish of St Andrew and in the Ward of Westgate in the aforesaid city, 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 and against the Peace of Our present Lady the Queen, etc.
The wounded and maltreated Marlowe presumably went limping home to nurse his injuries, but he did not lodge a complaint for assault then. Instead he decided to teach his bellicose friend a lesson (perhaps Corkyn had always been a bully?) to show him he was no longer willing to put up with his bullying attacks and atrocities (verbal ones?) So five days later on 15th September he met Corkyn at the same spot, but this time armed with ‘staff and dagger’. However, it is clear the he appeared thus with intent to give Corkyn a fright, for he did not injure him physically in any way,; as Corkyn had done to him, as is unquestionably established by Corkyn’s suit which makes no mention of physical hurt.
City of Canterbury
William Corkyn sues Christopher Marlowe, gentleman, on plea of transgression. And pledges to prosecute viz. John Doo and Richard Roo. And the plaintiff by Giles Winston his attorney makes plaint that the said defendant on the fifteenth day of September, in the thirty-fourth year of the reign of Our Lady Elizabeth by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith here in the City of Canterbury aforesaid, in the Parish of St Andrew, and in the Ward of Westgate of the aforesaid city., did by force of arms [vi et armis], viz., with staff and dagger, make an assault upon the aforesaid 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 extent of £5, and hence produces his suit.
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. 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. There appears to have been some element of Marlowe’s typical humorous wit in this tit-for-tat, as is implied by the surprising outcome of this case.
Damage to property tends to rate above mere physical injury in the law, and Marlowe’s hurts were doubtless mended by the time the case came to court on 25th and 26th September, when the tailor’s suit for damages was preferred, and Marlowe’s counter-suit for injuries was thrown out. But happily, when the civil case Corkine v. Marlowe came up for its final hearing on 9th October, the two protagonists had already mended their quarrel and had once more become good friends. By mutual agreement, then and there, the case was dropped, and the two men, reconciled in friendship, left the court. Probably it had all been schoolboy stuff really!
William Corkyn’s son, also named William, was a lutenist and composer of songs. He set Marlowe’s ‘Come Live with Me and be my Love’ to music, and this delightful air was published in 1612. A common interest in music united the Corkyns and Marlowe, and if they did once get into an argument that led to a court case, it was soon mended.
Ironically and sadly, for I knew him as one who loved Marlowe, it is William Urry who has misinterpreted this fascinating find and deeply misunderstood its implications. Under the weight of academic pressures the distorted image of Marlowe as a man of violence has bedeviled his brilliant research, and Urry’s biographical work presents the most fierce distortion to date of Canterbury’s greatest son as a man of violent temperament.
Urry’s book is in the fashionable tradition of sensationalizing Marlowe’s life. He presents his association with the secret agent Robert Poley as though this man were of prime importance in the Poet’s life. Poley, in Urry’s view, hovers around Marlowe ‘like an evil spirit. He gorges letters, dabbles in ciphers, intercepts correspondence, snaps up fees and bribes. He was the very genius of the Elizabethan underworld.’
There is no hint here that the aforesaid forged letters were written by Poley on the express instructions of Sir Francis Walsingham and Lord Burghley to obtain from Mary Queen of Scots here acquiescence to the plot to murder Queen Elizabeth, and thus to incriminate her. Anthony Babington was the ringleader of this most dangerous conspiracy which had regicide as its main objective, with the with the assassination of Elizabeth to be followed by the enthronement of Mary as Catholic Queen of England. Poley was entrusted with the vitally important task of insinuating himself into the confidence of Babington in order to discover their intentions and bring the conspirators to justice. But to Urry the extremely skillful agent Robert Poley is only seen as bringing with him ‘an evil odour of fraud, crime and double dealing’ wherever he goes. ‘Utterly deceiving Anthony Babington, he was principal agent in sending that youth to the scaffold.’
Well, poor misguided youth though he was, it was either Babington’s life, or Queen Elizabeth’s, so with whom are we being invited to take side? By the same judgment, one can denigrate those brave soldiers, policemen and CID agents who protect us today against terrorism. Poley’s profession involved living dangerously, but it was not ‘of the Elizabethan underworld’. He was a government agent – as were Marlowe, and Thomas Walsingham, and the immensely brave Thomas Cely, who suffered in the Spanish galleys for his services to his country. If Poley’s private life was somewhat questionable in his illicit lover-affairs, his mo9reals were no better and no worse than those of some prominent men in our society today; and in his professional capacity he was a trusted servant of his government and served posterity extraordinarily well in what he achieved. He was instrumental in saving not only the life of Queen Elizabeth, but, I contend, also the life of Shakespeare by the part he played at Deptford.
Marlowe himself is also seen by Dr Urry only in the sensational and baleful light cast by Baines’ Note and Kyd’s Letters; above al, he credits the legal document of the Deptford inquisition, accepting these as evidence because they represent historic documents, never for one moment allowing that written records can also tell lies – and all of these have a questionable context. He concludes his book:
‘there is no need to invent a plot to put Marlowe out of the way. He was the victim of his own temperament. Four times at least he was involved in violent struggles with men: at Hog Lane in September 1589 when William Bradley was slain: in May 1592 when he scuffled with the constable and sub-constable of Shoreditch; at Canterbury in September 1592 when he fought with William Corkyn; and now at Deptford. For every case which came to the notice of the courts there may have been many times when Marlowe was involved in other incidents – ‘sudden privy injuries to men’.
‘Quod me nutrit me destruit’. The portrait at Cambridge may or may not be a likeness of Marlowe, but the motto inscribed there is a likeness of his fate. That brilliant mind, tensed like a coiled spring, ready to soar into flights of genius, was equally ready to erupt in a fire of uncontrollable temper. Now, at the last, goaded by worry and the prospect of disaster, he attacked a man who turned and killed him in self-defense. The surges of excitement generating his mighty verse were very close to the sudden rages which convulsed him. The same passion which sustained him as a poet destroyed him as a human being.’
Here we have the distorted image of Marlowe writ large and boldly to which the last five decades have been moving, steadily grinding his face into the dust. It is hardly necessary to point out that it is coloured with bias. Marlowe’s duel at Hog Lane was not his quarrel – it was Watson’s and he slew Bradley, who was a thug. There is no justification for describing Marlowe’s altercation with the Shoreditch constables as a ‘scuffle’; it was verbal threats that Marlowe made, probably in jesting high spirits! Corkyn assaulted Marlowe first 9when he was unarmed) and wounded him, which Marlowe revenged inflicting ‘loss’ to the value of £5, but no physical injuries although he was then armed with both staff and dagger (the former, I imagine, to trip Corkyn up, and the latter to threaten him with and then slash the tailor’s garments?). this is the legal record which has no taint of suspicion. Whereas what Baines and Kyd state was obviously prejudiced; and what Coroner Danby recorded stands in an especially questionable context. But this is not how Dr Urry views it. He writes’
‘There survives . . an official and quite unassailable document to depend upon for a record of Marlowe’s last day – the famous record of the coroner’s inquest.’
I beg to differ. Danby’s inquisition is not an ‘unassailable document’ on which we can depend for the historical truth. Bless Dr Urry, but he has got it wrong. Danby’s Inquisition, Baines’ Note and Kyd’s Letters have here been subjected to some sharp scrutiny which has established that they cannot possibly be blandly accepted as giving a true picture of the Poet, who was hailed by his contemporaries and friends as ’the Muses darling’, that ‘pure elementall wit, Chr. Marlow’, and ‘kynde Kit Marloe’. His fellow poet Michael Drayton called him ‘neat Marlowe,’ the word ‘neat’ meaning unsophisticated, natural, a man without pretension. Edward Blount described him as ‘the man that hath been dear unto us’’; the brilliant Hariot and the noble Chapman cherished him as a dear friend; Raleigh and Northumberland welcomed him into their circle; he was a beloved friend to his patron, and was warmly received into the cultured family of the Walsinghams who were close to the Queen who had commended him for his ‘faithful dealing’; he was the valued friend of Thomas Watson whose Latin poetry had won him the patronage of Sir Francis Walsingham. Those by whom Marlowe was admired and loved as a friend included the cream of Elizabethan society. Their verdict on him had no axes to grind. When we consider Marlowe’s writings, it is clear that his friends judged him aright for in them we read his heart, his mind and his spirit,, which speak to us of nobility, not baseness.
Whereas with Shakespeare scholarly opinion accepts his great works as representative of the man himself, and the mundane facts of his life are disregarded as having any relevance to his character, with Marlowe it is the opposite. His works are dismissed as representing the man. It was not always so with Marlowe. His earliest biographers J.H. Ingram and C.F. Tucker Brooke have passed judgements of breadth and understanding. Tucker Brooke wrote as late as 1930:
‘Hero and Leander in particular has biographical significance. It forbids us to believe that Marlowe was fundamentally or finally intemperate, as Kyd called him, or of a cruel heart. Nor can we easily suppose that its placid beauty was achieved while the author was employing his less poetical hours as a libertine, a secret agent, or a revolutionist.’
Ingram declined to be impressed by Marlowe’s detractors: ‘the only basis for imputing ‘hellish sins’ to him is puritanical malice, - supported by libel and forgery.’ He points out that Marlowe was ‘the companion, the compeer, and the admired of all that was best of his time.’
The gradual descent into the latter-day fahionable detrimental view of Marlowe’s character was given impetus by Dr Boas’ publication of Kyd’s Letters. Boas, being also Kyd’s biographer, naturally tended to see them as valid testimony to be accepted as irrefutable documentary evidence. He set the pattern that others have followed.
‘Kyd, in the letter first printed by me in 1899, told Puckering that Marlowe’s associates were “Harriot, Warner, Roydon, and some stationers in Paules churchyard”. Harriot is the well-known mathematician who had long been in Sir Walter Raleigh’s service, and Warner was probably Walter Warner, a mathematical friend of Harriot. Nash has Harriot in mind when he declare in Pierce Pennilesse, “I heare say there be Mathematicians abroad, that will proue men before Adam”. It is to Harriot also that the Jesuit pamphleteer, Robert Parsons, referred in his Responsio ad Elizabethae edictum (1592), as “Astronomo quondam necromantico” the preceptor of the “schola frequens de Atheismo” which Walter Raleigh notoriously held in his house. In the English summary of the Responsio the words used are:
“Of Sir Walter Rawley’s schoole of Atheism by the waye, & of the Coniurer that is M[aster] thereof, and of the diligence vsed to get yong gentlmen of this schoole, where in both Moyses, & our Sauior, the olde and the new Testamente are iested at, the schollers taughte amonge other thinges, to spell God backwarde.”
‘It is worth noting that when on Whitsun eve, 2 June 1593, the informer Richard Baines brought charges of blasphemy against “Christopher Marly” (Harl. MSS.6868 ff.185-6), he too brings Moses, Harriot, and conjuring into close relation.’ [Didn’t Jews write “backwards”. This where he got this?]
Dr Boas then proceeds to quote the relevant items from Baines’ Note, and he finds ‘a remarkable family likeness’ in the words used by Baines and Kyd. He concludes:
‘Can it be doubted that out of the statements of Baines and Kyd taken together, and supplemented by the less specific allegations of Nash, Parson, and others, a fairly consistent picture can be framed?’
Dr Boas, a great scholar, is impressed, but he had forgotten on important factor. All these sources represent Marlowe’s enemies. None of them is a reliable witness. To Baines and Kyd he adds a Jesuit pamphleteer, while Nashe was sweating in fear to dissociate himself from the fatal taint of ‘Atheism’ that clung to Marlowe and all the free-thinkers whom Nashe, with an eye to his own safety, satirizes for daring to pursue speculative scientific questioning. Everyone of Dr Boas’s witnesses were men who had an axe to grind; all were enemies of free thought. Dr Boas is entitled to his point of view, but, if we step back for a moment, let us consider what he is inviting us to accept as valid evidence of his ‘consistent picture’.
Are we to believe the Jesuit pamphleteer, Parsons? The informer Baines? The broken, pathetic Kyd in his remarks about his dead (and hated) former friend, Marlowe? And the subtle Poley, who once confessed, “I will sweare and forsweare my self rather then I will accuse my self to doe me any harme’? the cunning Skeres, who was involved in a well-documented case of chicanery together with his friend Frizer? and Frizer, whose urgent problem was to extricate himself from a charge of murder?
The whole matter hangs on the credibility and honest of these witnesses. Frizer’s acquittal on his plea of slaying in self-defense requited that Marlowe be presented as his base-minded, unprovoked attacker. He was clearly taking no changes to escape the gallows. The story he told, with the smooth-talking Poley and Skeres as his witnesses, had to stick – and stick it did for four hundred years.
The final word may be allowed to Marlowe’s greatest biographer, Dr John Bakeless, whose deep study of the Poet’s life and works entitles him to an authoritative opinion on whether the inquisition is an ‘unassailable document to depend on.’. The ‘discovery of the document relating to Marlowe’s death raises as many questions as it answers’, comments Bakeless. It is by no means an open and shut case. And Dr Samuel Tannenbaum quotes the opinions of several eminent physicians to support his view of the obvious untruthfulness of the corner’s report:
‘The Coroner’s inquest was a perfunctory matter . . his story cannot be accepted as a faithful account of what actually transpired . . One who knows the anatomy and pathology of the human brain knows that it is almost impossible for death to follow immediately upon the infliction of such a wound . . The Coroner’s “grim tale” of Marlowe’s violent and untimely end, therefore, is not a true account of what happened.’
If anyone still contends that the coroner’s inquisition records the true facts, then one salient question requires an answer. Why were Poley, Skeres, Frizer closeted with the intellectual Poet for eight hours on that fatal day? They were not his close friends. If it is argues that this was in connection with some government plot, then what was Frizer doing there? He was not a secret agent. A satisfactory explanation for this day-long conference has never been given. It is merely claimed that the inquisition is infallible because it is ‘official’. Officialdom, apparently, cannot err, and, above all, it must not be questioned!
Finally, we have the testimony of the sonnets in which the tragedy of Christopher Marlowe is shadowed forth unmistakably. In Sonnet 74 he tells us that he viewed as utterly base the sordid affair at Deptford, whereby the story was put about that he had died ‘the coward conquest of a wretch’s knife’. If this was not true, then the whole edifice maligning Marlowe collapses like a house of cards.
To admit that one has been mistaken is never easy, but it is honourable. There will assuredly be those with the necessary stature who will accede this, and will be ready to consider the evidence presented, and to judge it on its merits with fairness and without prejudice. More than this one cannot ask. Even if Marlowe were not Shakespeare, he is one of our very greatest poet-dramatists and thinkers, who has been monstrously maligned and misrepresented. This reassessment aims to adjust the focus, so that we can at last see him as he really was, when –
Reckoning Time, whose million’s accidents
Creep in ‘twixt vows, and change decrees of Kings,
will bring redress, and restore his vilified image. The cumulative evidence here presented reveals what logic has long indicated, but no academic scholar has dared to think – that the maligned poetic genius, “Marley the Muses darling’ was none other than our ‘