One of the key historical figures in Unlawful Things is the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. Why Marlowe, my writing tutor asked? Where did your interest begin?
Well, I knew Marlowe’s plays from school and university. Marlowe, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, wrote some of the most amazing plays of the sixteenth century, such as his enduring classic Doctor Faustus, about one man’s pact with the devil. I loved his plays, but knew little about his life until I went on a three day walk from London to Canterbury, which took me past both his burial place (in Deptford) and the church where he was christened (in Canterbury). Made curious by this co-incidence, I decided to find out more.
There was a lot to learn. In his short life, Marlowe was imprisoned for killing a man in a street brawl, suspected of spying for the government, accused of being an atheist, Catholic and occultist (all considered equally reprehensible by the Protestant church at the time) and deported from the Netherlands for involvement in counterfeiting coins. Goodness knows when he got time to do any writing.
Marlowe’s turbulent life was cut short at the age of 29, when he was stabbed to death in an after-dinner brawl in Deptford. There have been many theories as to what was behind his death. Some believe the Elizabethan secret service wanted him dead because his work as a spy had become too dangerous. Others think he wasn’t actually killed at all, but faked his death and escaped abroad, where he wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, the witty Ben Elton Shakespearean comedy Upstart Crow made much of just this scenario a couple of weeks ago.
The more I read about Marlowe, the more intrigued I became. He was born the son of a shoe-maker in Canterbury, then was picked for a scholarship to Cambridge. At Cambridge, where he was probably intended to become a priest, he wrote his first plays, and quite possibly became a spy. He then moved to London to wow the Elizabethan stage, gaining a reputation for hell-raising. I began to wonder whether he’d learned a secret in Canterbury that had led to his early advancement, and finally to his death in Deptford. What if… but you’ll have to read the rest for yourself!
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