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(Image: Wiki commons; design: Tina Tiller)
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BooksJanuary 26, 2021

Kit Marlowe died 400 years ago – but he’s back, and sexy as hell

(Image: Wiki commons; design: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Wiki commons; design: Tina Tiller)

Auckland writer Olivia Hayfield* explains how she resurrected 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe to star in her new novel, Sister to Sister. 

Olivia Hayfield is a pen name. Real name: Sue Copsey. 

When I’m planning my modern retellings of historical tales, I read widely on the characters and see who leaps out at me. I try to dig beyond the two-dimensional personalities historians often give us (because most historians were men, and they gave us that version of history we got at school, the one that bored us rigid, the one with dates and battles and acts and treaties). Then I imagine what those personalities would be like if they lived today.

Not only did Christopher Marlowe leap out at me, he grabbed me by the throat and hasn’t let go since. This man, who I initially saw as a peripheral character in Sister to Sister, my retelling of the early years of Elizabeth I’s rule, would settle for nothing less than centre stage.

Occasionally a historical character strikes me as seeming out of their time. Anne Boleyn is one – ambitious, forward thinking, sparky. But 16th-century women were expected to be gentle, submissive, and very good at embroidery. (The ladies of court seemed to do little else. You were basically fucked if you couldn’t sew.)

Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, also seems not of her time. Marriage? I think not. Marriage would have meant giving up power, deferring to a man. Not Elizabeth. Her advisers lined them up – princes, emperors, even Ivan the Terrible – and she found reasons to say no.

Marlowe is another. In 16th-century England, it really mattered if you were Protestant or Catholic, and Marlowe was known to be neither. He was an atheist (or at least, he rejected religious dogma), at a time when it really wasn’t a good idea to say so.

But intriguing as he is, Marlowe probably never met Elizabeth. So how did he come to be a main character in Sister to Sister? My first book, Wife After Wife, was bursting at the seams with compelling personalities. Henry VIII, all the Catherines, the Annes, the mistresses, the Toms.

Not so when it came to the sequel. Elizabeth was famously alone. Unmarried. Not one single husband. Childless. Her brother was dead; her sister, Queen Mary (Bloody Mary), locked her up in the Tower, and only just held herself back from beheading her. And as for Elizabeth’s cousins – they were mostly seen as threats, especially that Scottish one.

Two book covers: Wife After Wife, and Sister to Sister, by Olivia Hayfield
Wife After Wife came out last summer and followed the marriages and shagging-around of Henry VIII (Images: Supplied)

So who could I populate this book with? A lover – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was Elizabeth’s favourite and probably her lover. (The Virgin Queen? Maybe not.) Who else? She needed some friends. Who were the famous Elizabethans? Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake? What do we know of them? Bringer of tobacco and potatoes. Circumnavigator of the world. But their personalities didn’t leap off the page. I made them girls, because there are so few famous Elizabethan girls.

Shakespeare, of course. Although he was writing towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, time is malleable in my stories so I’d make him Eliza’s age and they could meet at Oxford, and she would bag his talent and use it to expand the family media giant, Rose Corporation, to include a new TV drama arm, like Netflix. And what about that other playwright who was around at the same time. Christopher Marlowe.

I knew little of Kit (he’s often called Kit – an androgynous name, so I used this for my 21st-century version, as my boy doesn’t care too much about gender). All I really knew was that he wrote Dr Faustus, about a man who sold his soul to the devil, and that there were conspiracy theories about him. Didn’t he die in a pub brawl? This seemed like a promising start, so I began to research him. Oh. [Sits up straighter, eyes widening.]

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s biography of him begins: “Spy? Brawler? Heretic? Learn more about this mysterious playwright … ” Research those other Elizabethans and there they all are, plenty of information on Shakespeare, Raleigh, Drake. Marlowe, not so much. He’s peripheral, mysterious, in the shadows. A genius, for sure, but his personality? A brawler; possibly gay; “rakehell” was one (wonderful) word used to describe him, a mouthy atheist, calling Jesus a “bastard” and Jesus’s mother Mary “dishonest”. And yet … one of the few first-hand descriptions calls Kit “kind”. This seemed contradictory to everything else I was reading. How intriguing.

Little is known about Marlowe’s life, but the facts are eerily similar to Shakespeare’s, and this gives weight to those (largely debunked) conspiracy theories that claim they were in fact the same person. Will and Kit were born within two months of each other. Both were first sons, and were from similar backgrounds – Will’s father was a glover, while Kit’s was a shoemaker. Both lads went to their local grammar school. Will took himself off to London in his 20s, where his star rose, and rose. Meanwhile, at the age of 16, clever Kit won a scholarship to Cambridge, then he too went to London where his star also rose – but quickly crashed and burned.

During his time at Cambridge, Kit was often absent, and it’s highly likely he was on the Continent, working as a spy for Elizabeth’s government (Cambridge was ever a place for spy recruitment). The evidence is pretty strong. When it was time to award him his degree, there were complaints that he’d been absent for too long, that he hadn’t earned it. But a letter from Elizabeth’s Privy Council put them right. Kit had been away on “matters touching the benefitt of his Countrie [sic]”. He’d clearly been On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Kit got his degree.

Another big clue as to his secret (service) life was that while at Cambridge, he spent lavishly on wining and dining. His income was far greater than that of a scholarship student.

Kit was living life large, and he didn’t stop when he left Cambridge. In London, he wrote seven plays in quick succession – so quick that scholars are unsure as to their correct order – and they were a huge hit. Kit rocketed to fame, and rumours of his secret spy life didn’t hurt his image. Kit was brilliant, sexy, dangerous.

But what of Marlowe’s work? At a time when it was the done thing to write plays in rhyme – anything else was inferior – Marlowe wrote instead in blank verse, and in the process freed drama from its stiff, formal constraints. The Poetry Foundation says, “English drama was never the same again.”

At this time of profound religious change, there was much scholarly debate about predestination – whether God has already decided who’s going to be saved and who’s going to hell. In other words, is there any point in fighting against Fate; is free will in fact not a thing? This debate influenced Marlowe’s writing, and it tied in beautifully with my own themes of reincarnation and redemption, of events playing out according to Fate, of history repeating itself.

A few of Marlowe’s famous lines:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships …

Make me immortal with a kiss …

Come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove …

Whoever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight (this one is also in Shakespeare’s As You Like It – that was apparently Shakespeare quoting Marlowe, as a tribute)

And my personal favourite: You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute. And now and then stab, as occasion serves. So very Kit.

Marlowe loved a good brawl (see above) and got into hot water a few times. He called protestants “hypocritical asses”, and was denounced for his “Damnable Judgement of Religion, and scorn of gods word [sic].” He was playing with fire – literally. The penalty for such views was burning at the stake. But not only did Kit manage to avoid this sticky end, after being arrested on charges of blasphemy, he got away with only having to report each day to a court officer.

But it was only a matter of time before he was back in deepest trouble. It’s thought he was a member, along with Sir Walter Raleigh, of The School of Night, the modern name given to a secret society (also called The School of Atheists) of scientists, poets and intellectuals. One theory about his death is that Raleigh organised it to protect members, worried, after Marlowe was yet again arrested, that he might divulge their names under torture.

Kit’s death, at the age of 29, is as mysterious as his life. Famously, he “died in a tavern brawl”. But no, he didn’t – there was far more to it than tempers flaring after too many bevvies. He’d spent the day meeting with two men who were almost certainly secret agents, in a private room in the tavern, which was a “safe house”. Apparently there was a dispute over the bill, which quickly turned into a knife fight, allegedly started by Kit, in which he was stabbed above his right eye. He died instantly.

It’s highly likely this was an assassination. Mei Trow, author of Who Killed Kit Marlowe? describes how the “brawl” was an elaborate fabrication to cover up Kit’s murder, citing a manuscript discovered in the British Museum that indicates certain members of Elizabeth’s council were atheists, and that Marlowe knew who, and had the evidence. They decided to silence him. Tellingly, the man who stabbed him was pardoned after pleading self-defence.

There’s another theory – that it was a fake death; that Marlowe, knowing his time was up, escaped to Europe, lived on and wrote under the pseudonym William Shakespeare. Gotta love that idea. This theory has been largely dismissed by scholars. But! In recent years it has become more widely accepted that Shakespeare collaborated with Marlowe, on Henry VI parts one, two, and three.

I found myself wondering, how could such a wild boy, who seemed to live for danger and infamy, write such beautiful words? There are also hints in Marlowe’s plays of his fascination with “homosexual desire”, though definitions of sexuality in Elizabethan times were very different. Scholars don’t seem to know for sure about his sexuality.

The more I pondered on Kit and these apparent contradictions, the more vivid my modern-day version became. Kit. I didn’t need to change his name – I immediately saw him as androgynous. Marley seemed a good adaptation; he’d enjoy a smoke. Famously Marlowe said, “All those who love not tobacco and boys are fools.” Probably gay, then. Or bi. Or just … everything. An experimenter. So not really boyfriend material, when it came to Eliza, though I wanted them to have a close relationship, so I made him Eliza’s soulmate. He’s prescient – that musing on Fate – the only character in my books who realises what’s really going on. And I had so much fun with the competitive-erotic relationship between Will and Kit, who eventually … but that would be telling.

Sister to Sister, by Olivia Hayfield (Hachette, $34.99), can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

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