Kit at Cambridge

On 17 March, 1581, one Christopher Marlen was registered in the Cambridge University Book of Matriculation. That surname was spelled many different ways in different contexts: Marlowe, Marlow, Marloe, Marlo, Marle, Marlen, Marlin, Marlyne, Marlinge, Merlin, Marley, Marlye, Morley, Morle (Honan, p.18.) This is what happens when there’s no standard spelling or even the idea that such a standard should exist. The second syllable is unstressed, which in English means the vowel is something like ‘uh,’ with a tiny stripe of ‘o’ for most people. But we need have no doubt that young Kit knew who he was. His work demonstrates spectacular self-confidence.

He was 17, about average for a freshman. He was a scholarship boy — poor — but a scholar, not a sizar. Sizars were even poorer. They had to do chores for everyone else in exchange for their educations. Kit’s scholarship was 1 shilling per week, for every week in residence. He could and did sign it over to another boy when he was gone. One shilling is 12 pennies. He had to pay for his food and drink in the college commons out of that shilling.

Kit shared a room with three other scholarship boys on the north-west side of the quadrangle at Corpus Christi College. This is now called the Old Court and it’s the oldest closed court at Cambridge. Marlowe is honored with a plaque on the wall of his range. The Old Court at the Corpus Christi College.The windows had been glazed in the past decade or so and the walls cleanly plastered. Two chimney flues ran through Kit’s chambers, so it must have been decently warm in winter. He would have shared a bed, but had his own desk.

Like every other student in the busy university, Kit wore a black, floor-length gown and a round black skullcap. He could wear whatever he liked under it, one supposes. Certainly at least a clean shirt, linen braies, wool hose (round pants) and warm stockings. There were endless rules about dress, of course, as there were everywhere in this period. Nothing but ‘sad’ colors — puke, brown, black, gray — no lace or pinkings, no braids or twists.

All students were expected to attend college lectures in addition to some university-wide lectures given in the Common Schools. But some evaded such rigors. Robert Greene, a later enemy of Kit’s, wrote, “I lighted amongst wags as lewd as my selfe, with whom I consumed the flower of my youth.”

They also had fun, though. St. John’s College was famous for its theater productions, which all could attend. Kit met his great life-long friend, Thomas Nashe, there. And here’s a charming note from Honan (p.79): “At Corpus, he found an unusual emphasis on singing: he had won his award partly for his musical ability and skill in making verses.” We tend to think of Marlowe as hard-bitten, cynical, always on the edge of violence, at least in his creative work. We don’t think of him as a young man with a pleasant singing voice.

Kit met some extremely hot Protestants in college. We know he knew them and cared about them, because he signed over his scholarship to them, recorded forever in the college buttery book. One of these was Francis Kett, who went on to instigate a rebellion and get himself burned for heresy. Another was John Greenwood, who went on to found the London Separatists, be jailed repeatedly, and ultimately hung. Marlowe was still alive and possibly in London at the time of Greenwood’s hanging. Did he go to watch and shake his head at the vile absurdity of both sides?

Honan insightfully says (p.84), “Marlowe’s college friends cared about beliefs, ideas, or literature; what mattered was whether they took a fresh line on anything.”

Here’s the way he spent his days. Up at 5:00 am for chapel, then a little breakfast. Then lectures in the hall: six o’clock, Aristotle or scripture; then Greek, either literature like Homer or Demosthenes, or grammar. Then he was either free to study or went to a lecture in Schools. Dinner would have been between 11:00 and 12:00; the main meal of the day. At 3:00, more lectures in the hall; rhetoric this time, Tully or Cicero for choice. Then the scholar’s sophisme; exercises in disputation, one presumes.

Honan describes Marlowe (p. 89) as “a poet-in-residence waiting to be amused.” I definitely knew people like that in college. Maybe I was one, some of the time. Certainly I did not concern myself with learning anything useful. I spent a lot of time reading Homer and filled out the program with things like Self-paced Astronomy.

Kit got his BA in 1584. He stayed on, still a Parker scholar, to study for his MA, which he attained in 1587. Dido_wikicomAccording to the terms of his scholarship, he was supposed to be studying divinity with the aim of becoming an aid and ornament to the English church in some needy parish. Instead, he spent a fair amount of time elsewhere doing something secret that paid well enough to buy nice clothes and wrote a translation of Ovid’s sexy Art of Love and two plays. He may have collaborated with Thomas Nashe on the first one, Dido, Queen of Carthage. It might have been performed at Cambridge, but there’s no record of that happening. The other was Tamburlaine, first performed in London in 1587. That play rocked the world and changed the theater in all of Europe forever.

Not bad for “a poet-in-residence waiting to be amused.” Peer closely at that title page and you’ll see the abbreviation ‘Gent.’ after the authors’ names. Those clever lads earned their gentility the hard way, living on a shilling a week and enduring endless hours of rhetoric lectures in Latin.

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