Christopher Marlowe – Gay, Atheist, and a secret spy?

Christopher Marlowe – Gay, Atheist, and a secret spy?

(An anonymous portrait in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, believed to show Christopher Marlowe)

424 years ago a man by the name Christopher Marlowe was killed, in what many believe was a brawl over a bar tab, in Deptford London. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe was an English playwright, poet, and translator during the Elizabethan era.

You may not recognise his name but Marlowe’s first play Tamburlaine the Great was one of the first English plays to use blank verse –  a verse without rhyme.

Life and death

On Feb. 26th, Marlowe was baptized in Canterbury, Kent, England.

He attended the King’s School, also located in Canterbury, as a scholar. One year later he went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, obtaining his bachelor of arts degree in 1584.

In 1587, however, the university hesitated about granting him his master’s degree. Their doubts arose due to Marlowe’s frequent absence from the university. Fortunately, the situation was resolved after the Crown or namely the Privy Council sent a letter declaring that he had been employed “on matters touching the benefit of his country” in Elizabeth I’s secret service. There are theories concerning Marlowe being a secret spy. Marlowe’s service in England was never stated by the council, but the letter sent to Cambridge provoked speculations, notably the theory that Marlowe had become a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence service. No direct evidence supports this theory, but the council’s letter clearly suggests that Marlowe was serving the government in some secret capacity.

He left Cambridge in 1587 to continue his life as a playwright in London, where he then wrote and published the two parts of Tamburlaine that same year.

Despite his literary success, Marlowe was quite the reckless person compared to other playwrights in his time like Shakespeare. For instance, in 1589 there was a street fight in which Marlowe was arrested. He was arrested again in May 1593 on charges of heresy arising from evidence given by Thomas Kyd.

According to the research by Leslie Hotson, four men, including Marlowe, met in the house of Eleanor Bull, a widow, in Deptford on May 30th. They spent their afternoon there and after supper, a disagreement arose concerning the bill. Marlowe is said to have suddenly attacked one of them, a man by the name Ingram Friezer, who during the brawl killed Marlowe in self-defence. Friezer was immediately pardoned and Marlowe was subsequently buried in the same area. Rumour has it that Marlowe’s death was an assassination ordered by the queen. Another theory is that he faked his death and continued his life in the name of William Shakespeare

The Marlovian Theory

Many believe that Marlowe faked his death and continued his life in the name of William Shakespeare. Marlovians- supporters of the view that Christopher Marlowe wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare -base their argument on anomalies surrounding Marlowe’s reported death and the influence his writing had on the works of Shakespeare. They also point out the coincidence that, despite the fact that they were born two months apart, the first time the name William Shakespeare was ever known to have been connected to any literary work was when Venus and Adonis was published just a week or two after the apparent death of Marlowe.

One argument against this is that Marlowe’s death was declared as genuine by sixteen jurors at an inquest held by the Queen’s personal coroner. Allegedly, everyone thought that he was dead at the time, and there is a complete lack of direct evidence supporting his survival beyond 1593.


Atheism and Homosexuality

After Marlowe’s death, Richard Baines quoted him, saying ”All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools,”. In 1593 Christopher Marlowe was to be arrested for treason and perhaps charged with sodomy. The possible fact that Marlowe was homosexual is not something we will ever know, but many do believe that he was and due to this he has become somewhat of a gay icon to the theatre community.

Marlowe’s famous and supposedly final play titled Doctor Faustus describes a scholar who feels he has exhausted all the conventional areas of human learning and attempts to gain the ultimate knowledge and power by selling his soul to the Devil. This is what many people base the theory of his atheism on. Then, we have the famous quote from The Jew of Malta,

“I count religion, but a childish toy,

And hold there is no sin but ignorance.”

So, was Marlowe an atheist? Probably. During The Elizabethan era, being an atheist did not necessarily mean you didn’t believe in God, but rather that you rejected the churches’ and orthodox beliefs. So yes, back then, Marlowe could have been classified as an atheist. 

Marlowe and Shakespeare

Marlowe has been credited as co-writer on the title pages of all three parts of Henry VI and is regarded as the lead writer of the first part. He is only second to Shakespeare in the realm of Elizabethan tragic drama. Marlowe’s own life was sadly put to an end at a young age after only having produced six works. This leaves us with the question of what would have happened, had he not been killed that night. Perhaps, we would have another icon within the realm of theatre, possibly even more famous than Shakespeare himself.


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