ANNIVERSARY / Heresy and mystery in Kit form: A poetic contribution to the debate over one of the great enigmas of literary history

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'Tennis and Sex and Death', poems by John Whitworth, is published by Peterloo at pounds 4.95

ON the 400th anniversary of Christopher Marlowe's death there has been an outpouring of literature about the mysterious events of 30 May 1593, but 10 days earlier the poet had a very narrow sqeak. He must have thought himself a lucky man and might have written the matter up.

18 May 1593: a warrant is issued by the Privy Council for the arrest of 'Cristofer Marlow . . . to apprehend and bring him to the Court.' Two days later two men arrive at Westminster, one in some danger.

'By your leave, sir, I am come post-haste from Kent,

From the house of Mr Thomas Walsingham,

First Cousin to the late Lord Secretary.

Of my own free will I am come, as Master Maunder,

The Chamber's agent, will attest.'

'Your name?'

'What 'tis to be an agent of the Queen

I know - look here, sir. May I sit?'

'Your name?'

A cruel, crafty face, a lawyer's face,

A scrawny, spanielling, scrivening face.

'Your name?'

I could take this spaniel lick-turd by the throat . . .

But calm, Kit, calm. 'My name is Christopher Marlowe.'

He snivels in his papers. 'Marlowe? Marlowe?

There is a Marley here. Of Canterbury?

Master of Arts, a Cambridge man? Attend, sir.

Their Lordships call on thee to answer this,

Thou pretty, witty man, Master of Arts.

Th'indictments of a certain Thomas Kyd,

Maker of Plays (Now I see you know the man),

Concerning vile, heretical conceits

Which do deny our Saviour's Deity,

Which he, being racked, affirms he had from thee.'

See, see where Kit's blood streams in the firmament.

The heretic I knew at Corpus Christi

Was burned at Norwich, screaming for the Christ.

Think, Gentle Shepherd. Vile Blasphemer, think.

Did I say aught? Ah Kit, what said you not?

THAT the commencement of Religion

Was to keep Men in Awe. Yes, I said so.

THAT Christ was a bastard and deserved to die

More than Barabbas. THAT the New Testament

Is filthily written. THAT the Sacrament,

Lacking all Ceremonial Reverence,

Were better taken in a tobacco pipe.

THAT the Evangelist John, whom Jesus loved,

Lay with Our Saviour as a bedfellow.

Jesu, did I say all that? But I'll deny it.

Kyd is a scribbler and no gentleman.

I hold there is no sin but ignorance.

Great men befriend me. Raleigh speaks for Kit,

Black-browed Sir Walter, that Great Lucifer,

Who in his house heaps pearls like pebble stones.

Yet are we equals of the intellect.

Do they know great ones? The play-botchers? Kyd,

Nash, Chapman, Shagbard-Shakescene, cobbling verse:

Bellow it to the gods, then wipe your arse.

What do they know of true philosophy?

We hold there is no sin but ignorance.

Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,

Conspired against our God with Lucifer

And are for ever damned with Lucifer.

Poor Kit, thy father was a cobbler too.

The devil will come, and Christopher must be damned.

Courage. I wrote nothing. They cannot hold me.

We escaped the capital business of Hog Lane,

It was self-defence. Was not that cheating braggart

A notorious brawler? (Was not red-haired Kit

The same? What of't?) Faugh] Prison frights me not.

I am no nameless filth. I have a name.

Who knows not Marlowe, Heaven-pretending Kit?

Kit lives. The rest are naught. Aye Will, you will

Be naught, you Shagbard-Shakescene. Though you have

Some wit: 'Tis but a base, ignoble mind

That mounts no higher than a bird can soar.

Very good. But Education? None. Ambition?

None. A poor player, a magpie of my verse.

This age will be the Age of Christopher.

'The Lords of the Privy Council will see you now.'

Dear God] Grave faces standing in their ruffs.

Grave faces? Kit's grave. Quiet, heart. 'My Lords?'

'Sir, you are Christopher Marlowe, Gentleman

Of Canterbury?' Gentleman is good.

Speak Kit. Speak boldly, Kit. 'Yes, I am he.'

'You are required to answer certain matters . . .'

Three sheets. 'May I see, my Lords? I am obliged . . .

This is not my hand. This is a scrivener's hand.

As for the matter, potent Lords, this is

The notorious Arian Heresy rehearsed

For the purposes of learned confutation

And dates, I think, from Good King Henry's time.'

'How know you this?' 'My noble Lord, I was

A Student of Divinity.' Their Lordships

Smile. We are gentlemen all. 'You are free to go.'

Free, into the London air. Free, Kit is free

To sup with the great? Perhaps. But there's a tavern,

Where thundering Kit can clasp his Ganymede.

They that love not tobacco and boys are fools,

Did I say that too? It's good. It's very good.

A sound magician is a demi-god.

Ah, my own Shagbard-Shakescene, Heavenly Twins,

Marley and Shagbard] We could light a fire

Old Time would not put out, sweet Will, had you

Th'Ambition to match your magic. We could do

Such things (I know not what they are, but things

The world grown old would gape at). Lords of Life -

You to your playhouse and your family,

Of Stratford turnip-tops, I to my boys

And my tobacco, curling up to heaven.

We could be Kings, my Shagbard, you and I.

But what are Kings when regiment is gone,

But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

The best are shadows. I shall live for ever.

On 30 May 1593, at a house in Deptford, Marlowe was stabbed fatally through the eye, supposedly in a quarrel over money, by Ingram Frizer, who successfully pleaded self-defence. Marlowe was 29 years old.