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Christopher Marlowe & 'The Tragedy of Dr. Faustus'

"Lente, lente currite, equis nocti"

Director Devon Nuku has taken a risk by setting his abridged production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus in the 1920s, and casting a woman as the learned academic who makes a pact with the devil to gain twenty-four years of granted wishes. Renowned for its unwieldy, epic length classic, this production of Dr Faustus walks a thin line between tragedy and farce.

“There’s been massive interest in the show,” says Katie Boyle, who plays the lead. “It’s a play so many people have heard of, and haven’t had the chance to see. There aren’t many plays like this: you’ve got jokes, heavy drama, supernatural themes, and a deeply tragic journey. You can’t ask for more than that.” Boyle brings a wealth of Elizabethan acting experience to the stage, having performed at the Pop-Up Globe in 2016 in Hamlet, toured New Zealand with Wellington’s Lord Lackbeards, and worked with Shakespearean actor and expert Ben Crystal. Many of the actors play multiple roles - a regular convention in Marlowe’s day - and some of the combinations are particularly challenging, with James Bayliss playing eight characters, including Lucifer, in a single scene.

More correctly titledThe Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe based his play on the German Faustbuch, the first dramatised version of the Faust legend of a scholar's dealings with the devil. It poses a textual problem as two versions of the play exist: the 1604 quarto and the 1616 quarto. Both were published after Marlowe's death and scholars have disagreed about which is more representative, with some editions based on a combination of the two. The general consensus holds the earlier version is more preferable because it contains irregular character names and idiosyncratic spelling, which are believed to reflect a text based on the author's handwritten manuscript, or "foul papers." The later text, in comparison, was highly edited, censored because of shifting theater laws regarding religious words onstage, and contains several additional scenes which may have been written by Samuel Rowley and William Bird. While previous versions of 'The Devil's Pact' can be traced back to the fourth century, Marlowe deviated significantly by depicting his protagonist as unable to burn his books or repent to a merciful God in order to have his contract annulled. Faustus is instead carried off by demons and in the 1616 quarto his mangled corpse is later discovered by several scholars.

The parallel narrative trajectories of the playwright's life and his hero's demise are intriguing. As with other writers of the period, little is known about Marlowe (1564-1593), save for the fact that he was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day and greatly influenced Shakespeare, who was born in the same year and only rose to pre-eminence after Marlowe's mysterious early death. What evidence remains is to be found in legal records and other official documents, but this has not prevented writers of both fiction and non-fiction from speculating about his activities and character. He was variously characterized by contemporaries as a spy and counterfeiter, a drunken brawler, a heretical magician, an inveterate tobacco-smoker, and a homosexual "rakehell," with one commentator suggesting it is "absurd to dismiss all of these Elizabethan rumours and accusations as 'the Marlowe myth'."

What we do know is that in 1592 Marlowe was arrested in Flushing for his alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, possibly related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was released and sent to the Lord Treasurer (Burghley) to be dealt with, but no charge or imprisonment resulted. This arrest may have disrupted one of Marlowe's espionage activities, perhaps by giving the resulting coinage to the Catholic cause, since his mission in the Netherlands was to infiltrate the followers of the exiled Catholic plotter William Stanley and report back to Burghley.

In early May 1593 several bills were posted about London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands who had settled in the city. One of these, the "Dutch church libel" was written in rhymed iambic pentameter, contained allusions to several of Marlowe's plays, and was signed 'Tamburlaine.'

On 11 May the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible and the next day Marlowe's colleague Thomas Kyd was taken into custody and possibly tortured. Kyd's lodgings were searched and a three-page fragment of a heretical tract was found. In a letter to Sir John Puckering, Kyd asserted that it had belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had been writing "in one chamber" some two years earlier for their mutual aristocratic patron, probably Lord Strange. In a second letter, Kyd described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate, and "intemperate & of a cruel hart." A warrant for Marlowe's arrest was issued on 18 May, after the Privy Council discovered he was staying with Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's principal secretary and a man more deeply involved in state espionage than any other member of the Privy Council.

No reason was given for the warrant was given, though it was thought to be connected to allegations of blasphemy, since a manuscript believed to have been written by Marlowe was said to contain "vile heretical concepts." On 20 May, he was brought to the court to attend upon the Privy Council for questioning, but no record exists of it meeting that day and Marlowe was commanded to attend each day thereafter, until "licensed to the contrary." Ten days later, he was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer. Despite intense scholarly speculation, the question of whether the stabbing was connected to his arrest has never been resolved.

The official account only came to light in 1925 when Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner's report of the inquest on Marlowe's death, held two days later on 1 June 1593. Marlowe had spent all day in a house in Deptford together with three men: Nicholas Skeres, Robert Poley, and Frizer. All three had been employed by one or other of the Walsinghams. Skeres and Poley had helped snare the conspirators in the Babington Plot and Frizer would later describe Thomas Walsingham as his "master" at that time, although his role was probably more that of a financial or business agent as he was for Walsingham's wife Audrey a few years later. These witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had argued over payment of the bill (now famously known after Shakespeare as the "great reckoning in a little room") exchanging "divers malicious words" while Frizer was sitting at a table between the other two and Marlowe was lying behind him on a couch. Marlowe snatched Frizer's dagger and wounded his head. In the ensuing struggle, Marlowe was stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly. The jury concluded that Frizer acted in self-defence, and within a month he was pardoned, while Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave immediately after the inquest.

The complete text of the inquest report was published by Hotson in The Death of Christopher Marlowe, in the introduction to which Prof. GL Kittredge wrote "The mystery of Marlowe's death, heretofore involved in a cloud of contradictory gossip and irresponsible guess-work, is now cleared up for good and all on the authority of public records of complete authenticity and gratifying fullness." This confidence proved short-lived, however, as other scholars began to suspect that this was not the case. Writing to the Times Literary Supplement shortly after the book's publication, Eugénie de Kalb disputed that the struggle and outcome as described were even possible, and Samuel A Tannenbaum insisted that such a wound could not have possibly resulted in instant death, as had been claimed. Even Marlowe's biographer John Bakeless acknowledged that "some scholars have been inclined to question the truthfulness of the coroner's report. There is something queer about the whole episode" and said that Hotson's discovery "raises almost as many questions as it answers." It has also been discovered more recently that the apparent absence of a local county coroner to accompany the Coroner of the Queen's Household would, if noticed, have made the inquest null and void.

One of the main reasons for doubting the truth of the inquest report concerns the reliability of Marlowe's companions as witnesses. As an agent provocateur for the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Poley was a consummate liar, the "very genius of the Elizabethan underworld", and is on record as saying "I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm." The other witness, Skeres, had for many years acted as a confidence trickster, drawing young men into the clutches of people in the money-lending racket, including Marlowe's apparent killer, Frizer, with whom he was currently engaged in just such a swindle. In other words, despite being referred to as "generosi" (gentlemen) in the inquest report, they were all professional liars.

Some historians consider that Marlowe's professed atheism, like his supposed Catholicism, may have been nothing more than an elaborate and sustained pretense adopted to further his work as a government spy. Contemporary evidence comes from Marlowe's accuser in Flushing, an informer called Richard Baines. The governor of Flushing had reported that each of the men had "of malice" accused the other of instigating the counterfeiting, and of intending to go over to the Catholic "enemy"; such an action was considered atheistic by the Church of England. Following Marlowe's arrest in 1593, Baines submitted to the authorities a "note containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God's word."

Both Kyd and Baines connected Marlowe with the mathematician Thomas Harriot and Sir Walter Raleigh's atheist circle. Another document claimed that "one Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons for Atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity, and that ... he hath read the Atheist lecture to Sir Walter Raleigh and others." Some critics believe that Marlowe sought to disseminate these views in his work and that he identified with his rebellious and iconoclastic protagonists. However, all stage plays had to be approved by the Master of the Revels before they could be performed, and the censorship of publications was under the control of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Presumably, these authorities did not consider any of Marlowe's works to be unacceptable, other than his ribald translation of Ovid's Amores.

Anthony Burgess' final novel A Dead Man in Deptford scabrously portrayed these aspects Marlowe's brief career, emphasizing the parallels between Marlowe's homosexuality and his over-reaching protagonists, and suggesting that he simply knew too much about the inner workings of Walsingham's spy network. Never afraid to express his opinions and feelings in his work, once Marlowe started blabbing outside the confines of the professional playhouse, his fate was effectively sealed.


Doctor Faustus continues at BATS Theatre at 6pm until Saturday 1 July. Book on the BATS website.

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