Queen Elizabeth herself was said to have pronounced Christopher Marlowe's death sentence ("prosecute it to the full") at court. A few days later, Marlowe died from a puncture wound above the eye in the nearby home of a genteel widow. The Queen's Coroner attributed the killing to a quarrel over "the reckoning," a bill for food and drink, but many have long suspected that the murderer had ulterior motives. Was Marlowe dispatched in an act of sovereign power or in a tavern brawl? Was he guilty -- and if so, of what? -- or innocent?So many questions, so few answers. Or rather, so little unambiguous evidence.
In February 1593, a protest by Puritans and Separatists against the Archbishop of Canterbury's crackdown on dissent led the government to take a hard-line approach, invoking a statute against seditious speech that "collapsed the old ecclesiastical crimes of heresy and blasphemy into the secular offence of treason." It "soon turned into the first all-out heresy hunt since the reign of Elizabeth's sister Mary -- and the last in English history."
In April, mob violence directed against Protestant immigrants from Holland and Spain broke out, and in May a propagandist who called himself "Tamberlaine" began stirring up animosity against the immigrants with posted verses that not only invoked Marlowe's Tamburlaine but also alluded to The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris, both of which had been performed by Strange's Men in January. There was no evidence that Marlowe was "Tamberlaine," but he inevitably came under suspicion.
Thomas Kyd, Marlowe's former roommate, was arrested, and among his papers was found what the Royal Commissioners "called 'vile heretical Conceits denying the deity of Jesus Christ.'" Under torture, Kyd said that Marlowe had given him the document. The Privy Council decided to investigate further and commissioned an informant, a loan shark named Thomas Drury, to get more dirt on Marlowe. Drury had been imprisoned after his partner, Richard Cholmeley, turned on him. Cholmeley and his brother Hugh had been employed by Sir Robert Cecil to spy on well-to-do Catholics. Drury reported that Cholmeley had identified Marlowe as a preacher of atheism, and that one of those who had listened to Marlowe was Sir Walter Raleigh. "Richard Cholmeley was the real-life counterpart of Jack Cade, the plebeian rabble-rouser in Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI ... a loose cannon fired by underclass delusions of grandeur."
Marlowe had been shielded by Lord Burghley from conviction of high treason in the counterfeiting case, which suggests that Marlowe was working as an agent of Burghley's and had possibly been spying on Cholmeley and his gang. But as always, there was also the possibility that Marlowe was "prepared to 'go to the enemy' in earnest." Drury's account of Marlowe's blasphemies, along with Kyd's testimony about his atheism, would be echoed in Richard Baines's testimony. On May 18, Henry Maunder, a messenger of the Queen's Chamber, was ordered to arrest Marlowe and bring him before the court. Marlowe posted bail on May 20. Around the 27th, Drury delivered to the Privy Council Baines's note listing seventeen items of atheistic speech attributed to Marlowe.
The penalty for attempting to persuade others not to attend church was banishment, and Baines asserted that Marlowe talked about going to Spain or Rome. But it's possible that Marlowe was more interested in Scotland and the court of James VI, where his friend Matthew Royden had found a position in the household of the Earl of Haddington. The penalty for sedition was harsher: the lopping off of both ears and a fine of 200 pounds. But a trial of Marlowe, who could testify in his own defense, would have caused a sensation. "With her exquisite sense of occasion, Queen Elizabeth gave the order to 'prosecute it to the full' just when Marlowe was ready to enter history as the overreacher, a wholesome caution for aspiring minds."
On May 30, Marlowe was joined at the Deptford home of Eleanor Bull by Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skerres and Robert Poley. Frizer and Skerres were employed by Thomas Walsingham and Poley by Burghley, who was also acquainted with Eleanor Bull. "Poley was a veteran secret service agent who dealt with threats to Queen Elizabeth's security." According to the coroner's report, Frizer and Marlowe got into an argument over who should pay the bill for this private party. (It's unclear whether Eleanor Bull ran a tavern or a public house, or if the party had been catered in her home.) "At the climax of the quarrel, Frizer plunged his dagger into Marlowe's face, just above the right eye. The blade entered Marlowe's brain, killing him instantly. Frizer pleaded self-defence."
Some details provided at the coroner's inquest lay suspicion on the self-defense plea, though the jury found in Frizer's favor, and he was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth "just two weeks later, a remarkably brief interval for a capital offence." It seems that "Queen Elizabeth paid Marlowe the fatal compliment of taking him seriously, as a political agent to be reckoned with."
In June 1599, the Bishop of London burned Marlowe's translations of Ovid. And about the same time, Shakespeare had Marlowe in mind, when he makes reference to him in As You Like It. One is the couplet "Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might / 'Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight?'" The other seems to be a reference to Marlowe's death, when Touchstone mentions the exile of Ovid "among the Goths" and observes:
When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.This is both an allusion to the line "Infinite riches in a little room" from The Jew of Malta and a reference to the fatal "reckoning" at Eleanor Bull's. "Of all the contemporary observers who wrote about the killing, Shakespeare alone refers to the coroner's inquest" six years after it took place.
Such was the lesson of Marlowe's meteoric career. Teachers of desire play a dangerous game; when they cross the line that separates art from politics, they are in for a reckoning.