Christopher Marlowe wasn't killed but banished...

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old books Marlowe had access to

Browsing Marlowe's Libraries

by Charles Michaels, Jr.

(editor's note: This article first appeared in the Marlovian newsletter. Charles Michaels, Jr. is a former officer in the Marlowe Society in England, currently living in retirement in Southern California.  More links will be added to this essay. --dm 5/14/03)

In 1978, precisely 400 years after Christopher Marlowe, at the age of 14, was enrolled as a Queen's scholar at King's School, in his home town of Canterbury, a book titled Backgrounds of Shakespeare's Thought came of the press. In it, John Erskine Hankins lists those books which he claims the author of Hamlet and other dramatic masterpieces must have read in order to write those great works. Yet William Shakspere's education is a blank slate. Proponents of his authorship argue circularly that he must have read the books named by Hankins in order to have written the plays which bear his name.

There is no need to beg the question of education in the case of Christopher Marlowe. Most of the authors cited by Mr. Hankins, as well as many of the specific volumes he names, were available to this brilliant playwright from his earliest years as a scholar. Like many accomplished scholars, Kit's education came not so much from the classrooms as from great libraries. From his King's School days throughout his literary career Marlowe had access to some of the best libraries of the time. Let's browse.

The library of John Gresshop, Headmaster of King's School

The Headmaster of King's School during Marlowe's tenure there was a scholarly cleric named John Gresshop who possessed a fabulous library. Gresshop died in 1580, the year Marlowe went up to Cambridge to pursue his higher education. But two of Gresshop's colleagues inventoried the departed Headmaster's worldly goods, including his extensive collection of books.

Gresshop had been a man of wide interests, as reflected by his library which was far larger than private collections of University dons. It consisted of more than 350 volumes. Each volume was annotated with title and author along with its estimated value. There were half a dozen different bibles; religious tracts by Luther, Knox, Erasmus, Calvin; numerous classics including Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Petrarch, Aristotle of course, and four volumes of Ovid, one with illustrations, valued at eight pence. Playwrights Plautus, Aristophanes, and Sophocles were present. And there were fun books by Chaucer and Boccaccio; and Aesop's Fables. Exciting histories were there, too, including Thucydides, Caesar and Plutarch. Then there was Munsters' `Cosmographia' which could whet a young man's appetite to see the world. And many more. It truly was a fabulous library. Dr. Urry wrote: "Perhaps in one way or another, Gresshop and his library were crucial to Marlowe's development."

The books by Ovid must have made a deep impression on Marlowe and led to his lifelong admiration of the Latin poet. Indeed, it may have been at King's School that Marlowe became so enticed with Ovid's works that he began his translation of the `Amores.'

One book in Gresshop's library was to have sinister consequences: Proctor's "
The Fall of the Late Arrian," which set out and refuted the Unitarian view that Jesus Christ had been merely a man rather than the Son of God. It was excerpts from this book that constables found in Thomas Kyd's quarters on the twelfth of May in 1593 when they were searching for those responsible for the vendetta being waged against foreigners in London. As a result of this find, Kyd had been dragged off to Bridewell prison and stretched on the rack. Under extreme torture, Kyd claimed that the papers denying the deity of Christ had been Marlowe's work and had accidently been shuffled in with his papers when they had been working together two years before. This led to Marlowe's arrest and to that fateful event at Deptford on the penultimate day in May, 1593.

Another book of significance in Gresshop's library was "The Tragical Discourses of Lord Buckhurst." Lord Buckhurst was born Thomas Sackville, and he and Thomas Norton shared the distinction of writing the first English play in blank verse. As a young man, Thomas Sackville had devoted himself to literature. By 1593, he had become one of the most powerful men in England. The Dictionary of National Biography refers to him as "rich, cultivated, sagacious and favored by the Queen who ordered him to be in continual attendance on her." As Lord Buckhurst, he was a member of the Privy Council and the Star Chamber, and as such he would have been one of the men to judge Marlowe upon his arrest. And how would we expect him to react? His "Tragedy of Gorboduc" which was the first English drama written in blank verse had been "stiff and cumbersome" and how the premiere playwright of England who had made something truly brilliant out of blank verse stood before him. Should we be surprised at the leniency granted Marlowe upon his arrest and appearance before the dreaded Star Chamber?

The Parker Scholarship

When Marlowe arrived at Cambridge, he found an even greater literary feast than he had partaken of at King's, thanks to Matthew Parker and his son, John. Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury and past Master of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, died in 1575. The terms of his will provided for three scholarships to Corpus Christi, one being for a lad from King's School. Parker scholarships were for three years, or for six years if the scholars were candidates for Holy Orders. Since Marlowe was given a six year scholarship, we know the initial direction of his planned careera direction he at some point determined not to follow.

After Archbishop Parker died, his son, John, presided over the annual scholarships. John set out specific conditions. Scholars so selected had to be proficient in their academic work, but they also were required to demonstrate their musical ability and skill in composing verse. Marlowe's selection indicates he had both an early love for music and high academic achievement.

The Corpus Christi library

When Christopher Marlowe arrived in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College had one of the most important and best-stocked libraries in England thanks to Henry VIII. A century earlier the reformation monarch closed all the Catholic monasteries in England, and dispersed throughout his realm the books and manuscripts from their libraries. Queen Elizabeth was determined to preserve the early recorded history of England and she ordered Parker to retrieve the missing books and manuscripts. This he did with enthusiasm with the help of several agents who scoured the countryside. Most of these books Parker sent to the college library at Corpus Christi.

Many of the books were concerned with theology and canon law; but there were also books on astronomy, music, mathematics, alchemy, philosophy, politics, civil law; even French romances and works by Homer, Euripides, Cicero, Seneca and Chaucer. These books didn't gather much dust on the shelves when Marlowe got his hands on them.

The Chronicles

Especially noteworthy in the Archbishop's bequests were the historical texts Parker had sent to is alma mater: Hall's "Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York," Grafton's "Chronicles," and Stowe's "Chronicles" and "Annals." These, along with Holinshed's "Chronicles" which were published in 1578, were the principal sources for Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's histories, so similar to Marlowe's in construction.

Marlowe Lives!