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May 30, 2024 9 mins

On this day in 1593, English playwright Christoper Marlowe was stabbed to death in a London tavern.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and Welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that uncovers a little bit more about history every day.
I'm Gabe Lucier, and in this episode, we're exploring the
enduring mysteries surrounding the life, death, and authorship of Christopher Marlowe.

The day was May thirtieth, fifteen ninety three. English playwright
Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in a London tavern.
The twenty nine year old dramatist was said to have
spent the day drinking and playing backgammon with three acquaintances
Ingram Freiser, Nicholas Scaris and Robert Poley. But according to witnesses,

a fight broke out over the bar tab and in
the scuffle in Ingram Freiser plunged a dagger into Marlowe's head,
killing him instantly. However, not everyone's convinced that's what really happened.
Just like with William Shakespeare and other playwrights of the
Elizabethan era, we don't know very much about Marlowe's life

outside of his written work and a few basic facts.
For instance, we know he was born in Canterbury, in
February of fifteen sixty four, two months before the birth
of Shakespeare. We also know he was the son of
a prosperous shoemaker and a clergyman's daughter, and that he
was an exceptionally bright student. In fact, Marlowe won scholarships

to two prestigious institutions, Cambridge, where he earned his bachelor's
degree in fifteen eighty four, and Corpus Christi College, where
he later earned his masters. Marlowe's university years are one
of the most tantalizingly vague periods of his brief life.
His class attendance at Corpus Christie was so spotty that

he was nearly denied his diploma in fifteen eighty seven,
and while we can only speculate about the reason for
his chronic absences, many historians are convinced that marlow was
away operating as a secret agent. The main support for
this theory is that the Privy Council, Queen Elizabeth's advisors
intervened on his behalf, telling the college that Marlowe was

to be commended for his quote good service to the crown,
with the Queen herself to vouch for him. Marlowe was
swiftly awarded his degree no questions asked. It was also
in the tail end of his college days that marlow
began writing stage plays, the fruit of a literary career
that would only last six brief years before his death. Still,

he accomplished quite a lot in that short time, penning
a total of seven plays, including the highly acclaimed Tamberlaine,
The Great Parts one and two, and his most famous work,
Doctor Faustus. Through these plays, Marlowe popularized the use of
blank verse poetry, written with a regular meter but without rhyming.

It quickly became the standard form of the era, with
William Shakespeare later adopting Marlowe's meter of choice iambic pentameter.
Marlowe also published several books of original poetry, as well
as translations of the ancient Roman poets Luken and Avid.
His celebrated verses and plays placed him at the forefront

of the sixteenth centuries literary Renaissance, but several other works
attributed to Marlowe landed him squarely in the government's crosshairs.
In early fifteen ninety three, a series of heretical papers
began to circulate around London. Some outlined supposed inconsistencies in
the Christian Bible, while others took a pro atheist, anti

immigrant stance on the recent wave of Protestant immigration to England.
In May of that year, one of Marlowe's fellow playwrights
and former roommates, Thomas Kidd, was arrested on charges of
libel after one of the heretical tracts was found in
his possession. Under interrogation and likely torture, Kidd told authorities

that Marlowe had written the offending papers, in accusation that
was seemingly substantiated by the document itself. Not only was
it written in Iambic pentameter, it also contained allusions to
Marlowe's plays and was even signed Tamberlaine. About a week later,
on May twentieth, Marlowe was arrested on suspicion of being

an atheist, which she reportedly was blasphemy and other forms
of heresy were still serious crimes in Elizabethan, England, the
penalty for which was being burned at the stake once again,
though Marlowe's mysterious past service to the Queen seems to
have earned him a reprieve, as he was inexplicably released

without punishment. Instead, he was given a kind of probation
and was required to report each day to the Privy
Council until further notice. It's unclear whether Marlowe abided by
that order or not, but in the end it didn't matter.
He would be killed just ten days later. On the

morning of May thirtieth, fifteen ninety three, Marlowe met up
with three friends at a lodging house in Deptford Strand.
They spent the day there smoking and drinking, playing games,
and walking in the garden. Then in the early evening,
the men returned to the tavern and had dinner together. Later,
when the bill arrived, marlow began to quarrel with another

member of the party, Ingram Freiser. The dispute was reportedly
over who should pay the tab, and when the argument
turned to insults, Marlowe is said to have drawn Freiser's
own dagger and struck him in the head. After a
brief str ruggle, Fraser wrestled the blade away from Marlowe
and drove it right into the playwright skull, just above

his right eye. Marlowe died on the spot, but the
man who killed him was pardoned for the crime just
a few weeks later, after swearing that he had only
acted in self defense. That said, modern day historians don't
think Marlow's death was as clear cut as witnesses claimed.
Many now believe he was set up by the men

he had dined with, and that the drunken brawl that
took his life was actually an assassination in disguise. There's
no shortage of people who may have wanted Marlowe dead,
but perhaps the likeliest suspects were other prominent figures who
secretly shared his atheist beliefs. This included respected noblemen such

as Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Percy, as well as
members of the Queen's Privy Council, all of whom would
have had much to lose if they should be incriminated
by Marlowe at his event vitual trial. Another popular suspect, though,
is the Queen herself, who may have wanted to silence
Marlowe before his subversive views could win over the public.

There's no solid proof one way or the other, but
it's interesting to note that the three men present at
his death, including the killer, had all been employed at
one time or another by Sir Thomas Walsingham, the Queen's spymaster.
Of course, these theories all hinge on the belief that
Marlowe truly died on May thirtieth, fifteen ninety three, But

there are some scholars who argue that we can't even
be sure of that. These skeptics subscribe to the so
called Marlvian theory, which holds that marlow faked his death
as a way to escape a future conviction for heresy.
This would mean that Ingram Freser and the other diners
that night played a role in the scheme, and presumably

the local coroner did too. The thinking goes that once
this ruse was pulled off, Marlowe fled the country, perhaps
with the aid of Sir Thomas Walsingham, with whom marlow
was alleged to have a romance. Then, once he was
safely out of England, the playwright continued producing new work,
which he then sent back to his home country to

be performed. Of course, in this imagined scenario, Christopher Marlowe
wouldn't be able to sign his own name to those plays.
He would need to invent a pseudonym, or, if he
really wanted to play it safe, let another playwright put
his name on them instead. It's just a theory, mind you,

and a rather fanciful one at that, but based on
similarities and style, scope and subject matter, there is one
obvious guess for whom Marlowe's hypothetical frontman might be, none
other than William Shakespeare. But again just a theory. I'm

Gay Blues and hopefully you now know a little more
about history today than you did yesterday. If you'd like
to keep up with the show, you can follow us
on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at TDI HC Show, and
if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to
send them my way by writing to This Day at

iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks to kazb Bias for producing the show,
and thanks to you for listening. I'll see you back
here again tomorrow for another day in History class.

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