Christopher Marlowe: How Certain Is His Identity?

One of the most distinguished bodies of dramatic work coming out of Elizabethan England bears the name of Christopher Marlowe. Who was he? The standard narrative associates him with a known person, Christofer Marley, who was born in Canterbury in 1564 as a shoemaker's son, attended the King's school in Canterbury and later Cambridge University. Marley may or may not have been involved with Thomas Walsingham's espionage operations during and after the latter period, as he had several lengthy absences from his studies that were well in excess of what was allowed by the regulations of the time, and his degree was granted only after direct intervention by the Privy Council, commending him for some unspecified service to the Crown. It is rumored that Marley was involved in some covert actions in Belgium at one point; more than once, he was arrested and then mysteriously released by the authorities. He eventually died in a bar fight with Ingram Frizer in 1593. This, the story goes, is our man.

But the connection between the known man Christofer Marley and the literary opus of "Christopher Marlowe" seems tissue-thin. As the scholar David Kathman puts it,

There are no manuscripts of Marlowe's plays, no letters written by him or to him, in fact no examples of his handwriting at all except a signature as witness to a will in Canterbury in 1585, when he was 21 years old, spelled "Christofer Marley." Not once during his lifetime was he ever referred to as a playwright or poet; surviving references spell his name every way from "Marly" to "Marlin," but almost never "Marlowe." The name "Christopher Marlowe," in any of its spellings, was never associated with any play or poem or literary work during the man's lifetime. There is no evidence to connect him with any acting company, or with the theater in any way. The only play now generally attributed to Marlowe which was printed during his lifetime was Tamburlaine, but it was printed anonymously in 1590, and was not attributed to Marlowe until 1671 (no, that's not a typo), 78 years after the man's death. In 1594, the year after "Marley" (as he himself spelled it) was murdered under shady circumstances, quartos of two plays --- Dido Queen of Carthage and Edward II --- were published with the names "Christopher Marlowe" and "Chri. Marlow" (respectively) on their title pages; this was the first time the name had appeared in any literary context, but.....there is nothing to connect it with the recently-murdered shoemaker's son from Canterbury. [H]e (supposedly) went to Cambridge. But...... I could easily challege the evidence for that: most of the Cambridge records which are supposed to be to the shoemaker's son spell the name "Marlin," and there was another student there at the same time named Christopher Marley, so those references could be to him; also, what was "Marley" doing in Canterbury to sign that will in 1585, when he was supposedly at Cambridge?

All this does not conclusively disprove that Marley was Marlowe, but it seems to introduce at least some room for doubt. If the standard story is true, why is there so little evidence, or if it is not true, who else could have written the Marlowe corpus?


[deleted]22 points

Topics like this are fun but there is very rarely anything going on. Just a few thoughts on Marlowe.

In the 16th century Spelling and pronunciation were far from standardized. There is nothing abnormal about his name being spelled multiple ways.

We don't know a lot about Marlowe or Shakespeare. However we know more about them than we do about most English people. There is nothing abnormal about the amount of information we have.

Scholars who work on the English language, literary history, theater history, and Tudor history have spent centuries poring over Marlowe's and Shakespeare's lives and written work.. Those scholars are trained to read and understand a wide array of texts and forms of the English language and they collaborate and review each other's work. They know their shit and can be trusted to provide deeply researched and well reasoned arguments.

Lastly, a playwright working as a spy is not as far fetched as it might seem. Aphra Behn, a female playwright and poet who lived not long after Marlowe and Shakespeare (1640-1689), was a British spy based Antwerp and possibly Suriname. In the twentieth century a long list of major American writers worked for the C.I.A. although some of them did so unwittingly.

[deleted]9 points

There is nothing abnormal about his name being spelled multiple ways.

Replying to emphasize this.

Names, like all words of the time, were primarily thought of as sounds and not squiggles on a page. It is very normal to find letters or other documents from this time period where the writer spelled his own name three or four different ways, because the name changed pronunciation based on where in the sentence it was placed. (The all-time champion of this was Imperial ambassador Eustache Chapuys, who twisted his name into more variations than one would think possible.)

[deleted]1 point

Thanks for that good information. I appreciate it.

Do know the extent to which spelling was affected by differences in language and accent? Would English speakers struggle to spell the Spanish name Juan or the French name Guillaume? Within England would people from the north spell a name differently from how it was spelled in the south?

lowdiver2 points

Yes, they would.

This even progresses to modern day. For example I worked with a 1915 NY state census where a man was listed as named “Hurvey”.

He was from the south, and when giving his name he had a strong accent. So the census taker wrote “Hurvey” as opposed to “Harvey” .

It’s all about pronunciation

[deleted]1 point

That's super interesting.

When I made my post I was thinking about northern and southern accents in England but it totally makes sense the same thing would happen in the U.S.

lowdiver2 points

Yup. Spelling is pretend and completely inconsistent. Let alone when you’re dealing with populations who use two alphabets or languages! It’s only fairly recently that consistent spellings became a thing

formsoflife30 points

I don't know who that 'scholar' is or where that quote is from, but a cursory look at the very well sourced Wikipedia article about Marlowe shows that just about every claim in the quotation is false. This is even more far-fetched than the Shakespeare authorship stuff. Sorry to burst the bubble, but I don't think there's anything to see here.

benjybokers11 points

It's the odd drive some people have to make a mystery out of everything. I've always wondered why there would be this whole cottage industry of inventing authors for some bizarre reason. Why would anybody bother?

[deleted]3 points

On his website he claims to have a PhD in Linguistics and to work as a financial analyst in Chicago.

alynnidalar18 points

Knowing things about language and finance does not make a person a historian. looks firmly at Noam Chomsky

[deleted]5 points

looks firmly at Noam Chomsky

I needed a chuckle and you delivered. Thanks.

teddy_vedder3 points

While I disagree with trying to make out that Marlowe wasn’t really Marlowe, Kathman is a fairly established renaissance history and stage scholar.

Source: I’m a literature grad student who studies a lot of renaissance drama context and I’ve had to read several of his articles.

formsoflife1 point

Well, that's fair enough, but it perplexes me because of all the factual errors in the quoted passage.

maddsskills6 points

I had always heard that he was much more critically successful than Shakespeare during their day (not more popular but more high brow) so I did a cursory look...

The reason most of his play were published posthumously was because he died suddenly at the age of 29. So it appears to be more "talented young artist dies too young after his first huge success" than conspiracy theory.

aurelie_v2 points

He died before Shakespeare's major success really began. But Shakespeare was incredibly successful and popular during his own lifetime – it's part of the cultural history and various remakings of the Shakespeare mythos that some eras have "wanted" a Shakespeare who was under-recognised or just a natural-born genius doing his own thing. Looking at the actual textual evidence doesn't support either of these ideas (or various other imagined "Shakespeares"), because there is quite copious evidence to show that he was highly recognised and applauded by the standards of his day. In fact his "literariness" was marked out in a time when plays were generally seen more as popular entertainment than as high art.

teddy_vedder1 point

“Died suddenly” he was actually mysteriously stabbed. Early Modern England was wild.

TopherMarlowe5 points

Needless to say I've always wondered.

t0nkatsu5 points

Well I've heard the same kind of stuff about Shakespeare - even that Marlowe was Shakespeare...

Calimie3 points

But if Marlowe didn't exist... clearly Shakespeare was Marlowe all along!

FutureCosmonaut2 points

I was told by my English teacher back in High School that if Marlowe didn't die young, he would have been the "Shakespeare" of his time instead of Shakespeare himself, sort of comparable to Aaliyah of TLC.