Christopher Marlowe's Poems

Christopher Marlowe's Poems Marlowe's Mysterious Death

Entire books have been written solely on the subject of the death of the poet and dramatist in a Deptford (a village three miles distant from the Elizabethan confines of London) house on the May 30, 1593. In most books on Marlowe's life at least an entire chapter is devoted to the discussion of the events leading up to that day, and speculation on what happened afterward. It is a subject of the most intense interest to Marlowe scholars, for it not only ended the young life of the writer of Tamburlaine and "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," but also gave rise to a number of theories regarding Marlowe's non-literary activities and his influence on other playwrights -- and even perhaps the uncredited writing by Marlowe of others' plays.

In 1925 the author Leslie Hotson uncovered the first new evidence in centuries concerning the death of Christopher Marlowe. Dr. Hotson found, in the Public Record Office in London, the report on the inquest following Marlowe's murder (Hotson 31-4). While leaving a great many things unexplained, the document did at least give the bare details of what the coroner reported to the Privy Council. Four men, Ingram Friser, Nicholas Skeres, Robert Poley, and Marlowe had a meeting at the home of a widow named Mrs. Bull around ten o'clock in the morning that May day. In a room within her home, the four men met and talked. They were served dinner (the noonday meal,) and then walked in the garden talking quietly until 6 o'clock. After they had eaten, Marlowe and Friser began quarreling about the bill. Marlowe, the document states, was lying on a bed. The three other men were sitting on a bench with their backs to him, facing a table. The story goes that Marlowe took a knife from Friser and attacked him. Friser was unable to get up and away from Marlowe, because he was sitting in between Skeres and Poley on the bench, so he fought for the dagger and, taking it, stabbed Marlowe above the right eye with a fatal blow (Michell 235).

While on the surface this appears very straightforward, there are some significant problems and unanswered questions. Marlowe had been known to be violent in the past, so the brawl over a dinner bill doesn't seem particularly out of character. However, the bare facts in the coroners's report (and there is nothing currently known to corroborate it, so there is the possiblity that these "facts" are indeed inventions or errors) leave out some particularly important points which would explain a lot. Why, for example, were these four men meeting together in a house-for-hire away from London? Skeres, Friser, and Poley were to varying degrees involved in secret and perhaps shady spying for the government. Was this meeting about espionage business? Friser was soon pardoned, on self-defense, but no evidence of follow-up investigation has been found. The three men present that day -- Skeres, Friser, and Poley -- are the only witnesses, and they may well have been in league against Marlowe for a variety of reasons. It appears that the coroner and the Privy Council took them at their word.

Another source of suspicion is that this event took place only twelve days after Marlowe had been summoned to appear before the Court of the Star Chamber in London on charges of blasphemy and atheism (Hopkins 135). Marlowe came to court, was indicted on these charges, and then released on bail (Michell 234). The connection between Marlowe's court appearance and his death, since the events are so close in time, has been speculated on by many Marlowe scholars. There is no conclusive evidence, but it is entirely within the realm of possibility that Marlowe's death was no drunken brawl, but rather an execution or assasination because of Marlowe's espionage activities, a religious quarrel, or the Secret Service's suspicion of Marlowe of treason. Entire books have been written on these subjects, and unless new evidence is uncovered, nothing can be stated categorically about Marlowe's death except that it is mysterious indeed.

Certain theorists believe that Marlowe's death was either faked, that Marlowe survived the attack and went into hiding, or that the infamous meeting in Deptford never occurred. If it was, indeed, an official coverup in order to establish Marlowe's death and get him out of the country (for it is not known where Marlowe was buried, and no family members were called to identify the body, Michell 236) it must have been an order from a fairly high official, for it would have required the collusion of several people and the filing of a blatantly false document to the Privy Council. This kind of official coverup, however, is not outside of the realm of possibility; such things occurred in Marlowe's day.

The known facts and documentation of Marlowe's death are obscure and doubtful enough to encourage several different ideas about how the poet and playwright died. These mysteries have added to the romantic and fascinating image of the poet, and has encouraged more scholarship on Marlowe than perhaps there would have been had he died in a more prosaic fashion. Unless another discovery, such has Hotson's, sheds more light on the subject, it seems likely that the competing theories will continue to be debated.