Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Stupefying Whitewash

A review of Who Was Kit Marlowe? by Della Hilton
(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977)

After reading this slim, 'popular', utterly styleless biography, one is sure to know less about Christopher Marlowe than ever before. At least if one believes the author. Which I don't, not for a minute. She's too obviously obsessed with salvaging the reputation of a 'bad' man.

Della Hilton is convinced that Marlowe was a good, decent, sober, moderate, warm, respectable person – a genius at composing plays and poetry, but nevertheless an inconspicuous conformist in social behaviour. He was not, she says, an atheist, not Machiavellian or even cynical, not a homosexual, not lawless, not rowdy, not overweening in his ambition – but kind and gentle and nice (which would make him thoroughly dull in my estimation). Certainly she is right to protest that his character has been painted blacker than it could possibly have been – but her overreactionary whitewash is utterly unconvincing. In fact she has really gone over the deep end by the time we reach the final chapter and we are told that Marlowe was not murdered but probably killed himself (why a man of moderation should do this I am at a loss to udnerstand), that he was buried in Scadbury (in a conveniently unmarked tomb), that his burial was the model for Shakespeare's descripton of Ophelia's burial, that he had been married to a woman named Joan, that he wrote part of Macbeth.

Here is how she presents her arguments:

There was a tomb, old and unnamed, in the grounds of Scadbury. This could be where the body of Christopher Marlowe was buried by his friends when he died soon after Deptford, with Gabriel Harvey's brother officiating, Edward Blount helping to bring 'his breathless body to the earth', and Shakespeare having this sad occasion in mind when he set the scene for Ophelia's burial in Hamlet. If this were so, it leads to the awesome speculation that Marlowe took his own life in despair, because of the desolation of anonymity spreading out before him.

'Awesome' indeed! So much so that the reader might be pardoned for collapsing in utter stupefaction before this mad gallop unchecked by evidence of any sort.

The main reason Della Hilton has for dismissing the brilliantly researched book Death of Christopher Marlowe by J. Leslie Hotson in 1925 is that the records documenting his murder spell his name Morley. and that Marlowe's name was rarely spelled that way. But we know that it was spelled that way on at least one other occasion, as well as in the forms Marley and Marlin and Marlo and so on. She acknowledges that our Marlowe knew Frizer and Skeres, but still insists that they were present at the murder of a wholly different person named Christopher Morley, and that they later deliberately confused his name with that of the dramatist. One would think that her method were merely slipshod were it not so apparent that she is determined at all costs to rehabilitate her beloved dramatist. But even while she rejects the evidence that Frizer killed Marlowe, she accepts the evidence that the two men quarreled over a mistress – she selects what she needs and discards the rest.

As for 'Joan Marlowe, widow' recently unearthed by scholarshuip, Ms Hilton does not examine this in detail but assumes she was Marlowe's wife, rather than sister-in-law or aunt or some more distant relation or none at all, and even inroduces this extremely shadowy figure into the narrative in a totally gratuitous manner ("If Marflowe met Joan only months before this", etc.). In the event, Ms Hilton is forced to admit that Marlowe left no offspring, and even she dare not go so far as to suggest that he ever lived with his wife if he had one. He lived at various times with Thomas Watson, Thomas Kyd, and with the Walsinghams.

Needless to add that in Ms Hilton's view Marlowe was not homosexual: the accusations by Kyd and Baines are simply untrue; the long and loving description of Leander's naked body in his poem Hero and Leander merely reflects the Renaissance joy at rediscovering the human form; the description of Neptune playing with Leander merely shows Marlowe's sense of humour; the love of Edward II for Gaveston in his play Edward II simply demonstrates his awareness of complex human relationships; and all in all, Marlowe's plays contain fewer homosexual characters and descriptions than "some of his contemporaries" (unspecified). The explicitly homosexual passages in Marlowe's play Dido are not mentioned.

Ms Hilton's speculations are heaped upon one another without any foundation in fact, often repeated in order to obscure the fact that no line of enqu8ry is followed through, and padded out with sentimental pastoralism ("Green trees, blossom and perhaps sunshine and blue skies attended him.") and simple inanities ("If Kit Marlowe had not been born in Canterbury he would not have attended King's School, he may not have received a scholarship to Cambridge University . . . Circumstance was on his side."). Her sources – when she uses them – are the standard biographies by Bakeless, Boas, Hotson, Wright and Rowse. It was not a very hard task – perhaps the work of a mere few weeks – to compress these into her 163-page book. You could do it too – a save yourself a fiver.


A shorter version of this review was published in Londonís Gay News No. 114 in 1977, p. 24. Copyright 1977, 2021 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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