Wayback Machine
Previous capture 5 Next capture
2005 2006 2007
10 captures
28 Dec 03 - 21 Oct 06
Close Help

What was Marlowe Like?


We don't have a time machine.  So venturing back into the darkness of history to produce a concrete biography is a bit like pulling a rabbit out of the hat.


At one stage in his life he must have looked much like the man pictured or drawn below.  Even Newton, who came to us half a century or so after Marlowe did, was still as much a magician as a scientist:

He was, however, among the first of modern men.  It is his way of thought, of analysis and introspection that still guides us today.

It is not my desire or intention to make this man up.  If we are to be successful here, we have to blend the known evidence with what we know of psychology and biochemistry to give us a workable impression of this man.   

Let's start off simple.  Marlowe was thought to have been absent from his college, Corpus Christi, at Cambridge, and as the rumors had it, "beyond the seas" at Rheims, the French/English seminary.   

It was, on and off, headed up by a former King's School scholar, Father William Weston as was Valladolid. So he would have been in good company there.   Weston was an expatriate, because in that age to become a Catholic priest one had to give up his nationality, if he was born English.   

Weston one of many King School lads that ended up beyond the seas and at Rheims, Valladolid and even. later, at Rome.  

As a matter of fact, however, Marlowe wasn't absent without leave.  If he had been at Rheims (we don't know for certain) he was there with the Queen authority, as we learn from the Privy Council's conciliar, dated at the end of June 1587.  

The Privy Council's entail or conciliar reads, "it was not her Majesty's pleasure that any one employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his Country should be defamed by those that are ignorant in the affairs he went about."


There is a passage in Hamlet that seems to strike to this period in Marlowe's life:


Hamlet asks Horatio why he is absent from their university, to which Horatio replies "A truant disposition..."  Marlowe, we know, was accused of being absent or truant from his university ca. 1587.  So the parallel seems important, since this is about the right time for the Ur Hamlet to have been written.

Hamlet, like the Queen and her Privy Councilors, stipulates otherwise, "I know you are no truant. But what is your affair in Elsinore?"

The overtone here is that Horatio is traveling on affairs of state, just as young Marlowe did whist at Cambridge.  

Their conversation continues until Horatio says, 

Season your admiration for a while With an attent ear, till I may deliver, Upon the witness of these gentlemen, This marvel to you...


So we begin to get a clear picture, albeit, one that dates to about 1587, when young Christopher would have been 23 years old.

The picture above is of the original Elizabethan portrait of Marlowe that was discovered during a renovation of his college in the early 1950s.  It is dated 1585 and correctly gives Marlowe's age as 21.  His signature, the only one of his known, is from the same year.   

The portrait shows a "keeper of secrets" if we are to judge from the unusual pose, which hides his left hand and much of his right.  He is dressed in the livery of the Queen's service, silks, something other students would not have been able to wear.  

As one of the only students of that age in his small college and given the fact the portrait was plastered over, attesting to his disgrace, we can be nearly certain that this was in fact his likeness. 

At twenty-one was just the right age to send off on missions of state in an era when travel was difficult and dangerous.

His remarkable command of languages, deportment and foreign customs, along with what the Privy Council called his record of "faithful dealing," would have made him ideal for these "tactical" assignments.


Let us consider the mission that the Queen dispatched Marlowe young friend Sir Thomas Walsingham on.  When she was considering marriage with the Duke of Anjou she  sent young Thomas to speak for her, as if he were her

Given the sexual ambiguities of the Duke, this assignment might have entailed a bit of extracurricular duty.  And Marlowe may have been with young Thomas during these important missions since he is certainly frequently absent from Cambridge during this period.


It is not my intention to attempt to prove Marlowe and his friend, young Sir Thomas, traveled traveled together on these important affairs of state.  It is enough to say that they might well have. If anything young Marlowe was the superior intellect of the two and young Thomas would have needed his services for the successful completion of his mission.  Marlowe's role would have been that of Sir Thomas' secretary and aide de camp. 

What we wish the reader to fully understand here is that Marlowe was being actively groomed to participate in these sorts of affairs...to use the word employed by both Hamlet and the Privy Council. 

He was quickly developing a powerful geopolitical mind.  His command of languages and foreign customs was daily growing.  His musical and verbal skills, along with his mathematical mind and keen powers of observation, must have made him a remarkable conversationalist.  A superstar among diplomats.

Scholars are now in luck to have the parallel life of Marlowe's friend and colleague, Nicholas Faunt, to study as an analogue of Marlowe's.  I grow weary of pointing this out, but both were from Canterbury, both held Parker Scholarships at Corpus Christi, Cambridge and both worked for the same masters, i.e., Walsingham and Burghley, to name just two.  

Faunt, who was a very talented young man, was no match for Marlowe.  Marlowe would have bested him at every turn and in every endeavor.  So Faunt serves as our governmental model or analogue of what Marlowe would have been like.  A highly trained behind the scenes personal secretary, proxy or projector.  A step and fetch it man for the rich and famous.  Many of these men became minor celebrities of their age, Sirs Lewis Leuknor and Thomas Overbury, sever as additional examples. 

From the other side of the aisle Marlowe was being groomed as a potential member of the clergy, as a replacement for Archbishop Parker.   

As I have pointed out at some length elsewhere, one of his lesser classmates, Benjamin Carrier is a case in point.  Mysteriously Carrier rose to become James I's Chaplin, as well as a Canon Dean of Canterbury, before he defected to Rome.  Carrier was with Marlowe at both the King's School and later at Corpus Christi, so I suspect his advancement to have come via his friendship with Marlowe.  Lewknor is even more mysterious.  He claimed to have attended Cambridge, but did not.  No one knows how he came to James' attention or to dominate his entertainments.

Marlowe's record suggests another dimension to his life. 

 Like Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who seems to have been modeled on him, Marlowe gained a reputation as a street fighter.  He is frequently found in "low company," as was Prince Hal.   If Marlowe was Shakespeare, this range of company was quite necessary for his development.  

So we approach that point in our narrative where we can draw a reasonable picture of young Marlowe.  He was, we know, from the lower middle classes, but fortunately from a remarkable community, Canterbury, where he was quickly recognized by men charged with finding qualified young lads for the Queen's secret service.  

More than likely he was selected early on and traveled prior to his enrollment in the King's School in 1578/9. 


While never married, he seems to have had an eye for the ladies.   

If we are allowed to extrapolate from the Sonnets he fathered a son in 1579 with Mary Sidney Herbert, then the Countess of Pembroke, likely whilst working with her brother Sir Philip Sidney. William Hebert was born on 8/18 April 1580, or 13 years to the day from the registration date of Venus and Adonis.

 Sidney's younger brother Sir Robert Sidney, would later treat Marlowe with professional kindness when he "deported" him under protective custody early in 1592, from Flanders, calling him a "scholar," in his dispatch to Lord Burghley and telling Burghley that Marlowe reported himself well connected to Lords Strange and Northumberland, both giants among the peerage. 


We now know that prior to this Marlowe had worked as "attendant and reader" to Lady Arbella Stuart for "a space of three years and a half."  This assignment was one of considerable prestige and assures us of Marlowe's considerable skills, since Lady Arbella was then Elizabeth's most likely successor.

So what we see is a very well connected young man.  A man born into a cobbler's home, but quickly removed from it by the power of his native intelligence.  An intelligence those present at the time called the "realm's highest mind."   This young man appears to have been as attractive to young women as to young men.  

Indeed Marlowe's friendships among men of the period is a bit better documented than his friendship for young women.  For example, the one book dedicated by Marlowe was to Mary Sidney Herbert by Marlowe, but was said to have been Watson's work.  Dr Thomas Watson seems to have been Marlowe's close friend and saved his life during the now famous duel in Hogs Lane in September 1589, during which Bradley was slain.  

So we have proof that Marlowe was friends with both Watson and Mary, proof that dates to 1592.  We have no proof of an earlier relationship between Marlowe and Mary, but we can place them together or rather in the same small community at the time of Mary's conception of William Herbert, the boy the poet suggests was his illicit son in the Sonnets.  

So we see, though dimly, a "normal" young Elizabethan.  First a boy raised amongst sisters in a cobbler's home and then thrust into a far more important arena, through careful and professional grooming.  In that realm he was expected to meet plot with counter plot and to be fluent in numerous languages.  In sort to fit in well with the high and mighty:

There was, however, nothing "normal" about young Marlowe. Which is why this sketch of him is so woefully incomplete.  Again according to those there at the time Marlowe was a "gargantuan mind.

So outward appearances aside, Marlowe's mental capacities made him a heavy weight.  By far the largest and most powerful behind the lines player of his age.  A housekeeper type like Sherman Kent, who influenced the affairs of half a dozen American presidents, a well hidden geopolitical mind operating at the highest levels.

It is a realm into which we cannot safely venture.  A realm he himself circumscribed.   

He did not wish to be known.  Here is a quote that I think is almost certainly his, though it was attributed to Thomas Heywood.  Writing about why he hadn't published more prose plays, Heywood remarked, "in this capacity, it was never any great desire on my part to be voluminously read." This was a man who did as he pleased.   A man not to be trifled with.  "Stop sir, for I know what it is to kill a man." 

This was a man who lived as he wished to live.  Part of that wish was to live behind a veil and he has made it very difficult for us to cast it aside.   I hope, however, I have made some minor progress in this essay.

He was always. of course, a man of letters.  Trained in art and arms.  He traveled the world, closely observed its peoples and interacted with all levels successfully.  Men of the lower sorts were quickly brought under his spell, used and reformed and made fit for "higher employment," just as Valentine's men were in Two Gentlemen of Verona.  At times he was cloistered both judicially and religiously.   A translator and writer of the first rank, much of his time was spent in thought and work:

With these gifts he obtained great personal power and wealth.  Because of this, it was a simple matter to give up his name.  A name and a background that had become a hateful embarrassment to him and to his high born friends.   

One Marlovian thinks he became the powerful Earl of Cork, aka Richard Boyle.  The men, as boys, were in the same class at both the King's School and at Cambridge, so it is certainly possible.  We simply don't know who he became.  

But we do know he survived 1593 and wrote the works now said Shakespeare's.  We suspect, nay we know, he sat in their audience and saw them staged.  We are fairly certain that he arranged the funds to both produce these plays and to publish them.  So we must never think of him as a misanthropic individual.  

I see him as beguiling.  Superficially he was jocular and charismatic.  Charming. But beneath that was a phenomenal calculating intelligence.  The world's most powerful mind.  A mind loaded with more data than a modern CD:

And one entirely capable of meeting any plot with counter plot:

As such he soon became a strategic player and found himself shaping dynastic affairs that would mold the world for centuries to come.   He may have played a role in the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years war and codified the concept of nation states.  His early interest in this possibility is seen in Measure for Measure, which sets in Vienna, and in Othello which may be seen to allude to the war, as well as in Winter's Tale.

Marlowe's Edward II is now proven to rely on then classified Scottish intelligence about James VI, later James I, as does Hamlet and Macbeth.  Similar studies have shown Marlowe's Tamburlaine contains detailed diplomatic intelligence about Ivan the Terrible. 

Marlowe's interest in these affairs is "business related."  Shakespeare's isn't, so it is much more difficult to explain.  A diplomatic historian would be forced to conclude these works, which are actually diplomatic docudramas, were all by a single author having high level access to the affairs of state.  

Return to John Baker's Home Page: