The irresistible Christopher Marlowe

 marlowe_med_wikicomWhat is it about Marlowe that captures our imaginations? He’s James Dean meets Lord Byron, Shakespeare’s mentor, the quintessentially Elizabethan combination of poetry, mystery, and action.

The portrait

We don’t really know much about him, beyond the odd scraps in college account books and a note here and there from a friend. We have this portrait, which may not even be Marlowe, though everyone seems to think it is. As Park Honan put it in his excellent biography, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, it fits our sense of the man. We want this to be Kit’s portrait. That direct, knowing gaze, the aloof, yet challenging pose, the tousled hair, and the fine doublet, pricked and studded with expensive buttons. The dates add up; the subject is supposed to be 21 years old. And the motto feels very much like something Marlowe would choose for himself: Quod me nutrit, me destruit, That which nourishes me, destroys me. James Dean could not have said it better.

The portrait was discovered inside a wall at Corpus Christi College, Marlowe’s alma mater. The discovery is a story in itself.

The verse

The portrait wasn’t found until 1952, but we’ve had the poetry since Tamburlaine was first performed in 1587. Marlowe took the theatrical world by storm, mere months after leaving Cambridge University with his MA degree in his pocket. It was the most exciting play ever seen. Audacious! Shocking! Amoral! Guns were fired on stage! Poetry of breathless beauty serving up ideas of daring sophistication. Almost atheistic, Tamburlaine sought his own advancement and dared to challenge even the gods.

“Nature, that framed us of four elements

 Warring in our breasts for regiment,

 Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.

Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend

The wondrous architecture of the world

And measure every wand’ring planet’s course,

Still climbing after knowledge infinite

And always moving as the restless spheres,

Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest

Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,

That perfect bliss and sole felicity,

The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.”

Unfortunately, his plays don’t live for us the way Shakespeare’s do. Marlowe’s characters are too big, too stiff, unnatural. His stories also feel over the top, without the grounding in everyday human experience that keeps Shakespeare alive century after century. Tamburlaine is still the most readable of Marlowe’s plays, though; if you want to read one, read that. You can get his works free on any e-reader you please and read a verse or two a day, just to savor the language. You can also watch a DVD of Edward II performed by the Royal Shakespeare Theater with a very, very young Ian McKellen in the title role. Two thumbs up!

If you’re only going to read one biography, read Park Honan’s (2005) Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy. This is a well-written, insightful, and sympathetic reconstruction of the man’s scantily documented life. But don’t read just one, because the second one is less clearly biographical but heaps more fun. The Reckoning, by Charles Nicholl (1992), looks at the same scanty documentation, but adds lots of information about the period to explore the mystery of Marlowe’s death.

Was he murdered? Was he really a spy? If so, for whom did he work? The Reckoning won the Crime Writer’s Association Non-Fiction Gold Dagger Award in 1992 and richly deserved it. It’s a fascinating book on all counts: an example of historical research, a portrait of the seamy world of Elizabethan intelligence gathering, and underneath all that, a heartfelt plea that the death of a man who could write like Christopher Marlowe should be more than merely an accident.



Travel in the sixteenth century: Where to stay

I can’t find anything specific about staying at inns in England in the sixteenth century with the resources at hand. Apparently few travelers felt compelled to keep diaries and those who did failed to comment on the nature of their lodgings. The best I can find here in exile from my study is an article in JSTOR: A. H. S. Yeames, “The Grand Tour of an Elizabethan,” Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. 7, No. 3 (1914), pp. 92-113.

Minutes of assiduous skimming yield little information about lodgings. Sir Edward Unton (the Elizabethan in question) chiefly gives us swift views of the landscape, particularly in terms of agriculture, brief political histories, and an overview of urban architectural features. Here’s an extract (p. 96):

“… we came to antwerpt the xxth of marche and were lodged in the englyshe house / it is a cytie of mervelous wealth passyng all most any cytie within europe… also passynge in beautie a towne of much strength beinge walled / with a great rampert of earth cast up agenst the same walle in the inner syde of a mervelous thicknes…”

So he lodged in the English House, presumably with other English travelers, English-speaking staff, and English-style food and drink. Sir Edward doesn’t tell us if he had to share a bed with strangers and if so, how many. That would be uppermost in my mind upon arrival. I know that sharing beds was the norm in medieval times, but I don’t when that custom changed. By the time of Tom Jones (1749), each set of travellers got their own rooms.

Old_Thatch_Tavern,_Stratford-upon-Avon-smallPubs dating from the sixteenth century like the Old Thatch Tavern in Stratford-upon-Avon have a large central public room on the ground floor with a labyrinth of smaller rooms branching off. I’ve never been upstairs in one, but I imagine a staircase or two opening onto a landing leading to rooms on varying levels, some reached by passing through other rooms. A few would be private, others communal.  No indoor sanitary facilities, but plenty of servants to empty the chamber pots. The private rooms may have boasted a close stool. All the beds had testers above to catch the critters dropping out of the thatch and curtains to keep out the drafts. You would prefer a room with a hearth and bedmates who didn’t snore.

Travelers from the upper echelons, like Francis and Anthony Bacon, would only spend a night in a public house in an emergency. Anthony carried letters of introduction and stayed with friends or well-known members of his social class. I wouldn’t dream of fishing up an acquaintance in Lubbock to spend the night with on the way to Taos, but a grad student going to a conference wouldn’t hesitate. In fact, your better organized conferences have a volunteer tasked with matching attendees with local couches.

Another parallel from my grad student days is the budget hotel, exemplified by Casa Arnel in Oaxaca.  Near the bus station but on a quiet street, this place was Spartan, clean, and safe. It was favored by linguists, anthropologists, and archaeologists coming and going from their research sites in the hinterlands. The rooms were tiny, like monk’s cells, each with a narrow bed, a small sink, and one thin towel. You supplied your own soap and toilet paper. All the rooms opened onto the central courtyard where you could wash your clothes in the big cement sink, hanging them up on the roof to dry. Everyone had breakfast at the long table under the portal; you could hang out there in the evening too, trading stories with the other lodgers over refrescos or beers. They’ve probably upgraded since the mid-90s, when I was last there.

Tavern Scene by David Tenniers, 1658

There must have been places like that in every city in Europe. Intelligencers and messengers like Christopher Marlowe would stay in such inns, sometimes for several days while awaiting an audience with the recipient of their messages. They would sleep in communal beds with their precious saddlebags under their heads and spend their free time hanging out in the tavern, swapping news and travel stories, maybe a few guarded bits of gossip about their patrons. These men weren’t altogether unlike the graduate students at Casa Arnel, since officials and noblemen often recruited messengers from the universities. Students were fluent in Latin, the common language of Europe, had decent manners, and could memorize long speeches for confidential communication. They were young and didn’t mind the rigors of travel or staying in cheap hotels. They would be very unlikely to lodge at the stuffy English House.

I would rather stay with the spies and messengers at the House t’ Gulick in Antwerp. Better stories, niet waar? Especially if Kit Marlowe was telling them.

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