As with other writers of the period, little is known about Marlowe. What evidence there is can be found in legal records and other official documents. This has not stopped writers of both fiction and non-fiction from speculating about his activities and character. Marlowe has often been described as a spy, a brawler, and a heretic, as well as a "magician", "duellist", "tobacco-user", "counterfeiter", and "rakehell". J. A. Downie and Constance Kuriyama have argued against the more lurid speculation, but J. B. Steane remarked, "it seems absurd to dismiss all of these Elizabethan rumours and accusations as 'the Marlowe myth'".
Marlowe is alleged to have been a government spy (Park Honan's 2005 biography even had "Spy" in its title). The author Charles Nicholl speculates this was the case and suggests that Marlowe's recruitment took place when he was at Cambridge. As noted above, in 1587 the Privy Council ordered the University of Cambridge to award Marlowe his degree of Master of Arts, denying rumours that he intended to go to the English Catholic college in Rheims, saying instead that he had been engaged in unspecified "affaires" on "matters touching the benefit of his country". Surviving college records from the period also indicate that Marlowe had had a series of unusually lengthy absences from the university – much longer than permitted by university regulations – that began in the academic year 1584–1585. Surviving college buttery (provisions store) accounts indicate he began spending lavishly on food and drink during the periods he was in attendance – more than he could have afforded on his known scholarship income.[nb 1]
It has sometimes been theorised that Marlowe was the "Morley" who was tutor to Arbella Stuart in 1589. This possibility was first raised in a TLS letter by E. St John Brooks in 1937; in a letter to Notes and Queries, John Baker has added that only Marlowe could be Arbella's tutor due to the absence of any other known "Morley" from the period with an MA and not otherwise occupied. If Marlowe was Arbella's tutor (and some biographers think that the "Morley" in question may have been a brother of the musician Thomas Morley), it might indicate that he was there as a spy, since Arbella, niece of Mary, Queen of Scots, and cousin of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, was at the time a strong candidate for the succession to Elizabeth's throne. Frederick S. Boas dismisses the possibility of this identification, based on surviving legal records which document his "residence in London between September and December 1589". Marlowe had been party to a fatal quarrel involving his neighbours and the poet Thomas Watson in Norton Folgate and was held in Newgate Prison for a fortnight. In fact, the quarrel and his arrest was on 18 September, he was released on bail on 1 October, and he had to attend court – where he was cleared of any wrongdoing – on 3 December, but there is no record of where he was for the intervening two months.
In 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the town of Flushing (Vlissingen) (then an English garrison town) in the Netherlands for his alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, presumably related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was sent to be dealt with by the Lord Treasurer (Burghley) but no charge or imprisonment resulted. This arrest may have disrupted another of Marlowe's spying missions, perhaps by giving the resulting coinage to the Catholic cause. He was to infiltrate the followers of the active Catholic plotter William Stanley and report back to Burghley.
Arrest and death
In early May 1593 several bills were posted about London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands who had settled in the city. One of these, the "Dutch church libel", written in rhymed iambic pentameter, contained allusions to several of Marlowe's plays and was signed, "Tamburlaine". On 11 May the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels. The next day, Marlowe's colleague Thomas Kyd was arrested. Kyd's lodgings were searched and a 3-page fragment of a heretical tract was found. In a letter to Sir John Puckering, Kyd asserted that it had belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had been writing "in one chamber" some two years earlier. In a second letter, Kyd described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate, and ‘intemperate & of a cruel hart'. At that time they had both been working for an aristocratic patron, probably Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. A warrant for Marlowe's arrest was issued on 18 May, when the Privy Council apparently knew that he might be found staying with Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's principal secretary in the 1580s and a man more deeply involved in state espionage than any other member of the Privy Council. Marlowe duly presented himself on 20 May but, there apparently being no Privy Council meeting on that day, was instructed to "give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary". On Wednesday, 30 May, Marlowe was killed.
Various accounts of Marlowe's death were current over the next few years. In his Palladis Tamia, published in 1598, Francis Meres says Marlowe was "stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love" as punishment for his "epicurism and atheism." In 1917, in the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Sidney Lee wrote that Marlowe was killed in a drunken fight, and this is still often stated as fact today.
The official account came to light only in 1925 when the scholar Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner's report of the inquest on Marlowe's death, held two days later on Friday 1 June 1593, by the Coroner of the Queen's Household, William Danby. Marlowe had spent all day in a house in Deptford, owned by the widow Eleanor Bull, and together with three men: Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. All three had been employed by one or other of the Walsinghams. Skeres and Poley had helped snare the conspirators in the Babington plot and Frizer would later describe Thomas Walsingham as his "master" at that time although his role was probably more that of a financial or business agent as he was for Walsingham's wife Audrey a few years later. These witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had argued over payment of the bill (now famously known as the 'Reckoning') exchanging "divers malicious words" while Frizer was sitting at a table between the other two and Marlowe was lying behind him on a couch. Marlowe snatched Frizer's dagger and wounded him on the head. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner's report, Marlowe was stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly. The jury concluded that Frizer acted in self-defence, and within a month he was pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Deptford immediately after the inquest, on 1 June 1593.
The complete text of the inquest report was published by Leslie Hotson in his book, The Death of Christopher Marlowe, in the introduction to which Prof. G. L. Kittredge said "The mystery of Marlowe's death, heretofore involved in a cloud of contradictory gossip and irresponsible guess-work, is now cleared up for good and all on the authority of public records of complete authenticity and gratifying fullness", but this confidence proved fairly short-lived.
Hotson himself had considered the possibility that the witnesses had "concocted a lying account of Marlowe's behaviour, to which they swore at the inquest, and with which they deceived the jury" but came down against that scenario. Others, however, began to suspect that this was indeed the case. Writing to the Times Literary Supplement shortly after the book's publication, Eugénie de Kalb disputed that the struggle and outcome as described were even possible, and Samuel A. Tannenbaum (a graduate of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons) insisted the following year that such a wound could not have possibly resulted in instant death, as had been claimed. Even Marlowe's biographer John Bakeless acknowledged that "some scholars have been inclined to question the truthfulness of the coroner's report. There is something queer about the whole episode" and said that Hotson's discovery "raises almost as many questions as it answers." It has also been discovered more recently that the apparent absence of a local county coroner to accompany the Coroner of the Queen's Household would, if noticed, have made the inquest null and void.
One of the main reasons for doubting the truth of the inquest concerns the reliability of Marlowe's companions as witnesses. As an agent provocateur for the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Robert Poley was a consummate liar, the "very genius of the Elizabethan underworld", and is even on record as saying "I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm." The other witness, Nicholas Skeres, had for many years acted as a confidence trickster, drawing young men into the clutches of people in the money-lending racket, including Marlowe's apparent killer, Ingram Frizer, with whom he was currently engaged in just such a swindle. In other words, despite their being referred to as "generosi" (gentlemen) in the inquest report, they were all professional liars.
Some biographers, such as Kuriyama and Downie, nevertheless take the inquest to be a true account of what occurred, but in trying to explain what really happened if the account was not true, others have come up with a variety of murder theories.
- Jealous of her husband Thomas's relationship with Marlowe, Audrey Walsingham arranged for the playwright to be murdered.
- Sir Walter Raleigh arranged the murder, fearing that under torture Marlowe might incriminate him.
- With Skeres the main player, the murder resulted from attempts by the Earl of Essex to use Marlowe to incriminate Sir Walter Raleigh.
- He was killed on the orders of father and son Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil, who thought that his plays contained Catholic propaganda.
- He was accidentally killed while Frizer and Skeres were pressuring him to pay back money he owed them.
- Marlowe was murdered at the behest of several members of the Privy Council who feared that he might reveal them to be atheists.
- The Queen herself ordered his assassination because of his subversively atheistic behaviour.
- Frizer murdered him because he envied Marlowe's close relationship with his master Thomas Walsingham and feared the effect that Marlowe's behaviour might have on Walsingham's reputation.
- Marlowe's death was faked to save him from trial and execution for subversive atheism.
Since there are only written documents on which to base any conclusions, and since it is probable that the most crucial information about his death was never committed to writing at all, it is unlikely that the full circumstances of Marlowe's death will ever be known.
During his lifetime, Marlowe was reputed to be an atheist which, at that time, held the dangerous implication of being an enemy of God and, by association, the state. With the rise of public fears concerning The School of Night, or "School of Atheism" in the late 16th century, accusations of atheism were closely associated with disloyalty to the Protestant monarchy of England.
Some modern historians consider that Marlowe's professed atheism, as with his supposed Catholicism, may have been no more than an elaborate and sustained pretence adopted to further his work as a government spy. Contemporary evidence comes from Marlowe's accuser in Flushing, an informer called Richard Baines. The governor of Flushing had reported that each of the men had "of malice" accused the other of instigating the counterfeiting, and of intending to go over to the Catholic "enemy"; such an action was considered atheistic by the Church of England. Following Marlowe's arrest in 1593, Baines submitted to the authorities a "note containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God's word." Baines attributes to Marlowe a total of eighteen items which "scoff at the pretensions of the Old and New Testament" such as, "Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest [unchaste]", "the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly", and, "St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom" (cf. John 13:23–25), and, "that he used him as the sinners of Sodom". He also implies that Marlowe had Catholic sympathies. Other passages are merely sceptical in tone: "he persuades men to atheism, willing them not to be afraid of bugbears and hobgoblins". The final paragraph of Baines's document reads:
These thinges, with many other shall by good & honest witnes be approved to be his opinions and Comon Speeches, and that this Marlowe doth not only hould them himself, but almost into every Company he Cometh he persuades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both god and his ministers as I Richard Baines will Justify & approue both by mine oth and the testimony of many honest men, and almost al men with whome he hath Conversed any time will testify the same, and as I think all men in Cristianity ought to indevor that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped, he saith likewise that he hath quoted a number of Contrarieties oute of the Scripture which he hath giuen to some great men who in Convenient time shalbe named. When these thinges shalbe Called in question the witnes shalbe produced.
Similar examples of Marlowe's statements were given by Thomas Kyd after his imprisonment and possible torture (see above); both Kyd and Baines connect Marlowe with the mathematician Thomas Harriot and Sir Walter Raleigh's circle. Another document claimed at around the same time that "one Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons for Atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity, and that ... he hath read the Atheist lecture to Sir Walter Raleigh and others."
Some critics believe that Marlowe sought to disseminate these views in his work and that he identified with his rebellious and iconoclastic protagonists. However, plays had to be approved by the Master of the Revels before they could be performed, and the censorship of publications was under the control of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Presumably these authorities did not consider any of Marlowe's works to be unacceptable other than the Amores.
Marlowe is frequently claimed to have been homosexual. Others argue that the question of whether an Elizabethan was gay or homosexual in a modern sense is anachronistic. For the Elizabethans, what is often today termed homosexual or bisexual was more likely to be recognised as a sexual act, rather than an exclusive sexual orientation and identity. Some scholars argue that the evidence is inconclusive and that the reports of Marlowe's homosexuality may simply be exaggerated rumours produced after his death. Richard Baines reported Marlowe as saying: "all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fools". David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen describe Baines's evidence as "unreliable testimony" and make the comment: "These and other testimonials need to be discounted for their exaggeration and for their having been produced under legal circumstances we would regard as a witch-hunt". One critic, J.B. Steane, remarked that he considers there to be "no evidence for Marlowe's homosexuality at all." Other scholars, however, point to homosexual themes in Marlowe's writing: in Hero and Leander, Marlowe writes of the male youth Leander, "in his looks were all that men desire" and that when the youth swims to visit Hero at Sestos, the sea god Neptune becomes sexually excited, "[i]magining that Ganymede, displeas'd, [h]ad left the Heavens ... [t]he lusty god embrac'd him, call'd him love ... He watched his arms and, as they opened wide [a]t every stroke, betwixt them would he slide [a]nd steal a kiss, ... And dive into the water, and there pry [u]pon his breast, his thighs, and every limb, ... [a]nd talk of love", while the boy, naive and unaware of Greek love practices, protests, "'You are deceiv'd, I am no woman, I.' Thereat smil'd Neptune." Edward the Second contains the following passage supporting homosexual relationships:
The mightiest kings have had their minions; Great Alexander loved Hephaestion, The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept; And for Patroclus, stern Achilles drooped. And not kings only, but the wisest men: The Roman Tully loved Octavius, Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.
Marlowe wrote the only play about the life of Edward II up to his time, taking the humanist literary discussion of male sexuality much further than his contemporaries. The play was extremely bold, dealing with a star-crossed love story between Edward II and Piers Gaveston. Though it was common practice at the time to reveal characters as gay to give audiences reason to suspect them as culprits of a given crime, Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is portrayed as a sympathetic character.