Saturday, 26 January 2013

Christopher Marlowe - a turbulent life and a tragic death

Portrait of a young man believed by some  to be Christopher Marlowe

In the Sixteenth Century the small port of Deptford had two claims to fame. It was here that Francis Drake arrived in 1581 after circumnavigating the world and where he was knighted onboard his ship Golden Hind by Queen Elizabeth. And it was at Deptford in 1593 that Christopher Marlowe was murdered.

Marlowe was born in Canterbury in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare. His father, like Shakespeare’s, had been a local councillor, but, unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe was the fortunate recipient of a university scholarship thanks to a generous endowment from a former Archbishop of Canterbury and a native of the town.

Marlowe duly enrolled into Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1580, at the age of fourteen, for seven years reading Divinity in preparation for a life in Holy Orders. However, like everything in Marlowe’s life, his university career was tempestuous, for at some point he was recruited into the Intelligence Service run by the shadowy spook figure of Sir Thomas Walsingham. 

At that time Europe was divided on religious lines. In crude terms, the north was Protestant and the south Catholic. England was Protestant, and King Philip II of Spain believed that he had a holy mission to restore Roman Catholicism throughout Europe. But Protestant England was a thorn in his side as it was actively aiding Dutch Protestants to resist Spanish occupation of their country. 

It was also personal, as the English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, was the Protestant half-sister of Philip's former wife, Queen Mary I of England, and after Catholic Mary’s death it was Elizabeth who had returned England to the Protestant faith.

It was expected that at some point Spain would embark upon an invasion of England and that English Catholics would rise up to form a fifth column to aid the invaders. Walsingham believed that he had identified a Jesuit seminary in Rheims (France) to be a hotbed of plots against the English Realm, so he, or one of his aids, dispatched Marlowe to the seminary to spy on English students enrolled there.

Marlowe was absent so long from Cambridge that the university, at the end of his term, refused to grant him his Master’s degree. But Marlowe by this time had some powerful allies, and was able to produce a letter from Her Majesty’s Privy Council:

Whereas it was that reported that Christopher Morley was determined to haue gone beyond the seas to Reames and there to remaine, Their Lordships felt good to certefie that he had no such intent, but that in all his accions he had behaued him selfe orderlie and discreetlie wherebie he had done her Majestie good service, & deserued to be rewarded for his faithfull dealinge…

His M.A. in his pocket, Marlowe headed for London. University life at Cambridge was clearly not to his liking, the more so as he was an avowed atheist and a homosexual. (After Marlowe's death a certain Richard Baines, an informer, reported Marlowe as saying 'that all they that loue not Tobacco & Boies are fooles'). London was more liberating. And he had written a play, Tamburlaine the Great, which was to take the disreputable, low-life theatre world by storm.

The play dramatises the life of the historical ruler Tamburlaine, and consists of a bloody battle (real blood, too, pig’s or sheep’s, concealed in a pouch in an actor’s tunic, and burst at a strategic moment in a fight), followed by a victory procession, flags waving and drums beating; then another bloody battle, another procession, more flags, more drums; and all rounded off with Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’ [Ben Jonson] spoken by the greatest actor of the age, Edward Alleyn, in the title role. 

The audience, in fact, had been warned in advance by the Prologue of what to expect:

We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war, 
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.

In one performance of a play (possibly Tamberlaine), weapons were discharged on stage, but, according to one spectator, ‘one of the players’ hands swerved, his piece being charged with bullet, missed the fellow he aimed at, and killed a child, and a woman-great-with-child forthwith, and hurt another man very sore’. [Account of Philip Gawdy, a lawyer,November 16, 1587]

The Puritans hated hated Marlowe's play, but the audiences and the theatre owners loved it, and Marlowe quickly produced a sequel - Tamburlaine the Great, Part II. More plays followed - The Jew of Malta; Dr. Faustus; Edward II, Marlowe’s only English history play. In each play the central character is striving to achieve something, often at the expense of others. In Marlowe there is no Christian belief that everyone has a worth. On the contrary, if a victim is weak or gullible enough to be victimized then he deserves everything he gets.

Marlowe’s own life, meanwhile, was almost as dramatic as his plays, as some time between September 9 and October 2, 1589, he was thrown into Newgate Prison on no less a charge than murder. 

It concerned an affray which took place on Hog Lane between Marlowe, Thomas Watson, a friend of Marlowe and with whom he may have been sharing a room, and a certain William Bradley. Its background was a debt of £14 owed by Bradley to John Alleyn, the brother of Edward Alleyn, the actor. Alleyn threatened to sue Bradley through the Court of Common Pleas through his attorney, Huge Swift, the brother-in-law of Thomas Watson. But matters rapidly deteriorated, to such an extent that Watson, John Alleyn and Attorney Swift decided to get physical and give Bradley a beating. Now Bradley was after vengeance, and set out to find Watson on Hog Lane near where he lived. But it was not Watson he found there, but Marlowe.

Swords were drawn and a fight began. Then Watson came sallying forth, and Bradley cried out: “Art thou now come then I will have a bout with thee”. They set to it with sword and dagger, until Watson lay dead with a wound six inches in depth and one inch in breadth, at the right side of his chest. Constable Stephen Wylde, a tailor by profession, arrived, and Watson and Marlowe were arrested ‘on suspicion of murder’ and taken to Newgate Prison.

"Art thowe nowe come? Then I will have a boute with thee". 

The county coroner with a jury of twelve sworn men decided that Thomas Watson slew William Bradley ’in self defence’ and ’not by felony’. Marlowe applied for and was granted bail, but not until he had spent about two weeks in Newgate. But Watson had to wait five months until his pardon arrived.

About two years later Marlowe was in trouble again, this time for uttering threats against the constables of Holywell Street. He was arraigned for disorderly conduct and bound over to keep the peace on payment of twenty pounds ’in good and lawful English money’.

While in Newgate Prison, according to the informer Baines, Marlowe spent his time learning how to counterfeit coins. Afterwards, Baines claimes, he boasted that he had ’as good Right to Coine as the Queen of England’. If this true it illustrates Marlowe’s foolhardiness since the punishment for forging money was to be boiled alive in oil.  

1592 was a bad year for the London theatres as an outbreak of plague caused the authorities to close all public arenas. While waiting for the theatres to reopen Marlowe and Shakespeare began to write long narrative poems - Shakespeare Venus and Adonis, Marlowe Hero and Leander. Marlow probably withdrew to Scadbury, the residence in Kent of his patron Thomas Walsingham, the nephew of Sir Francis Walsingham and himself a prominent figure in the Intelligence Service. In 1598, when an second Spanish invasion was feared, it was to Thomas Walsingham that was given the charge of the defence of Kent.

In London, meanwhile, there was agitation against the presence of foreign artisans and tradesmen, including Dutch Protestants, that had set up business in the city. Graffiti in the form of blank verse and signed 'Tamburlaine' had appeared on the wall of the Dutch Churchyard and on May 11, 1593 the Privy Council ordered that an investigation be carried out to discover who was behind the ‘libels’. As part of their investigation the authorities raided the room of Thomas Kyde, a prominent dramatist and the author of The Spanish Tragedy. But what the officers found among Kyde’s papers was much more serious, what they called ‘vile heretical Conceiptes denyinge the deity Jhesus Christe our Savior’. 

Kyde was arrested, and under interrogation and possible torture claimed that he and Marlowe were ‘wrytinge in one chamber twoe yeares since’ and that their papers were shuffled together. The ‘vile heretical Coinceiptes’ were, therefore, the work of Marlowe and not of himself.

On May 18, 1593 a warrant of arrest was issued to one Henry Maunder, a messenger of Her Majesty’s Chamber, that he should ‘repaire to house of Mr Tho: Walsingham in Kent, or to anie other place where he shall understand Christofer Marlow to be remayning, and by vertue hereof to apprehend and bring him to the Court in his Companie. And in case of need to require ayd’.

Marlowe was duly arrested at Scadbury and taken before the Star Chamber to answer the charge. But for some reason, despite the seriousness of a blasphemy charge, he was not detained, but released on bail on condition that he 'giue his daily attendaunce on thier L[ordshi]ps vntill hee shalbe lycensed to the Contrary'. 

Marlowe was released on May 20. Ten days later on May 30 he was killed in the house of Mistress Eleanor Bull, widow, in Deptford Strand. 

The coroner’s inquest was held on June 1 with three witnesses - Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, all of London and all described as gentlemen. According to the coroner, all three men together with Marlowe were supping at the house of Eleanor Bull, usually referred to as a tavern, and a dispute arose between Frizer and Marlowe over the bill, or as the coroner’s report called it, le recknyinge. Marlowe ‘of a sudden & of his malice towards the said Ingram’ drew his dagger ‘and gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head to length of two inches & of the depth of a quarter of an inch’. The report went on: ‘so it befell that in that affray that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid to the value of 12d gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died’.

Frizer was committed back to prison to await his official pardon whereby the case was closed. 

But no one really believes the inquest jury's verdict. It is more likely that Marlowe was lured to the house in Deptford in order to be murdered. Maybe it was an old settling of accounts as all those present were involved in espionage. Maybe it was more expedient to quietly eliminate him and avoid any embarrassing evidence at his heresy trial. There are even crackpot theories that he wasn’t killed at all but whisked off to the Continent where he spent the rest of his life writing Shakespeare’s plays.

After the theatres reopened in the autumn of 1594 the late-developer Shakespeare wrote some of his most loved plays - Romeo and Juliet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and The Merchant of Venice, the first of the romantic comedies, with its great creation Shylock.

Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in Deptford Parish Church (St. Nicholas’ and St. Luke’s) on June 1, 1593, two days after his killing. According to tradition it is located near the north wall of the fifteenth-century tower which is all that remains of the original church. A memorial plaque cites one of his lines:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight.
[Dr Faustus]

Christopher Marlowe in the burial register of St. Nicholas, Deptford. Reads: Christopher Marlowe slaine by ffrancis ffrezer; the I of Iune.

Warrant for the arrest and apprehension of Christopher Marlowe.
Privy Council entry dated May 18, 1593.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Tea! Tea! My kingdom for a cup of tea!


'I am in no way interested in immortality, but only in the taste of tea'. [Lu T'ung]

 The English love their tea. They drink it at teatime poured from a teapot into a teacup and stirred with a teaspoon.

British teatime in the 1950s.

They have colloquial names for their tea - char; brew; cuppa; Rosie Lee (rhyming slang for tea).

The person pouring tea traditionally says: "Shall I be mother?"

“’A cuppa char, dearie?”
“Don’t mind if I do, ducks. Shall I be mother?”

English gentlemen enjoying a cup of tea.

Tea was first brought to Europe in 1610 by the Dutch East India Company and introduced into England around 1650.

'....afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drank before...'  [Samuel Pepys 25 September 1660]

London coffee-house (1668) for the consumption 
of coffee, tea and sherbet.

As tea grew in popularity in the Seventeenth Century, so did the irresistible temptation to tax it. 

The first Tax Act on tea was in 1676, and by the mid-1700s the tax rate stood at 119%, providing the incentive for the creation of a new industry - tea smuggling.

'Molls at their Tea' by William Hogarth.
In the 1700s four out of five cups of tea were
brewed from smuggled tea.
[Merseyside Maritime Museum]

By 1830, 10% of the British Government's income derived from duty on tea. [] And by the 1850s tea was being transported from the East onboard high speed vessels known as tea clippers.

'Cutty Sark', the most famous British clipper in 1869.

'Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea'.  [Henry James]

Some more English gentlemen drinking tea.
"I got nasty habits. I take tea at three". [M. Jagger]

In the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries tea became a stereotype of how the world saw the English.

But England's tea obsession went too far when chimpanzees were made to wear human clothes and drink tea at London Zoo in a ceremony known as the Chimpanzees' Tea Party. Changes in public attitudes to the way we treat animals finally led to its demise.

The Mad-Hatter's Tea Party
from 'Alice in Wonderland'

As for the future of tea drinking in England - it does not look good. While the ritual continues among 88% of Britons over the age of 65, it drops to 73% among the 15-34 age group. [Mintel marketing report, 2011]

But it remains a symbol of faith and courage for a nation even if it were faced with nuclear Armageddon....

"The lunatics! They've finally destroyed our planet!"
"Never mind, dear. Have a cup of tea. Shall I be mother?"

"Thank God for tea! Where would the world be without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea". [Sydney Smith]

Friday, 4 January 2013

What happened when Topsy the Elephant met Thomas the Edison...

On 4 January 1903, Western death culture reached new depths of depravity when it executed an Asian elephant that had killed its keeper after the keeper had fed it, for his idle amusement, a lighted cigarette.

The magnificent and unfortunate animal, that its human slave owners named Topsy, had already rid herself of two of her tormentors of the Forepaugh Circus, in retaliation at being forced to perform humiliating and degrading tricks for the diversion of a decadent public. Her punishment was to be committed to the penal institution known as Lunar Park on Coney Island. 

It was here, at Lunar Park, that Topsy dispatched her third victim, her human jailer that had given her a lighted cigarette to smoke, grabbing him in her trunk and hurling him to the ground, proof that the man, though an imbecile, was still good enough to have his brains dashed out.

Topsy was condemned to death as a common criminal, and Thomas Edison, the celebrated inventor, volunteered to deliver the coup de grâce by grilling her with 6,600 volts of electricity

Edison already had an impressive track record in toasting live animals with his invention. Cats and dogs had been dispatched. And on 6 August 1890, his first human victim, William Kemmler, was fed 1,000 volts, then 2,000 volts, before being declared dead. 

It was an attempt by Edison to prove the superiority of his system over that of his rival, Westinghouse. Alas, poor Thomas, it didn't work, as the Westinghouse current proved the more commercial.

An estimated audience of 1,500 ghoulish voyeurs gathered to watch the public execution of Topsy. A cord linked to the park's power supply was put around her neck. The executioner pulled the lever and Topsy toppled to the ground. After several seconds she expired and the crowd went away satisfied.

Edison had the event filmed and released the film later that year under the title Electrocuting an Elephant. It played to cinemas throughout the United States.

But 'the whirligig of time brings in his revenges' [Feste the Clown in Twelfth Night], and revenge for Topsy came in 1944, when Lunar Park was swept away by fire.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Commodus - The Death of an Emperor

'Let me have war, say I. It exceeds peace as far as day does night. It's spritely walking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men'. [Coriolanus]

What better way to celebrate the New Year than with a juicy murder story? After all, if it were not for violence, treachery, massacre, genocide, war, treason and general beastliness, where would the human race be? We’d still be living in caves and bushes, existing on berries and roots, with not even a sudoku to stave off the boredom. Hurrah for human nastiness!

Thus it was that on 31 December 192, the Roman Emperor Commodus was strangled to death by his loyal servant, Narcissus, in his villa at Quintili. 

'Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!' [Carry On Cleo]

It is the afternoon of 31 December 192 and Rome waits to celebrate the New Year. But treachery is afoot. There is a plot to assassinate Commodus by poison administered by his favourite concubine, Marcia.

But the poison merely makes the emperor nauseous and he vomits it up. The next day he will get his revenge on her treachery, along with the others in the devilish plot.

But already it is too late for Commodus. Later that night, his wrestling partner and friend of 30 years, Narcissus, comes to his chamber, and it is not a social call to wish him a Happy New Year. Narcissus has some unfinished business with his master. 

The emperor is sleeping on his bed and wakes to find his servant's hands around his throat. He struggles, but his aggressor, a champion wrestler, has him in his mortal grip. The end is inevitable. Commodus has lived, and lives no more.

Commodus became emperor at the age of 18 on the death of his father Marcus Aurelius in the year 180. He began his reign on a low key, devoting more time to his pleasures than to the running of the state. And with a household of 300 young women at his disposal, life for the young emperor was one long orgasm.

But the good life is brusquely interrupted when he escapes an assassination attempt by his sister Lucilla and several senators. In retaliation, he allows the commander of his Praetorian Guard to execute his sister along with her accomplices.

This first bloodbath leads to others. Anyone even suspected of plotting against him is executed. He puts down a revolt led by one Maternus, and becomes entrenched in his megalomania.

He presents himself as the new Romulus, renames the months of the year, claims to be Hercules, the son of Jupiter, dresses in a lion skin, and embraces man's natural propensity to slaughter anything that moves through gladiatorial spectacles in which hundreds of nature's finest animals - lions, bears, gazelles, ostriches, elephants - are butchered.

Then, in December 192, Commodus announces his wish to celebrate the New Year, not in the traditional manner, but dressed as a gladiator. Marcia implores him not to, telling him of the dishonour it will bring on Rome. 

He shares his plan with Eclectus, his steward, and Leatus, the Praetorian prefect, and they, too, try to dissuade him from his folly.

Enraged, Commodus withdraws to his chambers, and makes up a list of those he will execute the following night. Marcia, Eclectus and Leatus have the honour of heading the list, followed by the names of various senators. He then takes a bath.

While the emperor is bathing, Marcia sees the list, and goes to warn Eclectus and Leatus. Together they hatch a plan to kill the emperor. Marcia puts poison in the cup of wine that Commodus drinks after he has bathed. The emperor drinks the wine, then sleeps on his bed. But he is woken with violent stomach spasms and vomits up the poison.

The trio of conspirators are in a state of panic. What if Commodus recovers? What will be their fate? Their only solution is to persuade the slave Narcissus to throttle his master. A compensation deal is struck with Narcissus, and he duly performs the dirty deed.

And so endeth the life of the man who thought he was Hercules.

Happy New Year!