Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (February 1564-30 May 1593) was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and considered the most popular and talented tragedian of his time. Were it not for his murder at the age of 29, cutting him off at the height of his success, it is highly probable it would be Marlowe’s name which became the bane of schoolchildren the world over, not Shakespeare’s.
Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe wasn’t a man known to mince his words. “All that love not tobacco and boys are fools,” is a quote attributed to him. Perhaps even more daringly, Marlowe swore “the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe,” and “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest.” He firmly believed St. John the Baptist and Christ were lovers, and the warrant for his arrest on charges of blasphemy would have surprised precisely nobody when it was issued less than two weeks before his death. He’d only got away with as much as he had prior to that because he was a firm favourite of Queen Elizabeth I’s, and had long been rumoured to have been a government spy.
A highly-educated Cambridge scholar, Marlowe certainly had better qualifications than Shakespeare, and his plays show a strong classical influence. From the outset, Marlowe placed queer characters on the Elizabethan stage, such as Jupiter and Ganymede in his first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:
JUPITER: Hold here, my little love, these linked gems, [give jewels]
My Juno ware upon her marriage-day,
Put thou about thy neck, my own sweet-heart,
And trick thy arms and shoulders with my theft.
GANYMEDE: I would have a jewel for mine ear,
And a fine brooch to put in my hat,
And then I’ll hug with you an hundred times.
JUPITER: And shalt have, Ganymede, if thou wilt be my love.
VENUS: Ay, this is it: you can sit toying there
And playing with that female wanton boy,
While my Aeneas wanders on the seas…
— Act I, Scene i
Rather a startling way to open a play in the 1590s, one would have thought, with the king of the gods fondling his boy-lover and giving him his wife’s jewellery in exchange for sexual favours, but Elizabethan audiences lapped it up. Although Ganymede wasn’t a major character in Dido, the gods’ in-fighting was shown to be at the core of the troubles for the earthly characters, with Ganymede being the symbol of Jupiter’s estrangement from Juno.
After Dido, Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine the Great, the play which cemented his position and popularity among his contemporaries. It was such a success he wrote a sequel, which was to be the last play of his published in his lifetime. His other works: The Jew of Malta, Edward II, The Massacre at Paris, and Doctor Faustus, were all published and performed posthumously to great success, despite dealing with themes far darker and more controversial than Dido or Tamburlaine.
Although it’s Faustus which is better remembered today, Edward II is the most interesting from a queer perspective. It’s one of the earliest English historical plays, although Shakespeare added considerably to the canon, writing eleven English histories and three Roman.
Reinterpreting history or known stories for the theatre was a common trick at a time when playwrights were expected to produce something new to entertain the masses with astonishing rapidity, but a play based on the same-sex affections of a King of England raises eyebrows even today.
The play opens with Piers Gaveston, the exiled favourite of the young Edward, rejoicing in the death of the old king and his ability now to return to court:
“My father is deceast, come Gaveston,
And share the kingdom with thy deerest friend.”
Ah words that make me surfet with delight:
What greater blisse can hap to Gaveston,
Then live and be the favorit of a king?
Sweete prince I come, these thy amorous lines,
Might have enforst me to have swum from France,
And like Leander gaspt upon the sande,
So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy armes.
The sight of London to my exiled eyes,
Is as Elizium to a new come soule.
Not that I love the citie or the men,
But that it harbors him I hold so deare,
The king, upon whose bosome let me die,
— Act I, Scene i
Certainly, the romantic significance of that speech can’t go unnoticed, even to ordinary Londoners who might not have been aware that according to Greek legend, Leander was a young man who fell hopelessly in love with a priestess who lived on the other side of the Hellespont, and would swim the strait every night to be with her. That Leander’s story has a tragic end, with him drowning and his lover throwing herself to her death from a tower, also neatly foreshadows Edward and Gaveston’s fate.
Marlowe wrote more of Leander in his eponymous poem about the lovers, declaring:
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,
For in his looks were all that men desire…
And returned to classical influence in Edward II, to justify the king taking a male lover:
The mightiest kings have had their minions;
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patroclus, stern Achilles drooped.
And not kings only, but the wisest men:
The Roman Tully loved Octavius,
Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.
— Act I, Scene iv
The motive for Marlowe’s murder has been cited as everything from a drunken brawl, a lovers’ quarrel, an accident, or a political assassination ordered by anyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Queen herself. Some even proposed Marlowe faked his own death to escape arrest. The witness reports at the time were considered conflicting and unreliable, and today we’ll never know the truth. All we can say with any certainty is that as some men live and die by the sword, Marlowe lived and died by his words.
Born on this day: Sam Adams (52, American), former mayor of Portland, Oregon; Michael Huffington (68, American), one-term Republican congressman, former co-chair of the Log Cabin Republicans, and financial backer of several pro-LGBT organisations and initiatives; David Pichler (47, American), former Olympic diver; Doug Pinnick (65, American), musician best known for progressive metal band King’s X; and Doug Spearman (53, American), television actor best known for his role as Professor Chance Counter in Noah’s Arc.
Died on this day: Percy Jocelyn (1764-1843, Irish), Anglican Bishop of Clogher until forced from his position following a scandal after being caught in a compromising position with a Grenadier Guardsman in 1822; and Harry Partch (1901-1974, American), composer. Kyra Cordova (1985-2012, American), a transwoman shot dead in Philadelphia. Her body lay unclaimed in the morgue for six days before being identified by her fingerprints. 300 people attended a vigil in her memory at the William Way LGBT Community Center. Nobody has ever been charged with her murder.