Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Who Was Christopher Marlowe?

"Dr. Faustus"

The record of the coroner's inquest states that the victim was one Christopher Marlowe, poet and playwright. He was so identified when all were crowded into the small room to view the body, still lying on the floor.

Christopher Marlowe, if he is known at all, is vaguely remembered as a playwright who wrote the immortal lines about Helen of Troy: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?"

These lines from Dr. Faustus are repeated by actors auditioning for roles in the film Shakespeare in Love, and serve as a cliché for the soaring poetry of Elizabethan drama. Yet, Marlowe was more than a single immortal line of blank verse. He was the most popular and successful playwright before and during Shakespeare's early years, having written five tremendously successful plays. It has been suggested that he collaborated with Shakespeare on the latter's three parts of "Henry VI."

Portrait: Henry VI
Portrait: Henry VI

Like most of the playwrights of the era (except Shakespeare), Marlowe was a university graduate, having left Cambridge in 1585, about the time of his first success, "Tamburlaine."  He had left Cambridge under a cloud, and was denied his Master's degree until a letter from the Privy Council charged the university with granting it. "He has of late done the Queen great service." Cambridge relented, and he became Christopher Marlow, M.A. He had been born in Canterbury in 1564, the son of a shoemaker, two months before Shakespeare had been born in Stratford. Besides his fame as a poet, as well as a playwright, he was, in all probability, a spy.


What was he like? Harold Bloom proposes that Marlowe was very much like his character Barabbas in "The Jew of Malta." Bloom writes: "What the common reader finds in Marlowe is precisely what his contemporaries found: impiety, audacity, worship of power, ambiguous sexuality, occult aspirations, defiance of moral order, and above all else a sheer exaltation of the possibilities of rhetoric, of the persuasive force of heroic poetry." In his opening soliloquy, Barabbas presents his devilish, heretical, and sardonic face to the audience:

"As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,

And kill sick people groaning under walls.

Sometimes I go about and poison wells..."

"The Jew of Malta"

Several accounts of fights that Marlowe had suggest that he had a violent temper. Other references to him propose that he was "sweet Kit Marlowe," an affable companion. The portrait in Corpus Christi College in Cambridge that has been purported to be the likeness of Marlowe shows a young dandy with a sardonic smile. Only one signature (as a witness to a will) exists. In contrast, the mysterious William Shakespeare is represented by two (perhaps three) portraits and a number of signatures. While we have a reasonably detailed paper trail of Marlowe's life, not much more is known about him than we know about Shakespeare. Calvin Hoffman has argued that, indeed, Marlowe was Shakespeare.

A great deal of evidence exists, however, that Marlowe was a spy. Under the power of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I had the first of the British Secret Services, and university graduates were recruited for intelligence work. The enemy, of course, was primarily Spain, but, broadly speaking, it was an intelligence war against Catholics. Sir Francis's spy group engaged not only in intelligence gathering, but in elaborate schemes of entrapment. It was a very nasty enterprise.

Portrait: Mary Queen of Scots
Portrait: Mary Queen of Scots

A curious adventure of Marlowe's was his involvement in "coining," that is, the counterfeiting of gold coins. This charge was apparently dropped, for reasons that are never made clear in the historical record. One author (Nicholl) suggests that this counterfeiting enterprise was a plot to disrupt the activities of English Roman Catholics living in France, supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned by Elizabeth I. It is very bizarre, but not beyond the devious imagination of Francis Walsingham.

One of Cambridge's objections to granting Marlowe a degree was his frequent absences with trips to the Continent. Were these espionage assignments in which he provided "good service to the Queen?"

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