Stephen Greenblatt reviews a pair of biographies of Christopher Marlowe, both of which focus on Marlowe's squalid murder: he was stabbed above the eye with a twelve-penny dagger during a fight in a tavern. Marlowe isn't read much these days except by specialists, and that's too bad. He could toss off gleeful mayhem, scandalous blank verse, and elegant lyrics like "Come live with me and be my love." People often remark that he was better than his exact contemporary Shakespeare, who kept a wary eye on him, even after Marlowe's death at age 29.
The murder in Widow Bull's tavern dominates Marlowe's life story. It's the most famous literary murder except for perhaps Pushkin's. The official inquiry concluded Marlowe was killed was a fight over a bar bill. Recent scholarship has revealed an episode that reads like something out of Patricia Highsmith. Tetchy, secretive, and probably gay, Marlowe entered the spy service for the government, commonly known by its location, the wonderfully named Seething Lane, which, when you think about it, could be the location of the CIA. Supposedly Marlowe was spying against Catholics, but he habitually called attention to himself, either through his plays, which Elizabeth regarded as seditious, to getting arrested in Holland for forgery. It's hardly surprising he had to be taken out. His death may have been a hit ordered by the Earl of Essex, or maybe even Queen Elizabeth herself, although Greenblatt discounts this possibility. Marlowe's is the story of a brilliant playwright and poet who had the rare but unfortunate talent of inspiring admirers who wanted him dead.