Posthumous Gentleman

Michael Dobson

  • The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs
    Faber, 411 pp, £25.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 571 22159 9
  • Christopher Marlowe and Richard Baines: Journeys through the Elizabethan Underground by Roy Kendall
    Fairleigh Dickinson, 453 pp, US $75.00, January 2004, ISBN 0 8386 3974 7
  • Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
    Canongate, 149 pp, £9.99, July 2004, ISBN 1 84195 532 9
  • History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe by Rodney Bolt
    HarperCollins, 388 pp, £17.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 00 712123 7

They were both eight-year-old grammar-school boys when news began to reach England of the bloody events of St Bartholomew’s Day, 1572 (news which bolstered moves towards Protestant reform in each of their provincial towns), and they remained sufficiently interested in French politics to write in a surprisingly well-informed fashion about the subject twenty years later. The dispute between Henri of Navarre and his estranged Catholic wife, Marguerite de Valois, over control of Aquitaine; the wider dynastic and religious feuding among the Valois and the Bourbons that culminated in the assassinations of the Duc de Guise and Henri III; the Earl of Essex’s subsequent mission to reinforce Henri of Navarre and his associates the Maréchal de Biron and the Duc de Longueville: both writers would refract this material into some of the most distinctive drama of the age. In the early 1590s each produced a play about recent French affairs that suggestively combines politics with reflections on the place of education in public life.

In one play the King of Navarre is whimsically transformed into a bachelor and rechristened Ferdinand; he retreats from court not for fear of Spanish-funded Catholic plots but to lead a quartet of abstemious students. He experiences a crisis of conscience at breaking an oath, which wouldn’t surprise anyone aware of the real Navarre’s history, but instead of agonising about renouncing Protestantism on the grounds that Paris is worth a Mass, he is merely fretting about a scholarly vow not to speak to women for three years, broken after a French princess and her ladies arrive at his ‘little academe’ to discuss the problem of Aquitaine. The play further diminishes geopolitical terrors into the person of a harmless, affected Spanish braggart called Don Armado, and its pastoral idyll is ended after five playful acts only by the news of a single offstage death, apparently from natural causes. Such action as there is features a pedant called Holofernes; but instead of the decapitation his name appears to promise, he suffers nothing more traumatic than having his amateur pageant jeered by its aristocratic audience. The play is characterised not by courtly intrigue but by courtly love:

DUMAINE: ‘Do not call it sin in me
That I am forsworn for thee,
Thou for whom great Jove would swear
Juno but an Ethiop were,
And deny himself for Jove
Turning mortal for thy love.’
This will I send, and something else more plain
That shall express my true love’s fasting pain.
O, would the King, Biron, and Longueville
Were lovers too!

This play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is characteristically oblique to the point of evasiveness in handling what remains just recognisable as highly topical material. It is the first of Shakespeare’s comedies to embrace the lyricism that would become one of his hallmarks: from here it is a short step to the triple breakthrough of 1595, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. The combination of a learned and allusive style with the indulgent mockery of a schoolmaster who enjoys the friendly patronage of a king proclaim a writer at ease with his own educational capital and the position it may earn him. As it turned out, Love’s Labour’s Lost was a landmark in Shakespeare’s accession to prosperity and prestige. It appears to have been the first of his plays to be acted before Queen Elizabeth, and it was later revived for James after Shakespeare’s company had been adopted as the King’s Men. It has usually been read as an ostentatiously effortless display of how a degree-less provincial could match university-educated courtly playwrights such as John Lyly at their own game.

The other writer, however, dealt with French current affairs and the social position of education in a different manner:

GUISE: My Lord of Anjou, there are a hundred Protestants
Which we have chased into the river Seine
That swim about and so preserve their lives:
How may we do? I fear me they will live.

DUMAINE: Go place some men upon the bridge
With bows and darts to shoot at them they see,
And sink them in the river as they swim.

GUISE: ‘Tis well advised, Dumaine; go see it straight be done. [Exit DUMAINE]
And in the meantime, my lord, could we devise
To get those pedants from the King Navarre
That are tutors to him and the Prince of Condé –

ANJOU: For that, let me alone; cousin, stay you here,
And when you see me in, then follow hard.
[ANJOU knocketh; and enter the king of navarre and the prince of condé, with their two schoolmasters]
How now, my lords, how fare you?

NAVARRE: My lord, they say
That all the Protestants are massacred!

This is Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, a play free of amateur pageants but featuring 19 onstage killings, most of them stabbings (one of an admiral whom we have already seen being shot, and another, a regicide, using an envenomed dagger). There is also the poisoning of a queen mother with a pair of noxious gloves and the strangling of a cardinal; and we are shown the amputation of a cutpurse’s ear. Three of the onstage deaths are of teachers, and, as befits a work by someone who won a scholarship to go from his Canterbury grammar school to Cambridge, the play’s doomed pedagogues include not only Navarre’s two silenced counterparts to Holofernes but the Sorbonne logician Petrus Ramus:

GUISE: I say, Ramus shall die.
How answer you that? Your nego argumentum
Cannot serve, sirrah. Kill him.

Ramus does what he can to argue that he should be spared, but he is soon murdered, less as a heretic than as an upstart:

GUISE: Why suffer you that peasant to declaim?
Stab him, I say, and send him to his friends in hell.

ANJOU: Ne’er was there collier’s son so full of pride. [Kills him]

The Massacre at Paris was even more of a landmark in Marlowe’s career than Love’s Labour’s Lost was in Shakespeare’s: it was the last play he would ever write. On 30 May 1593, weeks after finishing it (if he ever did; it survives only in a short, unreliable text probably assembled from memory by actors), Marlowe too was stabbed to death, at Eleanor Bull’s guest-house in Deptford.

It is too easy to represent Shakespeare as the good, cautiously spoken grammar-school boy and Marlowe as the attractively badly behaved one, but the fame of the one’s success and the notoriety of the other’s death have made this familiar juxtaposition inevitable. For most readers, to think of the end of Shakespeare’s career is to imagine a balding, married burgher of 52 lying in a comfortable bed in the second-largest house in Stratford, fussing with his lawyers over the disposition of an ample estate, the private self revealed in the Sonnets safely back in the closet. If we think of the end of Marlowe’s career we see a dangerously, glamorously mixed-up 29-year-old who has fallen among bad company, a prodigal genius who has lived fast and is to die young, and whose last recorded utterances, all of them heretical, included the opinions that ‘St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned alwaies to his bosom . . . he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma’ and that ‘all they that loue not Tobacco & Boies were fooles.’ Marlowe seems to have died in a manner appropriate to the writer of Edward II and Dr Faustus. His perceived personal style appeals much more obviously than Shakespeare’s to an Anglo-American academy invested in the idea that Renaissance poets ought above all to have been subversive, and he is enjoying more scholarly attention than ever before: the five-volume Oxford English Texts complete works was finished in 1998, and has been followed by Mark Thornton Burnett’s edition of the plays for Everyman in 1999, and Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey’s for Penguin in 2003; the first Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe appeared last month (edited by Patrick Cheney).[*]

Even without the bloodshed and intrigue that the fatal stab wound in Deptford supplies, the biographers’ Marlowe is always liable to be defined by his death, if only because a sizeable proportion of the detailed evidence we have about him dates from May and June 1593. For David Riggs, coming to the subject of Marlowe after writing Ben Jonson: A Life (1989), the paucity of material must have been fairly dismaying. The long-lived Jonson went out of his way to make things easy for biographers, leaving an extensive paper trail including autobiographical poems, holograph manuscripts, letters, annotations in books, appearances in records of royal expenditure, extensive comments by literary friends and enemies alike, and even the transcript of an indiscreet in-depth interview with the Scots poet Drummond of Hawthornden. In Marlowe’s case, however, 30 May 1593 is one of the few days of his adult life for which we have a document stating where he was and with whom. The coroner’s report, produced the following day, says that Marlowe received ‘a mortal wound above his right eye, of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch’ and ‘then & there instantly died’. (Striving conscientiously for forensic colourlessness, the report is at its most vivid when it says that the wound was inflicted using a dagger ‘of the value of twelve pence’.) It isn’t surprising that the most influential recent account of Marlowe, Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning (1992, revised 2002), should concentrate on what its subtitle calls ‘The Murder of Christopher Marlowe’. Despite Constance Kuriyama’s attempt to break the mould with her cautious, scholarly Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life (2002), most books about Marlowe aren’t about his life but about his plays and poems or about his death. Although the working title of Riggs’s study – ‘Nasty, Brutish and Brilliant’ – suggested that his work, too, was going to be overshadowed by Marlowe’s premature end, he has produced instead a book advertising itself as an account of the playwright’s ‘world’ rather than his life or works. In fact, the last third of The World of Christopher Marlowe is as preoccupied as ever with the events of May 1593, concerning which Riggs has little to add to the version of events offered by Nicholl and substantially supported by the most energetic contemporary investigator of Marlowe’s shadier connections, Roy Kendall. But Riggs describes more fully and helpfully than any previous writer the intellectual milieux that formed Marlowe, first at the King’s School in Canterbury and then at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

If you go by Riggs’s account, it’s a wonder that the school and university curriculum of Marlowe’s youth produced as much Anglican orthodoxy as it did. Elizabethan schoolboys spent much of their time being told what they had to believe without ever being given intellectual reasons for doing so, obediently transcribing the Calvinism of Alexander Nowell’s Catechism or First Instruction of Christian Religion. At the same time, however, they were given the means of escape to a different mental world: instead of being taught the medieval Latin that had prepared their pre-Reformation forbears to study Catholic theology, they were taught the classical Latin of William Lyly’s prescribed Short Introduction of Grammar – the language of pagans, taught with pagan texts. In order to win the Parker Scholarship to Cambridge, moreover, Marlowe would have had to have learned two arts to a much higher level than was required by any station in life the system had in mind for him: namely, music (he might have been obliged to help justify his presence at Corpus Christi by singing in the chapel, and had to pass a sight-reading test) and poetry. Unlike richer entrants, aspiring paupers such as Marlowe had to demonstrate a fluency in composing technically perfect Latin verse, spending hours learning to pastiche the styles and meters of Ovid and Virgil: as Riggs remarks, ‘the labour-intensive regime of poetry lessons provided a convenient mechanism for distinguishing the deserving from the idle poor.’ Officially devalued as merely hedonistic compared to rhetoric, poetry nonetheless must have seemed to Marlowe the golden key to upward mobility. Riggs demonstrates how eagerly Marlowe grasped that key, and how fully his work articulates the contradiction, inherent in the educational system that bred him, between Christian self-abnegation and humanist self-empowerment. He is especially good at tracing, in the successive stages of Marlowe’s literary career, the presence of the texts and questions dealt with in the successive stages of his education. The early Dido, Queen of Carthage (with its induction in which Jove dallies with Ganymede) and the translation of Ovid’s Amores nag at the Virgilian pieties of the BA on which Marlowe was probably still working when he wrote them; the science and geography he studied for his MA burst out in Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta. The well-drilled scholarship boy learned his lessons thoroughly, and then tested them to destruction on the public stage.

Just as striking are Marlowe’s changing views on the possibilities of social self-betterment through humanist erudition. For all the war crimes they depict, there’s a weirdly innocent glee about the two parts of Tamburlaine that Marlowe’s later work never recaptured, a sense of forbidden dormitory thrills in its radical uncoupling of classical humanism from Christian ethics. Historically, Marlowe knew, Timur-i-Leng was believed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan, but Tamburlaine makes him into a ‘Scythian shepherd’: as remote from ruling elites as a Canterbury shoemaker, but capable of defeating all the feudal despots who attempt to destroy him by virtù alone. Marlowe’s blank-verse Conan the Barbarian remakes himself into a conqueror of the world in the image of the Latin primers’ gods, overcoming all before him with his insatiable eloquence. The Jew of Malta, by contrast, entertains the possibility that the established social order might be overthrown not by sheer force but by the more Machiavellian workings of capitalism, and is consciously naughty in its depiction of all religions as equally fraudulent and self-interested; but in this play the outsider Barabas is ultimately defeated by an incumbent, the Governor of Malta, who turns out to be just as unscrupulous a trickster as Barabas. From here onwards, the fates of Marlowe’s self-made men become ever darker.

Dr Faustus, the definitive under-rewarded academic, is enabled by his education to enter into a bargain with Mephistopheles that makes grammar-school wet dreams a reality in the form of a fling with Helen of Troy; but instead of achieving world domination, Faustus dwindles into a showman who whiles away the time before his damnation providing harmless entertainment for kings and emperors. Piers Gaveston, who similarly enchants a king by ‘Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows’, is got rid of a lot more quickly in Edward II, killed not for being homosexual but for being a commoner: his successor as favourite, the scholar Baldock, who declares ‘my gentry/I fetch from Oxford, not from heraldry,’ is also doomed, as are Navarre’s pedants and the eloquent Ramus in The Massacre at Paris. Riggs’s account leaves one wondering whether, if Marlowe had obtained more substantial patronage than he received from the Countess of Pembroke and Thomas Walsingham, these stories might not have been told very differently. The exciting instability about Marlovian drama, our uncertainty as to whether Dr Faustus is a morality play or a parody of one, whether The Massacre at Paris is a tragedy or a black comedy, seems to derive from Marlowe’s own uncertainty about which side his bread was ultimately buttered, a social double-agent’s desire to keep his options open.

Such preferment as Marlowe did receive was as a more literal kind of double-agent, performing services which might obtain surreptitious rewards but which were also eminently susceptible to being disavowed. Corpus Christi was known as a hotbed of recusancy, and Marlowe may have been employed to keep an eye on some of his fellow students. What is certain, thanks to a letter from the Privy Council urging Cambridge to waive the residence requirements for Marlowe’s MA on the grounds of his ‘good service . . . in matters touching the benefit of his country’, is that by 1587 he was regularly absent from Cambridge on her majesty’s secret service, and spent some of this time abroad. He was probably employed as an infiltrator at the English Jesuit college at Rheims, singled out for execration in The Massacre at Paris:

HENRI III: Did [Guise] not draw a sort of English priests
From Douai to the seminary at Rheims
To hatch forth treason ‘gainst their natural queen?

Whatever motives of deference or patriotic duty prompted Marlowe to pursue this other career – instead of giving up any immediate pretensions to becoming a gentleman by working full-time in the public theatre, an institution for which his extant prologues suggest disdain – the traces of it that remain are uniformly inglorious. The ‘Elizabethan underground’ described with endless vigour and determination by Roy Kendall is one in which it’s hard to discern the boundaries between dissimulation for queen, church and country, and simple criminal hypocrisy; and between violence carried out on behalf of the state and that with more private ends.

On 18 September 1589, as the accomplice of Thomas Watson, another poet-cum-spy, Marlowe was involved in the fatal stabbing of William Bradley. Bradley was an innkeeper from Bishopsgate who may have been a dangerous traitor, but was definitely involved in an inconvenient legal dispute with John Alleyn, brother of the actor Edward who created most of Marlowe’s leading roles. From the inquest, it looks as though Marlowe decoyed Bradley into a fight, which Watson then joined on the pretence of separating the combatants, giving just enough ground to Bradley before killing him so as to be able to enter a colourable plea of self-defence. In Newgate for two weeks before being released on bail (and ultimately discharged), Marlowe made the acquaintance of a Catholic from Cheshire called John Poole, convicted for counterfeiting coins.

On 26 January 1592, Sir Robert Sidney, governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, wrote to Lord Burghley to explain that he was sending one ‘Christofer Marley, by his profession a scholer’ home to him as a prisoner, along with a goldsmith called Gifford Gilbert, with whom Marlowe had been trying to counterfeit Dutch shillings before being shopped by his one-time accessory and room-mate Richard Baines. Flushing, the major port serving the English soldiers fighting on the Protestant side in the Dutch wars, was a hotbed of intelligence activity, and Baines was an experienced spy (he too had been at Rheims), but we have no clues as to what mission Baines and Marlowe may have been engaged on when they fell out. The counterfeiting scheme itself may conceivably have been officially countenanced as a clandestine means of generating cash to pay for intelligence: Sidney’s letter implies that he doesn’t know what these mutually-accusing men have been up to but expects that Burghley, one of the Privy Council’s chief spymasters, will. Burghley seems to have let Marlowe go. But the scheme may, as Riggs believes, just have been a dodgy way for a poor scholar to supplement his income, a dowdy real-life counterpart to Faustus’ attempt to secure the lucrative signory of Emden by demonic means.

The ambiguity and incompleteness of the evidence about Marlowe’s dealings with his espionage contacts are far more of a problem for his biographers when it comes to the fatal events of May 1593. The document that has above all served to identify Marlowe as either an intolerable heretic justly punished or a hero of free speech, depending on one’s perspective, is, like the counterfeiting charge, the work of Richard Baines. Baines, as Kendall’s book makes extensively clear, is a fascinating figure, if a completely unreliable one, and even the circumstances leading to his production of ‘A note containing the opinion of on[e?] Christopher Marly concerning his damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of Gods word’, usually called ‘the Baines note’, are fraught with complications.

On the night of 5 May 1593, during a government crackdown on atheists and heretics, a 53-line doggerel poem was pinned to the churchyard wall of the London church frequented by Dutch Protestant refugees. Known as the ‘Dutch Church libel’, it survives only in a single manuscript copy (now in the Bodleian). Chiming with other recent anonymous attacks on the Protestant asylum seekers whose presence in London was supported by Elizabeth’s government, the poem threatens these ‘strangers’ with slaughter unless they ‘Fly, Flye, & never returne.’ It denounces the English Protestant aristocrats who countenance their presence as bribed ‘Upstarts’, but more striking than the poem’s ideological content is the narrow focus of its literary allusions. Alongside a single biblical reference to the plagues of Egypt are two invocations of plays by Marlowe, The Jew of Malta (‘Your Machiavellian Marchant spoyles the state . . . And like the Jewes, you eate us vp as bread’) and, more pointedly, The Massacre at Paris:

Since words nor threates nor any other thinge
canne make you to avoyd this certaine ill
Weele cutt your throtes, in your temples praying,
Not paris massacre so much blood did spill.

The whole poem is signed: ‘per. Tamberlaine’. No one with an ear for English verse could possibly mistake this text for Marlowe’s work, but its allusions and its signature made it inevitable that when the Privy Council declared that ‘her majesty’s pleasure is that some extraordinary pains and care be taken by the Commissioners appointed by the Lord Mayor for the examining such persons as may be in this case any way suspected,’ Marlowe would be a principal target. His former room-mate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, was arrested for possessing mildly heretical papers which, under torture from which he never recovered, he claimed belonged to Marlowe, and on 18 May a warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest.

Meanwhile, a man called Thomas Drury came forward with information, partly derived from another informer called Richard Cholmeley, to the effect that Marlowe had been preaching atheism to Sir Walter Raleigh and others, and Drury even produced someone prepared to testify to the substance of Marlowe’s alleged atheist sermons. This someone was Baines, the forger, whose picturesque ‘Note’ – tobacco, boys and all – was handed over around 27 May. It’s a lively document, despite its remarkable similarities to the confessions that the double-agent Baines himself made to the Catholic authorities at Rheims when his cover at the seminary was blown ten years earlier. (These are printed in full, along with the ‘Note’ itself, by Kendall.) With hindsight, the conclusion of the ‘Note’ looks ominous: ‘J think all men in Cristianity ought to indevor that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped.’

Marlowe had arrived from Thomas Walsingham’s house in Kent to answer the warrant on 20 May; he wasn’t felt to be dangerous enough to be worth holding in custody, but he had to report daily at Greenwich Palace. His companions at Eleanor Bull’s in nearby Deptford on 30 May, or at least those named in the coroner’s report, were a servant of Walsingham’s called Ingram Frizer (with whose dagger, and by whose hand, Marlowe was killed), a counter-intelligence agent called Robert Poley, and Nicolas Skerres, another spook, who had been peripherally involved in springing the Babington plot seven years earlier. They were an unsavoury bunch, who all had experience of committing fraud in small teams; Frizer, as if going down to posterity as the killer of a great Elizabethan playwright weren’t ignominy enough, had also been a property-speculator in Basingstoke.

Of Marlowe’s recent biographers, only Constance Kuriyama is prepared to accept the testimony they gave to the inquest into Marlowe’s death, to the effect that Marlowe and Frizer, later credibly reported to have been responsible for inviting Marlowe there, got into a squabble about ‘the recknynge’ – the bill – during which Marlowe attacked Frizer with Frizer’s own dagger. The weapon, they claimed, fatally went into Marlowe’s face during the ensuing struggle. As Kuriyama points out, however dubious these three men may have been, only Marlowe had a record of involvement in fatal violence (though the resemblance between Frizer’s plea of self-defence and the one made by Watson in the Bradley case might have given her pause); certainly he was short of money and under sufficient pressure to get stroppy about a bill, especially if he’d accepted Frizer’s invitation on the assumption that the day’s backgammon and dining were to be Frizer’s treat. Furthermore, the coroner’s evidence is presumably reliable, and a stab wound to the face sounds more like the result of a fight than a professional premeditated murder. It’s still possible to believe that Marlowe’s death was just one of those nasty things that can happen when you fall in with a bad lot.

Those who don’t accept the conclusion of the inquest, however – and with witnesses such as Frizer, Poley and Skerres the possibilities for disbelief are almost endless – have an ample field for alternative speculations. Charles Nicholl doesn’t even take the Dutch Church libel at face value, but thinks it was the work of Richard Cholmeley, probably working with Baines deliberately to incriminate Marlowe. According to Nicholl, they hoped to use Marlowe to incriminate Raleigh in turn, but arranged for the playwright’s death, winked at and hushed up by the authorities, when the discussions at Deptford established that he wouldn’t co-operate. (It might be more interesting to read the Dutch Church libel as an unselfconsciously genuine piece of graffiti composed by a bloodthirsty and xenophobic theatregoer who, oblivious to the ironies in Marlowe’s plays, just found them attractively full of butchered foreigners.)

Riggs modifies Nicholl’s story a little, suggesting that Marlowe’s death was arranged by Burghley in response to Baines’s note, though this seems to suggest some naivety on Burghley’s part; then again, killing Marlowe might have been a lot less troublesome than putting him on trial for heresy. (Even so, why hold an inquest at all? There’s a nice deep river at Deptford: why not just dump the body in it after dark and say no more about it?) Riggs is in a double bind, however, in that although he is far more sceptical about the contents of Baines’s note than Kuriyama, he still wants to preserve Marlowe’s reputation as a transgressive arch-heretic and sexual dissident. This reputation has recently been attacked by Riggs’s Stanford colleague Stephen Orgel in a fine essay called ‘Tobacco and Boys: How Queer Was Marlowe?’ (in The Authentic Shakespeare, 2002). Orgel points out that with the exception of his entirely heterosexual translation of Ovid’s Amores, Marlowe’s work went on being printed and acted for years without any government alarm or intervention. His death may soon have been deployed rhetorically by moralists as an example of the divine retribution visited on the ungodly, but homosexuality was less of a problem for the Elizabethans than it is for us.

The Scottish crime-writer Louise Welsh, however, still wants her Marlowe queer, using this to provide a motive. In her historical novella, Tamburlaine Must Die, Welsh tries out the idea that the Dutch Church libel was a deliberately homicidal attempt to frame Marlowe, carried out not by a rogue agent provocateur but by a gay lover tormented by jealousy of Marlowe’s talent (part Salieri, part Kenneth Halliwell). It’s not as funny as Rupert Everett’s oddly beardless cameo as Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love, but it is pleasantly lurid.

Welsh’s fictional explanation for Marlowe’s death is pretty silly, but once you start disbelieving the official verdict you can go a lot further than she does. As early as 1895, well before the coroner’s report on Marlowe had been exhumed and re-examined, a San Francisco lawyer called Wilbur Gleason Zeigler published a historical novel, It Was Marlowe: A Story of the Secret of Three Centuries. This was the first work to claim not merely that Marlowe wasn’t killed in self-defence, but that he wasn’t killed at all: according to Zeigler, his death was faked and he lived on until 1598, writing several plays now attributed to Shakespeare. In 1955, a Broadway press agent called Calvin Hoffman took this theory and ran even further with it, in The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare. According to Hoffman, the Deptford corpse was really that of a nameless foreign sailor killed by Walsingham’s agents, but it was passed off as Marlowe’s to enable the playwright – who was Walsingham’s lover – to escape to the Continent and carry on writing plays. Walsingham, reluctant to see these masterpieces languish in obscurity, paid the actor William Shakespeare to pass them off as his own.

Daft as it is, this theory has present-day consequences. One is the absurd question-mark placed beside the date of Marlowe’s death in the memorial window to him in Westminster Abbey, installed in 2002; another is the Hoffman Prize, supposed to be awarded annually to the best piece of writing in support of the claim that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. Another is Rodney Bolt’s History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe. This book’s blurb claims that it is ‘not an attempt to prove that Christopher Marlowe staged his own death, fled to the Continent, and went on to write the work attributed to Shakespeare. It playfully takes that as its starting point.’ In fact, the book tells an embroidered version of Hoffman’s ludicrous story, supported by the placing of whimsically faked pieces of evidence among perversely twisted real ones. Bolt’s argument is exemplified by his cover, which shows four portraits: the one in the top left corner is the apocryphal portrait of Marlowe belonging to his old college, the one in the bottom right is the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, and the other two are computer-generated intermediate stages whereby the former seems to age plausibly to become the latter. It is unfortunate for Bolt that the Corpus Christi portrait is very unlikely to be of Marlowe (it’s merely someone his age who was also at the college, but who, to judge by his clothes, was a rich student who didn’t need to become a poet), and that the Chandos portrait is equally unlikely to be of Shakespeare.

There is perhaps one underlying truth informing these wilder stories. However different their modes of dramatising recent politics, there was a great deal of Marlowe in Shakespeare: Shakespeare tried out the villain-hero model in Richard III, rewrote Edward II as Richard II, transformed Barabas into Shylock, and produced in Henry V and Coriolanus his own versions of Tamburlaine. But the kinship between the two goes deeper than this, mainly because they had each learned poetry through devouring and imitating the same writer. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, their most popular works in their time, are practically simultaneous attempts to do Ovid in English – equally urbane, equally bisexual in their appeal – and when Shakespeare paid tribute to his greatest and most unfortunate contemporary, it was in an Ovidian context.

In 1599, the year in which Marlowe’s translation of the Amores was burned by the public hangman, and his ‘Come live with me, and be my love’ was printed with a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets in The Passionate Pilgrim, Shakespeare wrote another pastoral comedy about a French court in exile. In As You Like It, Phoebe, who is falling in love with a woman disguised as Ganymede, invokes the author of Hero and Leander as an authority on love: ‘Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,/"Whoever loved, that loved not at first sight?”’ Rosalind remembers Hero and Leander, too, when she argues that men have died from time to time, but not for love. More pointedly, the fool, Touchstone, is also reminded of Marlowe, when comparing himself to Ovid, exiled among the Goths: ‘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.’ As Riggs and Nicholl both point out, this last phrase combines an echo of a famous line in The Jew of Malta – ‘Infinite riches in a little room’ – with the memory of the inquest on Marlowe and that alleged dispute about the reckoning.

How did Shakespeare know about this? Had he been at the inquest? Whatever the answer, he seems to have paused six years later to remember the fate of a writer who had shunned the everyday life of the theatre in favour of government service, but who had become a gentleman only posthumously, finally described as such on the title page to Edward II, his great tragedy about murdered meteoric upstarts. Shakespeare had by this time secured the income of a gentleman, a coat of arms and royal patronage. But the old opposition between goody-goody Shakespeare and bad boy Marlowe is in most respects as false as the latter’s Dutch shillings. Marlowe was not Shakespeare, as the conspiracy theorists would have it, but he’d probably have liked to have been if he’d had the chance.

[*] Cambridge, 346 pp., £15.99, July, 0 521 52734 1.