Monday, 30 May 2011

On This Day ... The Death of Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe
On this day, May 30th, in 1593, the acclaimed Elizabethan playwright, poet and author, Christopher Marlowe, died in mysterious circumstances at the age of 29.

A contemporary of William Shakespeare (he was about 2 months older than the Bard), Marlowe was a prolific writer in the years leading up to his premature death. He published 5 plays, including The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus, as well as numerous translations including a version of Ovid's Elegies.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with controversial historical figures, he has been remembered more for the puzzling aspects of his life and the unexplained circumstances of his death, than for his outstanding literary talent.

Despite lack of any definitive proof, it has often been alleged that Marlowe worked as a spy for Elizabeth I's government.  This theory has grown out of some speculation that he was close to Thomas Walsingham, first cousin of Sir Francis Walsingham, who was a member of Elizabeth's Privy Council and who had many links to espionage networks across Europe.  Whether or not Marlowe was recruited as a spy will perhaps always remain a mystery, as will the circumstances surrounding his death, which have spawned innumerable conspiracy theories ...

On May 18th 1593, a warrant was issued by the Privy Council for Marlowe's arrest.  He was accused of having written some material that was deemed 'heretical' by the government of the day.  Upon hearing of the warrant, Marlowe duly presented himself to the Privy Council on May 20th, only to be told that the Council was not sitting on that day.  He was instructed to make daily reports of his whereabouts to the authorities until his case was heard, an obligation he fulfilled faithfully.  Until May 30th, that is, when he got involved in a bar fight over an unpaid bill, during which he was faithfully stabbed.

William Shakespeare
Perhaps the most pervasive conspiracy theory to have sprung up after Marlowe's death was with regard to the Shakespearean authorship controversy.  The has been much debate surrounding the issue of who actually wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare, with many believing the the man from Stratford had neither the education nor the social standing to produce writings that displayed such an indepth knowledge of the workings of courts across Europe.  Proponents of the Marlovian Theory argue that Christopher Marlowe faked his own death in 1593 to escape the charges of heresy, and then went one to write under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare.  This theory is, for the most part, discounted by scholars ... but it does raise an interesting question: If Marlowe had not met with a premature death on that day in 1593, would he have gone on to produce works to rival those of William Shakespeare?  If he had lived, would he have had as profound effect on the development of the English language as his contemporary?

The mind boggles at the possibilities ...

Marlowe's signature

For more about the Shakespearean authorship controversy, read:

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