Academic journal article Early Theatre

New Sightings of Christopher Marlowe in London

Academic journal article Early Theatre

New Sightings of Christopher Marlowe in London

Article excerpt

The daily lives of Elizabethan dramatists and their activities outside of the theatrical sphere--the personal relationships, disagreements, and monetary difficulties that coloured and shaped their quotidian existence--are sparsely documented at best. The shortage of such data is particularly acute with respect to Christopher Marlowe, about whom one authority has commented: 'We know next to nothing about Christopher Marlowe. When we speak or write about him, we are really referring to a construct called "Marlowe".' (1) While this assessment seems unduly pessimistic, his biographers have perforce been obliged to flesh out the vestigial remains of his life-history with speculative reconstructions, elaborate psychological theories, and explorations of the intellectual and social contexts of his literary output in an attempt to make sense of the skeletal facts. The results of their endeavours have run the gamut from biographical fantasy (not to mention conspiracy theory), through biography of varying degrees of level-headedness, to entrenched fundamentalism. (2) Faced with this dearth of verifiable evidence, researchers in the field of early modern literature will no doubt welcome the discovery of new material relating to Marlowe among the legal records held by The National Archives at Kew in London, and here transcribed and translated for the first time. These documents may not illuminate the more sensationalist aspects of the poet-playwright's technicolour biography--his alleged involvement in espionage or his death in Mistress Bull's rooming house in Deptford, for instance--but they are nonetheless of incalculable importance to our knowledge of Marlowe's whereabouts and social interaction at precisely that point in his career when he starts to write for the London stage. The new archival finds, which relate to events between mid-1587 and early 1589, not only cover a period of Marlowe's life about which we have no information whatsoever; they offer us something that no other set of documents does, namely a glimpse into the state of his finances at the time, and even perhaps a window on his character.

The first lawsuit in question concerns Edward Elvyn, an almost exact contemporary of Marlowe's at Cambridge, who was born in Norfolk (probably in Caister) and who matriculated from Corpus Christi College at Lent 1580. (3) His name appears in conjunction with Marlowe's in the earliest documentary record of the latter's residence at university--the leaf in the Corpus Christi Buttery Book for 'septimana 10a post Michaelmas' (the second week of December) 1580, where the charge of a penny is entered against 'Elwin' and 'Marlen'. (4) Elvyn was elected to a foundation scholarship in the place of one John Temple, and the college's Registrum Parvum lists him and Marlowe among the students admitted on 7 May 1581. (5) At the following Michaelmas, 'Elvine' and 'Merling' with others from Corpus attended 'Mr Johnes' lectures in dialectic. (6) Both students proceeded ba in 1584, 'Elwyn' appearing 194th and 'Marley' 199th out of 231 graduates on the university's 'ordo senioritatis'. (7) Two years later Elvyn was elected to a college fellowship, and in the summer of 1587 he and Marlowe commenced MA. (8)

The two young men were doubtless on amicable terms, but any bonds of friendship that collegiate life might have nurtured were soon to be tested extramurally. They were apparently close enough for Elvyn to agree to Marlowe's request for a substantial loan, but not close enough for the lender to turn a blind eye when the money was not repaid. To recover his losses, therefore, Elvyn brought suit against Marlowe in the court of King's Bench at the beginning of Michaelmas term 1588, that is, on Wednesday 9 October. (9) Despite the defendant's humble origins, he and his legal adversary are styled 'generosus', that is, 'gentleman', on the plea roll, doubtless in acknowledgment of the fact that both parties had received a university education. …

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