‘To be or not to be’ behind – or even written – Shakespeare’s works, as some claim. That is the question!. Either way, Canterbury’s ‘Rash Boy’, Christopher Marlowe, has certainly led the literati a merry dance as rumours still swirl around not simply his rumbustious lifestyle but his equally controversial death – or disappearance – aged 29 at Deptford in 1593.
Understandably so. For, aside from his often highly politicised writing, his CV included being a highly educated and erudite scholar, a spy worthy of a John Le Carre novel and a whistle-blower to boot.
All of which was while living a generally rakish life-style far removed from his more po-faced counterpart in Stratford-upon -Avon. That’s assuming, of course, that ‘William Shakespeare’ even existed but was in fact Marlowe’s pseudonym – a somewhat far-fetched theory now widely dismissed, but at least indicative of the spell Kit, as he was known to his friends, holds over his followers, notably Canterbury’s Marlowe Society (www.marlowe-society.org) with a worldwide membership and a wealth of Marlowe memorabilia.
This includes The Life, Loves and Achievements of Christopher Marlowe alias Shakespeare, vol 1, a mighty hard backed tome of no less than 1,414 pages published privately by William Honey back in 1982. And that’s just for starters. A quick Google will come up with a string of mind-boggling theories on both Shakespeare and Marlowe worthy of today’s more outrageous tweets.
So, assuming ‘All the world’s a stage etc. ’ (as that other Tudor scribbler succinctly put it) I offer my own shortish synopsis for ‘Unwrapping Kit : a play of mystery and intrigue.
Born in 1564 (see his house, left) the son of a Canterbury master shoemaker, Christopher briefly attends King’s School, Canterbury, where, aged 14, he wins a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, graduating as a BA in 1584.
But though a brilliant student, a distinct lack of religious fervour places his MA, based on him taking holy orders, under threat. He also mysteriously skips lessons and travels abroad – only escaping further suspicion with the help of powerful friends on Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council who excuse him on the grounds of having ‘ done her Majestie good service.’
This provides an early clue to his role as a secret agent, staying occasionally at Scadbury Manor, Chislehurst, home of his patron Sir Francis Walsingham who, as spymaster for Queen Elizabeth The First, ran a highly successful espionage network uncovering Catholic plots against The Crown.
In 1587 Marlowe gains his MA and moves to London during the ‘Enlightenment ‘ a dangerous time in which to express interest in the new scientific discoveries that were exciting the minds of intellectuals Europewide.
Not that this stops a widely travelled Marlowe, who shares his birth year with Shakespeare and Galileo, from joining The School of Night, a club led by Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Percy – stigmatised as being ‘Atheists’ to blacken them in the eyes of the ignorant.
But often cold–shouldered in his home city for his views, as well as his boisterous and scandalous life-style, including being labeled gay and writing some decidedly erotic poems, Christopher Marlowe is at long last being acknowledged as ‘the great innovator of the golden age of Elizabethan drama and as the fore-runner of Shakespeare.’
On the May 20, 1593, Marlowe is arrested at Scadbury where he had gone to escape the plague in London. The charge: atheism for which the ultimate penalty was to be burned at the stake. He is not, however, immediately imprisoned or tortured on the rack, unlike fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. Instead he is granted bail on condition he reports daily to an officer of the Court. This did not prevent an old enemy Richard Baines, implicating him in the capital crimes of scorning Scripture and the Church. On May 30 Marlowe is said to have spent the day at Deptford where he was rumoured to have been killed in a tavern brawl over a bill.
All else was speculation. But in a subsequent Coroner’s report discovered in 1925 by Dr Leslie Hotson it seems he was at the home of Dame Eleanor Bull, a safe house for government agents –along with three other guests all skillful con-men and liars and with connections to Walsingham’s spy machine.
All of which raises various conspiracy theories. Was his death faked and his ‘body’ not that of Marlowe’s after all but that of a man hanged nearby. Was he, in fact, smuggled out of the country to live in exile – perhaps at the embassy in Venice?
It’s now May 1956 (a year after my old colleague Cliff Russell, editor of the Chislehurst & Kentish Times, helps launch the Marlowe society). American author and journalist Calvan Hoffman gains permission to open the Walsingham tomb at St Nicholas Church, Chislehurst, for clues connecting Marlowe to works attributed to Shakespeare. But all that was found was sand.
Undeterred he opens one of the two vaults in a further search. But only stacked chairs are discovered and the search is abandoned. In the background laughing is heard … is it Marlowe or perhaps Shakespeare? Or maybe both. Could they perhaps have colluded in what would surely be the biggest work of fiction of all times ?
Photo credits : John Ruler & Corpus Christ College, Cambridge
What better place for housing The Kit than a 12th century hideaway in Stour Street? It not only embodies 800 years of history – but portrays the life of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, alongside two other literary giants, Joseph Conrad of Lord Jim and The Heart of Darkness fame and Aphra Behn one of England’s most influential women dramatists. All told, a rollicking good slice of history with bags of creepy corners and an atmosphere you can cut with a knife. You can even dress up Lucy Worsley fashion – or face Marlowe’s ghost escape room and ‘a series of seriously clever puzzles’ to unlock the mysteries of Marlowe’s exotic life. He would have loved it.
Further information & opening times: www.marlowetheatre.com