Wednesday, May 30, 2007

May 30

The English playwright Christopher Marlowe took a fatal knife to the eye 414 years ago today. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson and other late Elizabethan literary giants, Marlowe is best remembered for his dramatic works Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta and Dr. Faustus. Along with several of his sonnets, these plays served as “evidence” that some literary scholars have used to argue that Marlowe was the actual author of Shakespeare’s works, including those published after Marlowe’s death -- a theory that presumes that said death was faked.

At the time of his demise, Marlowe was in a great deal of trouble. Based on information gathered by an informant named Richard Baines, authorities believed him to be an atheist who believed (among other things) that religion had been invented to “keep men in awe”; that the New Testament was badly written; and that the apostle John was Jesus’ lover and “used him as the sinners of Sodoma.” Ten days before his death, Marlowe had been arrested on charges of heresy, having been accused of writing anonymous poems ridiculing and threatening Dutch Protestants who had taken refuge in London. In the poem Marlowe was accused of writing, the author accuses the Dutch of venality and greed:
Ye strangers yet doe inhabite in this lande
Note this same writing doe it understand
Conceit it well for savegard of your lyves
Your goods, your children, & your dearest wives
Your Machiavellian Marchant spoyles the state,
Your usery doth leave us all for deade
Your Artifex, & craftesman works our fate,
And like the Jewes, you eate us up as bread
The poem went on to accuse the Dutch of being the treacherous agents of Catholic Spain, warning the “strangers” that their throats would soon be cut unless they were to “Fly, Flye, & never returne.”

If Marlowe was indeed that author of the poem, his death meant that he never had a chance to present his case. On 30 May 1593, after spending the afternoon dining and conversing with several friends, Marlowe became embroiled in an argument with a companion named Ingram Frizer over the bill. According to the coroner’s inquest, the playwright seized Frizer’s weapon and stabbed him twice in the head. During the struggle, Frizer pried the 12-pence knife from Marlowe’s hand and stabbed his assailant above the left eye, puncturing his brain and killing him instantly.