The definitive biography: a masterly account of Marlowe's work and life and the world in which he lived
Shakespeare's contemporary, Christopher Marlowe revolutionized English drama and poetry, transforming the Elizabethan stage into a place of astonishing creativity. The outline of Marlowe's life, work, and violent death are known, but few of the details that explain why his writing and ideas made him such a provocateur in the Elizabethan era have been available until now. In this absorbing consideration of Marlowe and his times, David Riggs presents Marlowe as the language's first poetic dramatist whose desires proved his undoing.
In an age of tremendous cultural change in Europe when Cervantes wrote the first novel and Copernicus demonstrated a world subservient to other nonreligious forces, Catholics and Protestants battled for control of England and Elizabeth's crown was anything but secure. Into this whirlwind of change stepped Marlowe espousing sexual freedom and atheism. His beliefs proved too dangerous to those in power and he was condemned as a spy and later murdered. In The World of Christopher Marlowe, Riggs's exhaustive research digs deeply into the mystery of how and why Marlowe was killed.
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About the Author
David Riggs is a professor of English at Stanford University. His books include Ben Jonson: A Life and The World of Christopher Marlowe. He lectures regularly at leading universities in the United States and Great Britain, and has written articles for The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Shakespeare Quarterly, among others. He lives in Stanford, California.
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The World of Christopher Marlowe
By David Riggs
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 David Riggs
All rights reserved.
The migrant worker John Marlowe moved to Canterbury in the mid-1550s. He was about twenty years old and came from Ospringe, beside the north Kent port of Faversham. Heading east towards Canterbury on Watling Street, the old Roman road that ran from London to Dover, travellers glimpsed soaring cathedral towers that summoned up the city's storied past. The Archbishop of Canterbury had led the Church in England since the arrival of St Augustine in AD 597. Generations of medieval pilgrims journeyed there to visit the shrine of St Thomas à Becket, who had been murdered while at his devotions in the cathedral. More recently, the Protestant Reformation had taken a dreadful toll on the ancient stronghold of the Roman Catholic faith. Two decades previously, agents of King Henry VIII sacked Archbishop Becket's shrine, burnt the saint's remains and cast his ashes to the winds. Just outside the city walls, much of St Augustine's Abbey lay in ruins, another victim of the reformers' iconoclasm and greed.
The restoration of Catholic rule under Henry's daughter Queen Mary I only aggravated the troubles that beset mid-century Canterbury. If Marlowe had arrived by 1556, he could have joined the crowds that gathered at nearby Wincheap to watch forty-three Protestant martyrs burn at the stake. During the reign of 'Bloody' Mary, Canterbury saw more executions for heresy than any place in England, apart from London. John Marlowe came to a city in crisis.
When the crown lawyer and antiquarian William Lambarde visited Canterbury in the 1560s, he encountered a spiritual wasteland. The sight of the ruined monasteries moved the scholar to 'pity and lament this general decay'.
The crown lawyer appraised the decayed buildings with the cold eye of a Tudor state official. The desecration of the Roman Catholic city, 'which in horrible crimes contended with Sodom, in unbelief matched Jerusalem, and in folly of superstition exceeded all the Gentiles,' was an act of divine retribution. 'By the just judgement of God therefore, Canterbury came suddenly from great wealth, multitude of inhabitants and beautiful buildings, to extreme poverty, nakedness and decay.'
Single men between the ages of twelve and twenty, the time when apprentices were indentured, often took to the roads in search of work. John Marlowe had several reasons to try his luck in Canterbury. It was a church capital and regional centre set amid fertile farmlands. The three to four thousand residents housed within its Roman walls included a large population of artisans and tradesmen who served the needs of the surrounding area. Families bearing the name of Marlowe had settled there during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even if John Marlowe had no close relations in Canterbury, he could expect to find 'cousins' in a position to help him. Finally, though the incoming migrant could not have known this, the influenza epidemic of the late 1550s would decrease the local population by a quarter over a six-year period. This catastrophe made Canterbury a fine place to seek employment. The Great Sweat encouraged looser policies of apprenticeship and admission to the trade guilds. It was easier to find work when local replacements were lacking.
Between 1559 and 1560 John Marlowe apprenticed himself to a member of the shoemakers' guild. His new master, the ageing and impoverished Gerard Richardson, was a fellow immigrant. John settled in the parish of St George the Martyr on the south-eastern side of the city. This foul-smelling district lay between the cattle market outside St George's gate and the slaughterhouse within the city walls; it was an apt neighbourhood for the aspirant leatherworker. Carts bearing tubs of blood and offal trundled along St George's Street. The town gallows stood just beyond the cattle market, on Oaten Hill, from 1575 onwards.
The Romanesque church of St George the Martyr ministered to about two hundred parishioners. Most of John Marlowe's neighbours were small craftsmen like himself. His friend Laurence Applegate had a tailor's shop on High Street next to the Vernicle tavern. The local midwife lived across the street. Thomas Bull, the cathedral organist and choirmaster, trained pupils in his house near the parish church. Another local musician, 'Sir' John Heavyside or 'Heavyside the priest', had lived at St Augustine's Abbey before King Henry dissolved it. Sir John was the last of the Canterbury monks.
The fact that three leading figures in the London theatre of the 1580s spent their childhood within a few hundred yards of Canterbury Cathedral is one measure of the opportunities that lay just beyond John Marlowe's doorstep. Stephen Gosson, the first university graduate who wrote for the public playhouses, was baptized at St George's six years before the elder Marlowe settled there. His father was an immigrant woodworker. The prominent Elizabethan novelist and playwright John Lyly grew up in the adjacent parish of St Alphege, near the cathedral gates. Besides being a majestic place of worship, the cathedral housed a choir school for boys. Within the cathedral close, the King's School taught grammar and rhetoric to fifty Scholars, preparing the best of them for the stiff degree course at Oxford and Cambridge.
John Marlowe married in the spring of 1561, just a year after entering his apprenticeship. His bride Katherine Arthur, another recent immigrant, came to Canterbury from the coastal city of Dover. Like her husband, Katherine was the child of menial labourers. Her kinsman William Arthur of Dover, a trader in livestock, had business connections in the parish of St George. Katherine's brother Thomas Arthur would have commercial interests in the city from 1564. On the face of it, Katherine Arthur strengthened John Marlowe's fragile ties to his adopted community. Unless they had independent resources, migrants entering provincial cities often failed to establish themselves, and went into a downward spiral within two or three years of their arrival. Although John Marlowe occasionally found himself on the edge of failure, the hallmark of his career, given where he started from, is success. Katherine Marlowe surely played an important part in his story.
William Sweeting, the parish priest at St George the Martyr, joined the couple in matrimony on 22 May. A year later the newlyweds had a daughter named Mary. Father Sweeting baptized their first son Christopher at the parish church on 26 February 1564, just two months before Shakespeare was christened at Stratford-upon-Avon. The bellows of cattle being driven to the butcher's shambles and the pervasive odour of blood were among the infant's earliest sensations. In adolescence, he grew accustomed to the sight of condemned men being carted past his home to the gallows on Oaten Hill.
* * *
Father William Sweeting personified the weakened condition of religious life in mid-century Canterbury. Queen Elizabeth I restored Protestantism upon her accession in 1558. After five years of Roman Catholicism, at a time when existing members of the clergy were ravaged by disease and religious upheaval, suitable candidates for the incoming Protestant ministry proved hard to come by. Matthew Parker, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, hastily ordained a multitude of priests, including the tailor William Sweeting, who were unqualified for their new vocation. Church authorities discovered that the impoverished Reverend Sweeting was incapable of preaching even one sermon a year, yet this fact did not deter them from adding a nearby parish church to his ministry.
All told, the English state religion changed three times between 1547 and 1558: from the Anglo-Catholicism of the ageing Henry VIII to radical Protestantism under his short-lived son Edward VI; then to the reactionary Roman Catholicism of his elder daughter Mary I; and again to moderate Protestantism under his younger daughter Elizabeth I. Canterbury felt the full shock of these seismic alternations. Each time a new prince came to the throne, the archbishop, his chaplains, the dean of the cathedral, the eighteen canons and six preachers in the cathedral foundation, the masters at the King's School and the twelve parish priests all had to adapt or face the consequences. These upheavals demoralized parish life; for the clergy who contrived to continue their ministry throughout all the changes, conformity was a means of survival.
The immigrants' prospects for long-term residency depended on their capacity to adapt to the customs and way of life of their new community. The conflicts that plagued Canterbury from the 1530s into the 1570s put this process of adaptation under an enormous strain. How could newcomers take their bearings? At the time of John Marlowe's arrival, Queen Mary I was on the throne and Catholics had a firm grip on the local power structure. Catholic families in the governing élite actively resisted Protestant rule until 1563, when fears of a Catholic invasion from France gave the reformers the upper hand. By the end of the decade, Catholics had seized the initiative once again and removed Protestant leaders from office. The pendulum swung back to the reformers' side after the notorious massacre of French Protestants on St Bartholomew's Day 1572, but there was no telling how long they would stay in power. The city remained in a state of tension throughout John Marlowe's thirties and forties. The immigrant's safest course during this undeclared civil war was to avoid long-term commitments and go along with whichever faction held power at the time. John Marlowe kept a prudent distance from the ideological struggles that set long-time residents in ruinous conflict with one another.
The father's wary detachment gives the first inkling of his son's ironic, uncommitted stance on questions of religious belief. Children discover their identities through exchanges with the world around them. Communities provide the mirror in which they learn to recognize themselves. This process of acculturation depends on the maintenance of customs, values and role models through which the child enters into the social fabric. Christopher Marlowe, the son of immigrants situated on the margins of their community, spent most of his life in a place where elementary structures of religious belief were constantly being discredited.
In adulthood, Christopher Marlowe conceived of religion as a site of conflict rather than an accessible realm of sacred truth. His plays depict the struggles between Muslim and Christian, Christian and Jew, Christian and Epicurean, and Protestant and Catholic. The protagonist of his tragedy King Edward II evokes the physical and mental landscape of Marlowe's childhood:
Proud Rome, that hatchest such imperial grooms,
With these thy superstitious taperlights,
Wherewith thy anti-Christian churches blaze,
I'll fire thy crazed buildings and enforce
Thy papal towers to kiss the lowly ground ...
This anti-Catholic tirade is out of character for King Edward II, who ruled England two centuries before the Reformation, but in character for the author, who grew up playing in monastic ruins and listening to the tirades of reforming iconoclasts. A version of the last two lines appears in Marlowe's Massacre at Paris as well. Was he remembering the Protestants' attempt to raze the gigantic tower at the west end of St Augustine's abbey church?
Marlowe drew on childhood memories in his Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta. The 'Two lofty turrets that command the town' (v.viii.11) of Malta recall the twin towers of St George's Gate in Canterbury. The Flying Dragon, a ship that sailed in and out of Dover during the 1560s, supplied the name of the vessel that arrives in Malta half-way through Marlowe's play. When Marlowe imagined the astounding collection of precious stones and metals that the Governor of Malta seizes from the Jew,
Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts,
Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds,
Beauteous rubies, sparkling diamonds ...
he would have remembered the twenty-six cartloads of jewellery that the King's men had hauled away from Becket's shrine. The transformation of the Jew's house into a nunnery recalls and reverses the conversion of St Sepulchre's nunnery at Canterbury into a private dwelling. The 'dark entry' through which the Jew smuggles a pot of poisoned broth into the newly expropriated religious house bears the name of the passage that led from the cathedral cloisters into the area occupied by the King's School, a site that had formerly housed a monastic order. These points of contact between the imaginary city of Malta and post-Reformation Canterbury indicate that Marlowe perceived a spiritual deficit in his place of origin. Ostensibly a bulwark of the Christian Church, Marlowe's Malta is rife with hypocrisy and greed.
* * *
John Marlowe's master died within weeks of Christopher's birth, during a severe outbreak of bubonic plague, when every lost man aggravated the labour shortage in the hard-hit parish of St George. This stroke of fortune probably enabled the apprentice to join the Shoemakers' Guild a few weeks later. On 20 April 1564, just four years after entering into his apprenticeship instead of the statutory seven, 'John Marlin of Canterbury shoemaker was admitted and sworn to the liberties of the city'. As a freeman, John gained the right to open his own shop, sell his wares and enrol apprentices. He could now 'speak and be heard' at town meetings. He was entitled to sue for debt in the Borough Court. When his two-month-old son Christopher grew up, he could join his father's guild upon the payment of a nominal fee. The sons-in-law of freemen also enjoyed automatic access to this small group of privileged tradesmen. John Marlowe's daughter had gained a dowry. The court-appointed executors of Gerard Richardson's estate entered a plea of trespass against the newly enfranchised citizen in May: did the former apprentice seize his old master's leather and tools? The suit was settled out of court. By 1565 John Marlowe had set up his own shop.
That summer the young shoemaker took a walk in the country with his neighbour Laurence Applegate. On their way to the village of Barham, Applegate offered to 'open a thing unto you if you will keep it secret', and Marlowe promised 'that so he would'. His companion revealed that 'I have had my pleasure of Goodwife Chapman's Daughter' Godelif ('dear to God') and went on to tell a bawdy story about his conquest. Although he made Marlowe promise not to tell anyone, Applegate repeated his secret 'diverse times ... and in sundry places': at his own house, at the Marlowes' house and at the Vernicle tavern in the presence of various neighbours. Applegate's dogged determination to milk the story for all it was worth came back to haunt him when Dear-to-God Chapman sued him for slander that winter. As Applegate's former confidants came forward to testify against him, the defendant's evasive replies prompted the exasperated judge to declare, 'Belike ye have done it indeed!'
As Christopher Marlowe would discover to his peril, considerations of honour and reputation played a crucial part in the making of early modern selves. A bad name was adequate grounds for suspecting, and even convicting, someone of a crime. In cases of slander the punishment fitted the crime: the Archdeacon's court sentenced the lecherous tailor to undergo the ritualized defamation of public penance.
John Marlowe had secured a narrow foothold at the lower end of the 'middling' classes – a category that encompassed everyone who ranked a notch below the gentry, the clergy and the members of the professions, and a cut above day labourers and tenant farmers. Within this middle stratum shoemakers came after yeoman farmers, the mercantile élite (mercers, vintners, grocers), expert craftsmen (goldsmiths, clothiers, saddlers) and skilled manufacturers (brewers, tailors, cordwainers), and before only the most menial craftsmen (tilers, thatchers, miners). Among the lowly artisans who were his peers, John stood out in one crucial respect: he knew how to read and write. After the clerk took Marlowe's deposition in the case of Chapman vs Applegate, the witness signed his name, 'jhan Marley', in a firm and legible hand; it is the first of thirteen documents that bear his signature.
His ability to read is noteworthy but not remarkable. John Marlowe came of age at the historic moment when vast sectors of people who had been excluded from the educational system – small craftsmen, women, servants and apprentices – were learning to read for the first time. In his watershed Injunctions of 1536, King Henry VIII ordered all parents and masters to teach their children and servants the Lord's Prayer, the Apostle's Creed and the Ten Commandments. He further instructed them to furnish these texts 'in writing, or show where printed books containing the same be to be sold, to them that can read or will desire the same'. King Henry believed that this novel practice would bring uniformity of belief to the Church of England. Protestant reformers expected the written word of God to supplant popish images and idolatry. The dissemination of cheap, mass-produced texts, made possible by the spread of printing, enabled the king and his ministers to implement these ideas on a very wide scale. John Marlowe learned to read during the first programme of mass literacy in England, at a time when the outcome of this remarkable experiment was anyone's guess.
Excerpted from The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs. Copyright © 2004 David Riggs. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Prologue: Reinventing Marlowe,
1. Citizen Marlowe,
2. Lessons Learned in Childhood,
3. Speaking like a Roman,
4. Scholars and Gentlemen,
5. Thinking like a Roman,
6. The Teacher of Desire,
7. Plots and Counter Plots,
8. Proceeding in the Arts,
9. In the Theatre of the Idols,
11. 'He is like Dr Faustus',
12. Double Agents,
13. The Counterfeiters,
14. Waiting for the End,
15. In the Theatre of God's Judgements,
By the same author,
About the Author,