May 26, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 21
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Sunday, Jul 12, 2020



Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Christopher Marlowe?
Although extremely popular in his day, Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe is now much less renowned than William Shakespeare. But some consider Marlowe to be greater than the bard, and his frequent Queer themes may have reflected his own life.

The son of a shoemaker, Marlowe was born in 1563 in Canterbury, England. Since little is known about his brief life beyond what is preserved in school and court records, he remains the subject of considerable debate. Benefiting from scholarships, Marlowe attended King's School in Canterbury and then - at about age 16 - Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Several literary historians believe he served as a spy during his time at Cambridge, helping foil Catholic plots against the Protestant regime of Queen Elizabeth I. He was absent so often that the college refused to grant his second degree until high-level government and church officials produced a letter attesting to his good service to Her Majesty.

In 1587, Kit - as Marlowe was called - went to London, where he embarked on a career as a poet and playwright (and may have remained in the secret service). His play, Tamburlaine the Great - the first ever written in blank verse - was a resounding success, and he soon garnered acclaim as the city's leading dramatist. Marlowe followed this initial success with Doctor Faustus - about a scholar who trades his soul to the devil for knowledge and power - and The Jew of Malta.

A member of Sir Walter Raleigh's circle of intellectuals and freethinkers, Marlowe gained a reputation as an iconoclast and an atheist. He smoked the new drug tobacco, which he referred too as "buggery of the lungs." Although he had a history of trouble with the law - from disturbing the peace to counterfeiting - he managed to avoid serious punishment.

Marlowe is widely believed to have been a sodomite; the concept of a distinct "Gay" identity was far in the future. Though there is little remaining evidence of any same-sex relationships he might have had, there is also no indication that he ever married or had romantic relationships with women.

A number of Marlowe's works include homoerotic themes. In his early play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, the god Jove is depicted "dandling Ganimed [his young male lover] upon his knee." The epic poem Hero and Leander (unfinished at the time of his death) includes lyrical descriptions of Leander's youthful male beauty, as well as his attempted seduction by the sea god Neptune: as "[t]he lustie god imbrast him, cald him love," the clueless Leander protested, "You are deceav'd, I am no woman I." In Marlowe's most famous poem - which begins with the line "Come live with me, and be my love" - a passionate shepherd addresses a lover of unspecified gender. And according to literary historian Claude Summers, "It is difficult to overstate the significance of Edward II in the history of literary depictions of homosexuality." This play centers on King Edward's love for his friend Gaveston and his overthrow by his jealous queen and her allies; in the end, he is killed with a "red hote" poker in his anus.

In May 1593, Marlowe was arrested for heresy and inciting civil unrest after he was blamed for posting an antireligious poem signed "Tamburlaine." His one-time roommate, Thomas Kyd - who was also arrested and likely tortured - told authorities that Marlowe had produced heretical writings. In addition, a Star Chamber informer named Richard Baines reported that Marlowe had made blasphemous statements, including the assertion that Jesus and John the Baptist were lovers. Beyond being an atheist himself, Marlowe was accused of persuading others to reject religion, admonishing them not to be "affeared of bugbears and hobgoblins." He was also suspected of moral turpitude; according to Baines, Marlowe averred that "all they that love not Tobacco and Boies were fooles."

Before he could be tried in court - with the ultimate penalty being death - Marlowe was killed in an altercation at a lodging house outside London on May 30. The most widely accepted story holds that Marlowe, in a dispute over the bill, attacked one of his drinking companions, who in self-defense turned the knife on Marlowe, fatally stabbing him above the right eye. Other biographers dispute this account, suggesting that Marlowe was assassinated by government agents - or perhaps Raleigh's associates - to prevent him from revealing secrets under torture. Still others believe he was rescued from his impending execution by means of a staged death and cover-up.

Marlowe's work has often been compared to that of Shakespeare, who appeared on the literary scene shortly after Marlowe's supposed death. But some biographers have suggested that Marlowe himself, after escaping from England, was the actual author of at least some of the works attributed to Shakespeare; the sonnets, in particular, it is claimed, closely match both Marlowe's writing style and his life story. Four hundred years later, the mystery remains, as illustrated by a memorial window dedicated to Marlowe in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey, which includes a question mark after the year of his death.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at

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