Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

The Killing of Christopher Marlowe

A review of The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl
(London: Vintage, 2002)

Every season produces its new crop of books for "the Marlowe file", or speculation on the possible conspiracy that lead to the killing of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Charles Nichollís file has been kept open for the past ten years, since the first edition of his acclaimed investigation The Reckoning. This second edition has substantial additions and some new discoveries and follows some new trails while jettisoning others. But how new is his conclusion? Is the case any nearer to being solved? Some of the new material involves quite peripheral figures – here mainly because Nicholl is obsessed with his subject – who nevertheless remain shadowy.

As with all conspiracy theories, the web of suspicion is cast over virtually everyone. Nicholl does convince us that Marlowe was murdered at an infamous meeting with three other men at a lodging house in Deptford, but the idea that his mouth had to be stopped because he was a security risk remains a possibility rather than a certainty. The secret world of Elizabeth espionage is so torturous that one theory may be as good as another. Disappointingly, Nicholl rejects as a false trail the theory that the fatal stabbing occurred while Marlowe and Ingrim Frizer were fighting over a rent boy whom they both desired, though Nicholl does not deny that Marlowe was gay, in view of the evidence in his plays and contemporary accusations against him. Marlowe was accused by at least three of his contemporaries as being a propagandist for atheist, freethinking, and sodomy, having claimed that Christ and Saint John the Evangelist were bedfellows and "All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools." The extensive list of charges brought by the informer Richard Baines is frequently cited, but I would have preferred a full transcript. In response to research since the first edition, Nicholl has had to remove some of the major planks of his original case, resulting in a conclusion whose weakness is more apparent than it was ten years ago.

Nicholís now is not so certain that there was a political or court conspiracy. It now appears that those who murdered Marlowe were opportunists rather than conspirators. The accused are the three men in the room when Marlowe was stabbed to death: Ingrim Frizer who claimed he killed Marlowe in self-defence during a fight, Nicholas Skeres who was Frizerís accomplice, and Robert Poley, "a very bad fellow" whom no one trusted and who was a major agent of Sir Francis Walsingham the spymaster. Frizer and Skeres were accomplices in schemes of fraud and extortion (i.e. they were typical Elizabethan businessmen!); Skeres kept company with criminals. But Nichols is still convinced it was an unsolved murder rather than a tavern brawl. He succeeds in persuading us that the confrontation was planned beforehand, but that the killing may have been a last-minute decision when the men failed to persuade Marlowe to come to some agreement. No fight took place, before Skeres and Pole held Marlowe between them as Frizer drove the dagger into him. Marlowe may have been some kind of security risk to the men, but their motive frankly remains unknown.

The emblematic motto on the portrait of Marlowe at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, says (in Latin) "That which nourishes me also destroys me." Marlowe lived fast and died young, and Nicholl tells an exciting story, full of intrigue, and paints a wonderful portrait gallery of very shady characters from the Elizabethan underworld. The boom-town of Deptford is wonderfully described, its busy ship-yards, its tenement houses, its rough taverns, its market gardeners and its criminals. The conspiracy theoristís excitement at unravelling chains of evidence proves infectious, and the mountain of circumstantial detail Nicholl presents to the jury succeeds in recreating history in the raw.


A shorter version of this review was published in Londonís Gay Times in January 2003. Copyright 2003, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.)

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