January 02, 2009

The Death of Christopher Marlowe: Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning

Christopher Marlowe's death in 1593 is one of the most famous literary whodunnits in English history. Marlowe, Shakespeare's peer, had arguably acheived as much as Shakespeare until that date- his plays, Edward II, Tamberlaine, the Jew of Malta and Dr Faustus are examples taught in English classes and seminars today of classic verse and his poetry too lives on. Marlowe however was killed at the age of 29, in a room in Deptford, by a man called Ingram Frizier. The Coroner's court which met soon afterwards decided that what had happened was that four men, Marlowe, Frizier, Robert Pooley and Nicholas Skiers had met in Deptford, in the house of a Mrs Bull (herself affiliated to the court, and related to William Cecil), and spent around eight hours talking. Later in the evening they had had an argument over the bill for the drink and food that they had consumed, Marlowe had stolen Frizier's knife and attacked Frizier with it, Frizier responded and their was a fight, during which Marlowe was stabbed through the eye and killed. Frizier the assailant was set free on the grounds that he had committed self defence- and that Pooley and Skiers backed up his story.

The coroner's inquest record was discovered in the 1920s- and ever since there have been arguments about whether the record tells the truth or not. I have to confess here to being ignorant of many of the arguments- but one recent attempt to reconstruct the truth of what might have happened comes from Charles Nicholl, in a study published by the University of Chicago Press. Nicholl argues that you can only understand the death of Marlowe if you understand the background of the participants. He establishes that the three men in the room apart from Marlowe all had shady pasts. Frizier was an extortioner. Skiers worked both for the Earl of Essex as an agent and for Frizier as muscle. Pooley was a station chief for William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and had worked for Sir Francis Walsingham in intelligence for years. Marlowe himself was almost certainly an agent too- he was allowed to take a degree in Cambridge despite the worries of the dons about his orthodoxy because of a special warrant from the Privy Council and had been involved in various nefarious activities in the Netherlands as well as being rumoured to have been interested in the succession to Elizabeth.

Nicholl's argument is that what happened in 1593 was that Frizier and Skiers and Pooley were trying to negotiate with Marlowe. Marlowe himself was being questioned by the Privy Council at the time about accusations of atheism- that Nicholl ties to factional struggles at court between the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh. What may well have happened is that when the negotiation to get Marlowe to confess to atheism and implicate Raleigh failed, these lowly agents panicked and killed the poet spy. Based on what Nicholl writes it is a plausible reconstruction- the idea that this was a panicked killing which the participants then agreed to keep quiet makes sense. Panic is always a good historical explanation- better than any conspiracy at least. Whether Nicholl's precise constellation of facts is right I cannot be sure- there are too many 'musts' and 'shoulds' in his account, too many suppositions for us to express confidence in it as the total and unvarnished truth. Nicholl is addicted to supposing what happened in the gaps between the evidence- and whilst his explanation has the ring of truth to it, it depends on a chain of supposition and presumption. Marlowe's death ultimately may be an unresolved mystery.

Having said all of that, Nicholl's work is still worthwhile and what he has accumulated is interesting. It is interesting less because it reveals what actually happened on that dark day in Deptford, than because it reveals the world in which Marlowe passed. The world that Nicholl reveals is a world where criminality, spying and treachery are phases of a life- rather than divisions between different occupations. A character like Nicholas Skiers was a criminal (who manipulated people into contracts that they could not fulfill and who stuck closely to the letter of the law if not its spirit), a traitor (who consorted with Catholics and may well have had Catholic sympathies) and a spy. Robert Pooley, one of the men in the room, worked for Sir Francis Walsingham's secret service for years- and yet Walsingham never quite worked out which side Pooley was on and which side he worked for. Pooley was arrested for holding seditious literature for example, as well as procuring the arrests of others.

Marlowe himself fits into this world neatly. He was arrested for affray, for counterfeiting coins, was on the outside of circles around noblemen suspected of treachery and may have been stoking the flames there. Many of his friends were involved in the same kinds of activities- Thomas Watson for example another poet and playwright (though all his plays are now unfortunately lost) was a confidence trickster with a mean streak. Nicholl brings to life this world in fascinating detail- in a sense therefore it does not matter what happened in Deptford- because by analysing it we discover a lot more about Elizabethan life, politics and poetry.


James Higham said...

Ah yes, that's a rollicking good story, Marlow.