Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe may not be as famous as his contemporary William Shakespeare, but his death at age 29 was far more dramatic — an argument over a bill that led to a stabbing, with the killer successfully pleading self-defense. But there’s something fishy about it all. Were the witnesses telling the truth? Did someone arrange for him to be murdered?
Marlowe’s life in London, the shadowy circumstances of his killing, and his alleged espionage work for Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster are at the heart of a new novel, A Fine Madness: A Christopher Marlowe Murder Mystery, by Alan Judd (Pegasus).
The following is excerpted with permission from the opening chapter.
Very well, sir, I hereby solemnly promise that I, Thomas Phelippes, under oath, will tell all I know of the man.
But he has been dead these thirty years and I cannot be far from my own end. Nor is my memory what it was. And I am still amazed, sir, that you come to my cell with ale and provisions and kind words, saying that the King, King James himself, commands that I tell you all I knew of him, everything. Yet you do not tell me why His Majesty enquires after a forgotten poet and play-maker. Almost forgotten. I do not know what he wants to know. All I can offer is whatever scraps of memory are left and pray they will be fit for the royal table.
However, I am grateful, sir, for what you bring and for your company. Hearing yesterday of the Court’s interest in me prompted the governor here to move me to these more comfortable quarters, with more coals and candles, as you see, as well as fresh paper, quills and ink. Which is no less than I need anyway when I have to labour at work which the government that imprisons me still demands. God knows how it pains my head and wearies my sight, yet I confess it gives some pleasure. My only pleasure here. Along with my wife, Mary – whom God preserve – mathematic has ever been my love, you see. Although I no longer decipher with that swift facility I once commanded, it is still my delight to puzzle out men’s hidden meanings.
Yet I cannot promise to decipher Christopher Marlowe for you. He was a man I knew only in part. He never opened his heart to me, nor perhaps to any, but I now think he may have shown more of it than I had eyes to see or ears to hear in those days of our youth. Although often in company and with wide acquaintance, he was also a cat that walked alone, always with something withheld. I can think of no man who would have known him fully.
And so I beg you assure His Majesty that, though I shall do my best, he must treat whatever I say as at once true and false. False not because Christopher did not spy for my master, Mr Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, nor because he did not die by the knife near the end of May 1593 in the old Queen’s reign, at the age of twenty-nine. No, the falsehood comes from that concentration on him which inevitably puts him at the centre of the story, which he never was. To ourselves, of course, we are always the heart of our own stories, but viewed from without our stories are but parts of other men’s stories, themselves but the suburbs of greater stories. If we are lucky – as I was then – we may have dwelt on the fringes of epics. But as individuals we are clods of mud dropped from the wheel of Fate, which carries us we know not where and leaves us where it pleases.
That is as true of me, of course, as of him. And even of you, sir, if I may hazard, however exalted your position at Court, however much you now bask in the King’s favour. Although in my world, which Christopher briefly shared, I was close to the heart of affairs, it could all have happened without me. Sir Francis would have found some other man to decipher codes and assist him as I did, and events would still have fallen out as God ordained. Not that Christopher Marlowe would have agreed with that, having little time for God’s ordinances. In his world, the world of playhouses, players and poets, I had no part, of course. I thought it ungodly and unruly and, in any case, numbers, not words, were always my passion. You might discover more about him if you could find another player still living. But they never last long.
I could begin with our first meeting when he was a callow scholar of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, aged about seventeen. Except that Christopher was never callow; he was always knowing, assessing, judging, even as a youth. I remember him then as neither short nor tall, with brown hair and eyes and just the beginnings of a beard. His face was unmarked and his voice low, a Kentish drawl, unlike his writings which as perhaps you know are high-flown and exclamatory, full of energy.
But to begin at the beginning would mislead you because it would appear that my knowledge of him advanced incrementally, step by step over years, whereas that is not how we know people. We meet someone, we form an opinion and there they stay, pinned to the wall of memory unless illuminated by some new event or encounter, a flash of lightning which shows them from a different angle or facing another way. We think we know what they are but we know not what they may be. It was so with me and Christopher and it is true of ourselves, of all of us.
Or I could start with his end, that flash of steel, last of several in his short life. When people still spoke of him that is what they wanted to hear about. Could that be His Majesty’s interest? No, of course, you cannot say. But if I started with his end it would mislead you by giving the impression that everything before was leading up to it, a causal chain, one thing leading to another. Indeed, in those days there were some who even suspected a conspiracy. I hope I can set His Majesty’s mind at rest on that. Truth and life are always more haphazard than we like to think. There was no determination in Christopher’s death, no series of causes, still less any plot or design, in my opinion. Yet, looking back on it now, it seems to me it was inevitable. Inevitable but not necessary, if you accept my distinction. It was in his character to die young and in a violent manner. He need not have, he could have chosen differently, but given what he made of himself he was destined to burn bright and be abruptly extinguished. It is impossible to imagine him fading away like the rest of us, unless we imagine him as someone quite different. Similarly, you could say of me that it was inevitable I should eke out my closing years in a little room in the King’s Bench prison, with its barred window and smoking candles and small coals. Inevitable that I should never burn bright, like him, but splutter long and slow, fading. But it was never necessary because I could have managed my life differently, I could have chosen differently, but that I did not, would not.
Lust in age is a little fire in a dark field, wrote another poet, one I believe Christopher knew. It is true also of life in age, but he never lived long enough to see that. He bled out on Eleanor Bull’s floorboards in full combustion, the flames of life still roaring and leaping. He never knew decline, unlike me, and I cannot conceive how he would have lived with it. He would not have been Christopher if he had.