Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Was Marlowe Really Murdered?

Portrait: William Shakespeare
Portrait: William Shakespeare

For the past 50 years or so, a theory has been put forth that Christopher Marlowe was not murdered at all. The proposition is that his killing was faked, and that Marlowe escaped from inevitable prosecution as a heretic by fleeing abroad. The main proponent of this theory, Calvin Hoffman, maintained in numerous writings that Christopher Marlowe was the author of the plays of Shakespeare. The outlines of his theory go something like this:

With the connivance of Thomas Walsingham, and through the services of his men Frizer, Skeres and Poley, a recently executed man was substituted for the body of Marlowe. Marlowe then fled to Italy, where he wrote Shakespeare's greatest plays (many of them set in Italy), sent them back to Walsingham, and Walsingham had William Shakespeare, an actor, serve as a front man for the authorship of the plays. Of course, Walsingham would have had Marlowe's manuscripts recopied.

Hoffman relied heavily on what he termed "parallelisms," phrases and lines from Marlowe's acknowledged works that are very similar to lines from the plays of Shakespeare. Further, he raised the cherished argument that no one of Shakespeare's limited education could have written the erudite and complicated plays attributed to Shakespeare.

Calvin Hoffman & wife at Walsingham's tomb
Calvin Hoffman & wife at
Walsingham's tomb

Hoffman was dogged in his pursuit of evidence to support his theory. He managed to open Thomas Walsingham's tomb, searching for the play manuscripts he believed were buried with Marlowe's patron. None were found. Hoffman's explanation for this failure was that such an attempt was a long shot anyway. He went to Italy to search for evidence that Marlowe had lived there after 1593, and, despite a disputed letter referring to an English playwright living in Florence, he was unable to establish Marlowe's existence after 1593.

Hoffman's work is strongly supported by members of the International Marlowe Society, whose members are called "Marlovians." However, one of the arguments against the principal Hoffman theory is that "parallelisms" are not uncommon in Elizabethan literature — apparently, "borrowing" ideas, phrases and actual lines of dialogue was not rare — and that such similarities in turn of phrase are to be expected. Further, collaboration in the writing of plays of that era was common, and the "borrowing" could have come from a variety of individuals who probably worked with Shakespeare. Indeed, the few flashes of humor in Marlowe's plays were probably not written by him at all, but by resident playwrights hired by the theater managers to "juice up" Marlowe's scripts. Evidence of this comes from entries in the diary of Phillip Henslowe, theater manager for the company for which Marlowe wrote, wherein he records payments for additions to Marlowe's plays.

St. Mary's Church, Deptford, England
St. Mary's Church, Deptford,

If Marlowe had been spirited away into exile, it was cleverly done. There are a number of references to Marlowe's death in various documents of the time, and friends and associates seemed to have no doubts that Marlowe had been killed at Deptford.

Much has been made of the coroner's report (not discovered until 1925, by the historian Leslie Hotson). The disputed information is the nature of Marlowe's supposedly fatal wound. Dr. Frederic Schreiber, a leading neurosurgeon, has maintained that the wound described could not have been fatal, and that Marlowe could have survived such a blow. The Marlovians are somewhat confused about this, and offer conflicting scenarios. It is difficult to see how they can claim that the murder was staged, and at the same time offering the idea that there was indeed a stabbing, but that the wound was not lethal.

The most convincing argument, however, is the difference in quality between Marlowe's plays and those attributed to Shakespeare. If one rereads Marlowe's plays, one is struck by the absence of plot, the two-dimensionality of the characters, and the almost simplistic moral presentation of the plays. With the exception of some moments of soaring poetry, and, in "Edward II," a few scenes of dramatic power, Marlowe's plays are not comparable in quality to even the earliest and least popular of Shakespeare's plays.

In brief, if the non-murder of Marlowe is dependent on his assuming the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, the case is indeed weak. In all likelihood, the man murdered in Deptford in 1593 was Christopher Marlowe. The question is, why?