And as I approach my 39th year on this sky marble, I’ve noticed a major uptick in my obsession with history. It is that relatively recent love that led me to pick up one of my favorite reads of 2022, Allison Epstein’s A Tip for the Hangman. It’s an Elizabethan espionage thriller where the playwright Christopher Marlowe spies on Mary, Queen of Scots, while navigating politics, theater, romance, and murder. It’s historical, it’s a spy thriller, it has murder and my personal catnip: fictionalized versions of real historical figures. It sounded like a good time, and it was.
The draw for me was Mary, Queen of Scots because she and I have history. When I was 5 years old, an older classmate asked me if I ever missed my real mom while pointing at an illustration of Mary Stuart in a history book. She then informed me that Mary was my real mother and that my “parents” only adopted me when she went and got her head chopped off. After yelling, “You’re not even my real mom!” in the back of a Honda Accord that afternoon, my path towards healing entailed me reading as much about this woman as possible to be double super extra sure that she was not, indeed, my mama. True story.
I say all this to say that I was prepared for lots of fun, juicy bits about The Queen of Scots and also Elizabeth I, both of whom are obviously formidable women with a long list of what makes them interesting studies. But I walked away needing to know more about Christopher Marlowe, desperate to know how much of Epstein’s novel was rooted in truth and how much was a deliciously entertaining fabrication. I learned that I’d been sleeping on Mr. Marlowe, whose real life may have been stranger than fiction as history often is. If you aren’t already in the know or just want a refresher, join me in this brief look at his story.
Christopher Marlowe was an Elizabethan poet and playwright. He was born in February 1564, just a couple of months before William Shakespeare, and is considered ol’ Billy Shakes’ most important predecessor in English drama. A bright student, Marlowe studied at prestigious institutions like the King’s School in Canterbury and Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, earning his B.A. from Cambridge in 1584. And this, dear friends, is where things get spicy.
Kit stayed on as a resident at Cambridge and was working on a master’s when my dude began disappearing for long periods of time with no great explanation when pressed as to where and why. Cambridge wasn’t having it, suspecting that Marlowe had gone off to the Catholic Seminary at Rheims to drink the Catholic Kool-Aid. In 1587, the university was on the cusp of denying Marlowe that Master of Arts degree when the Privy Council intervened in a totally normal, totally believable, not-at-all suspicious way. They recommended he receive the degree, citing “services for the state” as their reasoning:
So where was Kit all that time? And what “good service” did he complete?
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