Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was one of the most interesting writers ever to live: apparently an undercover agent for the Crown, infiltrating potential Catholic conspiracies against Elizabeth’s government, while an undergrad at Cambridge (which may have had something to do with his strange and violent death, as perhaps it was judged that he was a bit of a loose cannon, who maybe knew a little too much about things which were best not-known about, and who had grown more famous than maybe the Elizabethan authorities had anticipated, when they recruited him as an undergrad). The most notable play-writer in London from the late 1580s-early 1590s, Marlowe seems really front-and-center on a wave of Occult-Fascination sweeping England’s capitol at the time. Moreover (and here is what strikes me as particularly interesting): he looks to have personally inclined towards the Homoerotic, and seems to have had- based upon the example of the Classical Greeks, familiar to him through the Latin education that formed the basis of Elizabethan learning- a conception of Gay Identity that was possibly much further ahead of his time than anything that anyone else in the period had going on.
Marlowe never marries, which is a bit unusual for a man in the Elizabethan Age, nor is Marlowe connected with any girlfriends or mistresses (in contrast to, say, Shakespeare, who marries kind of quickly a woman somewhat older than he, when he was all of nineteen; she bears him a child, in Virginia Woolf’s famous words, “rather sooner than was right”; apparently by his own admission, Shakespeare has at least one mistress in London, the tempestuous Dark Lady of the Sonnets; as well, Shakespeare is anecdotally linked to female romantic partners, such as in a delightful theater-story, recorded during his lifetime, regarding him, the lead actor of his company, Burbage, and a 16th century theater-groupie). The total absence of women in Marlowe’s life is notable in contrast, as is the fact that Marlowe apparently has little affinity for his female characters (a wag, responding to the oft-repeated assertion that Marlowe secretly wrote Shakespeare’s plays, pointed out that- unlike Shakespeare- Marlowe can write neither comedy nor women; the most famous female character in Marlowe’s canon, Helen of Troy from Faustus, literally has not a single line). Then of course, there is Marlowe’s famous line (attributed to him by an ex-roommate during the inquest following his death), that “Any of them that like not boys and tobacco are fools.” (I presume that, by “boys,” Marlowe means young men in their early ’20s; as Marlowe never outlives his 20s, presumably he liked younger guys in his own peer-group; presumably also, he smoked.)
Written probably when he was at Cambridge (in which case, it must speak volumes about what must have been the prevailing sense of humor among the student-body), Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage (derived from the Aeneid) opens with a startling “send-up” of Zeus and His servant-boy Ganymede. Playing up the pederastic quality of the Divine Relationship, this is a portrayal of the King of the Olympian Gods that theater-goers were probably no more used to then, than now. It does suggest, however, that Marlowe already has a grasp on the unique Gay Guy sense-of-humor known as “Camp.”
The interesting thing about Marlowe is that, given the opportunity, he will go for the Homoerotic so readily. This inclination is in great evidence in his play Edward II (c. 1592)- already notable merely for being about Edward II (1284-1327), England’s Homosexual King who was in love with a dashing Gascon knight named Piers Gaveston, and whose royal life was ended when rebellious nobles inserted a red-hot poker up his anus (in a 14th century display of homophobic violence). That Marlowe should be drawn to this material at all is interesting; that he should treat Edward and Gaveston’s relationship respectfully and sympathetically deserves mention (my favorite line occurs when Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella of France, accuses Gaveston, “Villain, ’tis thou that robb’st me of my lord!” He answers, “Madam, ’tis you that rob me of my lord.”) (scene 4, 160-1) As is always the case with Elizabethans, Marlowe’s Classical education comes out strong: later in the same scene, Isabella laments, “Would when I left sweet France that charming Circe, walking on the waves, had changed my shape, or at the marriage day the cup of Hymen had been full of poison- like frantic Juno will I fill the earth with ghastly murmur of my sighs and cries, for never doted Jove on Ganymede so much as he [Edward] on cursed Gaveston.”
What is remarkable is how often the lyrical poetry embraces a Homoerotic mood. At the very beginning, Gaveston is planning how he will stage forest entertainments to amuse Edward. “And in the day, when he shall walk abroad, like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad; my men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns, shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay. Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape- in his sportful hands an olive tree to hide those parts which men delight to see [!]- shall bathe him in a spring.” (scene 1, 56-65) What Gaveston is saying is, that he intends to have his “pages” (his boy-servants) dress as “sylvan [female] nymphs”; while his “men” (his adult-servants) will dress as satyrs, dancing an “antic” (rambunctious) dance with their goat-feet. “Sometime” a “lovely boy in Dian’s shape”- an attractive lad, dressed as Forest-Goddess Diana, holding in his “sportful hands” [!] an olive tree, “to hide those parts which men delight to see” [!]- this transvestite boy will bathe Edward [!]. All in all, there is a self-consciously “Gay” quality to Gaveston’s introduction that is unique in Elizabethan times.
Which pales before the speech made by one of Edward’s lords to the other lords, urging them to be tolerant of the King and his boyfriend- using as its persuasive base examples of Classical Homoeroticism. “The mightiest kings have had their minions ["boy toys"]: Great Alexander loved Hephaestion, the conquering Hercules for Hylas wept, and for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped. And not kings only, but the wisest men: the Roman Tully loved Octavius, grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades. Then let his grace freely enjoy that vain, light-headed earl.” (scene 4, 390-400) While a bit dismissive of Hephaestion and Patroclus as “minions,” this speech nonetheless seems to reveal- some centuries before Stonewall- a prototypical sense of Gay Consciousness- Gay Identity- derived from the Homoerotic Passions of the Greeks. It also seems to be making a point for Gay Liberation, for men to be as free in the pursuit of Same-Sex Love as were Alexander and Hercules and Achilles.
Marlowe’s Edward II appears to demonstrate a consciousness very much ahead of its time; Queer-themed drama will not be found again in English language theater until the “revolutionary” Gay plays of the post-Stonewall era.