The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0005 Sunday, 2 January 2005
Date: Saturday, 1 Jan 2005 10:41:56 -0500
Subject: 'The World of Christopher Marlowe': A Brawler and a Spy
'The World of Christopher Marlowe': A Brawler and a Spy
January 2, 2005
By JOHN SIMON
Pity the famous man born the same year as a more famous one: case in
point Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) and William Shakespeare. At their
simultaneous centenaries, Marlowe was shamefully shortchanged. It would
be no less a shame if a recent popular biography of Shakespeare eclipsed
David Riggs's worthy "World of Christopher Marlowe." Kit and Will are a
pair of equal deservers.
With praiseworthy modesty, Riggs calls his book "The World," not "The
Life" of his elusive subject. Elizabethan poets (the word "playwright"
was not yet invented) leave far fewer traces than biographers might wish
for. This holds for Shakespeare as much as for Marlowe, though Marlowe
benefited from being a brawler and a spy: there is nothing like getting
in trouble for getting you into the record books.
Christopher's father, a shoemaker in Canterbury, was the rare poor
tradesman who was both literate and litigious. In his son, literacy was
transmuted into literariness, litigiousness into falling afoul of the
law. These were hard times, when hanging, beheading, even burning at the
stake were often deemed insufficient punishment: the hanged man might be
disemboweled while still alive; London Bridge was decorated with the
heads of presumed traitors; and no one was safe, the male favorites of
the Virgin Queen no more than the wives of her much-married father. The
boy Christopher could watch from his window as prisoners were carted off
to the gallows. At 8, he may well have been aware of the St.
Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants across the Channel: several of
his future plays contain massacres.
Between 1547 and 1558, the English state religion changed three times,
making Catholics and Protestants equal-opportunity victims. As for
anyone suspected of atheism, the sin of sins, he would soon be racked
with more than doubt, what with screws literally put on. From the
tortured, confessions could be readily extorted, but were they true?
When fellow playwright Thomas Kyd was hauled in for questioning about an
allegedly antireligious book found in the lodgings he shared with Kit
Marlowe-his roommate, bedmate and quite possibly sex-mate-Kyd ratted on
Kit to save his own neck. Was Marlowe an atheist and a homosexual? The
circumstantial evidence is compelling, but proof is lacking.
[ . . . ]
John Simon is the theater critic of New York magazine and the music
critic of The New Leader. Three volumes of his collected theater, film
and music criticism will be published in May.
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