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Welcome to Episode #137 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life & history of William Shakespeare.

History remembers Christopher Marlowe as a contemporary of William Shakespeare that was prone to violence. Arrested multiple times for his association with fights, duels, and even murder, scholars around the world have suggested that Christopher Marlowe had a hot temper which often ran him afoul of the local authorities in London. In addition to achieving a university education and the social rank of gentleman, Marlowe is the author of some of the most powerful plays in the English Renaissance, including Dr. Faustus, Tamburlaine, and the Jew of Malta. Undeniably a powerful force in England as well as a huge influence over the life of William Shakespeare, the life of Christopher Marlowe is as fascinating as it is essential to understanding the life of William Shakespeare.

Despite his reputation for violence and certainly for including some very violent characters in his plays, our guest this week, Ros Barber, challenges the traditional assumptions about what we know of Christopher Marlowe and suggests in her publication “Was Marlowe a Violent Man?”, that understanding the cultural history of what it meant to be a gentleman, the violent nature of corporal punishment in 16th century England, as well as comparing the recorded history of Marlowe to that of men like William Shakespeare, reveals that the reputation for hot tempered violence might be a posthumous application to Marlowe instead of the truth about this significant poet.

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Dr Ros Barber ( is a senior lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Director of Research at the Shakespearean Authorship Trust. She is three times winner (2011, 2014, 2018) of the Hoffman Prize for a distinguished work on Christopher Marlowe. Her debut novel The Marlowe Papers (2012), exploring the life and afterlife of Marlowe, won the Desmond Elliott Prize and Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, and was longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Ros Barber about :

  • In her work, “Was Marlowe a Violent Man?” Ros highlights that society in general was more violent than we think of today, with a cultural focus on sports like fencing cited as examples of what might be called “normal violence” Ros, with the general attribute of society being one that accepted violence as a matter of course, do you think the persistent suggestion of Marlowe as a violent man indicates he was involved in more than an average amount of fighting during his lifetime?

  •  How many times did Marlowe get brought before the English court on charges of violence?
  • Marlowe received not one, but two, degrees from Cambridge and is considered a well established gentleman for his time. Ros, was the fighting and specifically dueling a consequence of Marlowe’s social status in the 16th century?

… and more!

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I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak'st

Antony and Cleopatra (II.5)

fencing school 1610

Fencing School at Leiden University, 1610. Engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Johannes Woudanus | Public Domain | Source

Marlowe's general society was violent 

 In her work, “Was Marlowe a Violent Man?” Ros highlights that society in general was more violent than we think of today, with a cultural focus on sports like fencing cited as examples of what might be called “normal violence.” With the general attribute of society being one that accepted violence as a matter of course, I wondered if the persistent suggestion of Marlowe as a violent man indicates he was involved in more than an average amount of fighting. Ros' research into Marlowe's life, however, suggests instead, that this same evidence actually indicates he was particularly non-violent. Ros explains,

“There’s some evidence to suggest that [violence has been applied to Marlowe's life posthumoustly] especially from the sensationalization of his death. He was a high profile poet at his death and [the violence of his death has] overshadowed his life so much that scholarship applies violence to his entire personality. Before he died, there’s no indication in any documents to show people thought he was a violent person. Ben Jonson was more violent, and Jonson killed a man, which Marlowe didn’t do, Jonson put a boy’s eye out with his thumb.” 

Honan Park describes Christopher Marlowe’s Dad as being physically violent on the regular, saying “―his irascible moods became more frequent, as when he struck his apprentice Lactantius Preston, and then got bloodied by William Hewes (a disgruntled employee) out near the buttermarket.” Again, this description lead me to wonder if Marlowe could be characterized as coming from a battered home, or being raised by someone who was violent to him in childhood, but Ros points to society and cultural trends of the 16th century to indicate such a conclusion is out of place, 

“No. His father was violent towards an apprentice and another young man quite close together but there’s not much information about this incident. Violence was a sanctioned form of discipline in early modern England (employees, wife, adn childreN) hitting children persisted as quite normal, and normalized in the 20th century, police officers cuffing someone about the ear for stepping out of line. Strong evidence his parents were close and loving to each other.”

Canterbury – Tower of St. George's Church, where Christopher Marlowe was baptized | Photo by User:ABrocke | Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License.  | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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dueling engraving

Engraving of two men engaging in a duel while another man observes. | Public Domain | Official description: Dendrono (Johann Georg Puschner, Nürnberg) – “The Fencing Student” 1725, copper engraving from the 18th century, copyright has expired, PUBLIC DOMAIN | The image shows the university fencing school of Altdorf where the university of the free imperial city of Nürnberg was located. A university fencing instructor holds a lesson. The Fencing Student:
A “son of the muses” [i.e. a student] cannot live peacefully all the time,
he oftimes gets the opportunity,
although he usually avoids trouble,
to pull his sword out of the sheath.
Who does not proactively search for trouble and only defends himself
in order to protect his body or to protect his honour,
he does what is honourable, he defends himself according to his capabilities,
but touches by himself no other person. | Source 

Marlowe brought up on violence charges three times

Marlowe was brought before the English court three times on charges associated with violent behavior. Ros outlines them:

  1. Hoglane of fray, with william bradley. He was not the aggressor, and he was acquitted on the gowns of self defense. 
  2. Holywell street, bound over to keep the peace towards Constable and Sub Constable, no fighting involve,d and normally you’d expect a notice ot keep the peace (Shakespeare was given a similar notice) Arbormitum Motis, “in fear of his life” that wording was absent in Marlowe’s keeping the peace notice, suggesting to Roz, that it was more about a noise ordinance, as opposed to an aggression notice. Robert Greene lived in this area at this time and had just printed that Marlowe was an atheist. Extremely dangerous, atheism was treason at the time, so Roz hypothesises that Marloew went round to HOllywell Street to give Greene a talking to, but there’s no evidence it was violent. 
  3. Court King (Spelling?) he apparently went back yo Canterbury, incident with a tailor named something here, check–civil court case for damage against property, Marlowe cut his buttons off–thumbing your nose at someone. Suing for property damage, and this man was really into taking people ot court, and so this one was more Marlowe being victim of theman who went around finding peopel to sue. 

In the Hoglane of Fray incident, Marlowe was actually involved in a sword duel. Ros contends this duel was a matter of honor as a gentleman more than an issue of his being particularly prone to physical violence (moreso than anyone else during this time period.) She explains,

The Hoglane of Fray, is the sword duel. It was discovered (the document) and the word “fray” brings up unruly violence. The phrase makes it sound more disorganized, Fensbury fields. Dueling location. Marlowe as a gentleman, allowed to carry a rapier, gentlemen were expected to defend their reputation by challenging and accepting duels. Because of it’s location, it was a formal duel–quite. 

He may have been acting out of honor and ultimately found to be innocent of murder in this case, William Bradley did die as a result of the duel. Ros indicates Marlowe being involved at all was really a case of wrong-place, wrong-time.

“It was really [Bradley's] argument. Essentially, when Thomas Watson turned up, who was also a poet and apparently a playwright (none survive), William bradley, “Art thou now come, then I will have a bout with thee.” There was an existing legal rangle with Watson and Marlowe, so what’s happened here is some long standing legal grumbling and then postering and men being Elizabethan men, and a duel ensues, and Bradley hada previous record of violence, Marlowe had no record of such at this time. Bradley challenged Marlowe, Marlowe had to accept, and when Watson came along, he takes over and he is who kills Bradley, and both of them are aquitted.”

Despite not being particularly violent as a person, and instead acting out of a sense of duty, the death of William Bradley did result in the authorities arresting Christopher Marlowe. Ros attributes his arrest to something of an inquiry over a car accident or something similar today. As Marlowe was an upstanding man, he stayed and communicated the affair properly to the rightful authorities. Ros explains,

They were law abiding citizens. They did not run off, they waiting for the constable and all could be done properly, they went to NEwgate prison tofgether. 13 days for Marlowe, released on bail, bailed out by people that were government people–quite early. Standard time would have been longer, and it helped that he had not killed anyone.

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

I bruised my shin th' other day with playing at sword and
dagger with a master of fence;

Merry Wives of Windsor (I.1)

Academie de l'espee (Academy of the Sword) by Girard Thibault, 1628 | Public Domain | Original artwork is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  | Original Image Source

Fighting was part of being a gentleman

The duel arrived at the end of the 16th century with the influx of Italian honor and courtesy literature – most notably Baldassare Castiglione's Libro del Cortegiano (Book of the Courtier), published in 1528, and Girolamo Muzio's Il Duello, published in 1550. These books stressed the need to protect one's reputation and social mask and prescribed the circumstances under which an insulted party should issue a challenge. The word duel was introduced in the 1590s, modelled after Medieval Latin duellum (an archaic Latin form of bellum “war”, but associated by popular etymology with duo “two”, hence “one-on-one combat”).” (Source)

Title Page Book of the Courtier by Castiglione, Baldassarre

Title page of the Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, 1549. Public Domain. Image Source. You can read the digitized version of the Book of Courtier online at the Biblioteca Europa online catalog here.

Marlowe received not one, but two, degrees from Cambridge and is considered a well established gentleman for his time. Another attribute of being a gentlemen of this time period included using a rapier. We are often told that gentlemen of the English Renaissance period carried, as a matter of course, a rapier on their person. Yet, when Christopher Marlowe is involved in a fight with William Corkine in 1592, he is cited as using a staff and a dagger. Ros explains, that a dagger, too, was a common item to have on your person. “Dagger–everyone had one, it is how you ate your food. Ate it off the dagger. A man always had this with him.”

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Marlowe buried St Nicholas Deptford Church

The Church of St. Nicholas in Deptford. Photograph by David Lunn/ The Church of St. Nicholas / CC BY-SA 2.0 | David's description: Christopher Marlow is said to be buried in the churchyard of St. Nichols. But legend has it that he was not murdered in 1593 but escaped charges of treason by fleeing to the West Country and changing his name to William Shakespeare [Cassidy Cash does not endorse nor support this theory of Marlowe's life, but is compelled by wanting to honestly represent the photographer's work here to include David Lunn's words with his photograph. David ascribes to what is known as the Marlovian Theory. I appreciate David's permission to use this photograph under Creative Commons License.] . A plaque to Marlowe can be found on the east wall of this Church.| Original Image Source 

Marlowe's Death More Dramatic Than His Life

One of the most famous incidents of Marlowe’s life was that of his death in 1593. Ros, explains the circumstances of Marlowe's death:

Build up to it, on the essence of his actual death, he is in Mrs. Bull’s house (spelling) she was a member at court, cousin of the queen’s nursemaid. Blanche Perry, that’s the queen’s adopted mother, (Anne Bolyen had been beheaded) so this woman was very close to the queen, and very close to Eleanor Bull where Marlowe ends up in Deptford, and Marlowe gets stabbed through the eye. Three people at the inquest, One is the person who killed Marlowe, Ingrim Fraiser, all three of the witnesses were professional liars, so it’s split half and half between academics who believe the inquest documents vs those who do not. Two of them were secret service agents, one of them was described by William Camden as an extremely effective liar–Robert Poley, key person in the Babington Plot, and Babington could not believe he was the double agent. Poley was described by Nichols as a section chief, high up in the intelligence services. Ingrim Fraiser, involved in intelligence as well, also was Marlowe, and Walsingham, and the Fraiser. Robert Poley wrote a letter to the Lord Treasurer, Burley, swear and foreswear myself rather than do myself any harm.

Christopher Marlowe's memorial in the Churchyard at St Nicholas, Deptford. The epithaph “cut is the branch …” is from the epilogue to Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. | Photo by Ianerc | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Original

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Books & Resources Ros Barber Recommends

Ros recommends you check out the Historical Thesaurus of English available from the University of Glasgow. Their thesaurus allows you to find out how language is used through the ages. As an example,you can search “toilet” and find out how to refer to that in 1563, etc. Parts of a person’s body, etc etc. Explore the Thesaurus here. 

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