The Face That Launched A Thousand Ships
by Christopher Marlowe Esq.
Was this the face that launch`d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me mortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack`d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear`d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa`s azur`d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
On the 30th May 1593 in a Deptford private house, Christopher Marlowe was fatally stabbed above the right eye, after an apparent “reckoning” for a dinner turned into a violent argument. With him died his vaulted contemporary reputation; for how many people today have heard of the name Marlowe, let alone place him upon a pedestal every bit as high as William Shakespeare? He lived fast and died young, his immense talent a raging comet as bright as Shakespeare`s sun; all ended abruptly in one second of violence. And now, he languishes, a name forever becalmed in the long shadow of a rival who, by the age of Marlowe`s death at 29 had written little of public consequence; the scaffolding of his reputation was still under construction, but alongside Marlowe, it was was neither as successful, nor as notorious. Christopher Marlowe stood as cock of the late Elizabethan literary yard, strutting his stuff and making all dance to his dazzling tune. One thrust of a slim bladed dagger, and it was all gone; blown away by the wind of fortune as it huffed it`s cheeks and turned it`s face away to another direction. The King was dead, long live the King…….Enter William Shakespeare, stage left. By the time of Marlowe`s death, Shakespeare had yet to write Hamlet, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, or Othello: but Marlowe had scribbled plays every bit as popular as Shakespeare`s Henry V to stir and gird up patriotic loins into a fevered frenzy, translated the elegies of Ovid, Lucan`s Pharsalia, composed Hero and Leander, and put muscle, dynamism and vigour into the poetic medium of blank verse. While Shakespeare left behind legal documents which give us a rather unappealing glimpse of an acquisitive personality trait, he also didn`t seem to be averse to taking risks: Marlowe has left a picture of someone who was mad, bad and dangerous to know; a great beast of the Elizabethan jungle, constantly on the prowl for excitement and fresh mental stimulation. Such intellectual massaging would arise early in his academic career at Cambridge, as a letter from the Privy Council records show: a reward was apparently in order after he had “….done Her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing.” No doubt, he was spying on Catholics at the English College in Rheims. Other unsavoury matters crop up at regular intervals, including blasphemy, sodomy, frequent violent behaviour, murder and dealing in bad coinage. The apparent wonder of Marlowe`s life is the way in which this son of a downmarket Canterbury cobbler made good by clawing his way up the social ladder via King`s School and then to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
But then, this was the beginning of the modern age, when a son of a modest yeoman or artisan, was enabled by the creation of a newly emergent middle-class and the loosening of the grip of feudalism following the Black Death in the 14th century, to upwardly progress by dint of talent. The importance of the growth of the middle class in England at this time should never be over estimated; it was to provide an inexhaustible wealth of talent and skill which would create an Oliver Cromwell, the overthrow of monarchical despotism, and the British Empire. Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were early, and glorious products of this limitless supply chain. So much of Marlowe`s murky life is comprised of a nod and a wink, and conspiracy theories abound, his sudden death is a good point: because of his shady espionage activities Elizabeth may have wanted him out of the way, so an argument was fabricated to murder him; or he had been accused of atheism, or in dodgy Dutch anti-libel dealings, or getting to0 up close and personal with Catholics. The list could go on to the crack of doom to be honest. To put it mildly, Christopher Marlowe was an interesting man with a certain reputation which made him dangerous to know. He has the whiff of sulphur hanging over him which tends to cover his motives and actions to the extent, that we only catch a peek of him as through a glass darkly. Sadly dying so young, this mercurial will `o the wisp character left a reputation which has receded so much into distant time, as to make him seem almost invisible to modern eyes. He left the centre of the stage for Shakespeare to walk confidently into and dominate English literature down to the present day; but he should not be forgotten, for he was, and is, a great writer, and one to stand there alongside Shakespeare as a true genius of the English language. These are men whose writings create tears of joy every time I read, hear and see them performed…Christopher Marlowe should not remain a forgotten footnote in literary history, because he deserves his own place in the spotlight alongside his great contemporary. The genius of Christopher Marlowe will always live in my heart.