Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


(December, 1888.)

Christopher Marlowe, whose "mighty line" was celebrated by Ben Jonson, is one of the glories of English literature. He was the morning star of our drama, which gives us the highest place in modern poetry. He definitively made our blank verse, which it only remained for Shakespeare to improve with his infinite variety; and although his daring, passionate genius was extinguished at the early age of twenty-nine, it has reverent admirers among the best and greatest critics of English literature. Many meaner luminaries have had their monuments while Marlowe's claims have been neglected; but there is now a project on foot to erect something in honor of his memory, and the committee includes the names of Robert Browning and Algernon Swinburne.

This project evokes a howl from an anonymous Christian in the columns of the Pall Mall Gazette. He protests against the "grotesque indecency of such a scheme," and stigmatises Marlowe as "a disreputable scamp, who lived a scandalous life and died a disgraceful death." That Marlowe was "a scamp" we have on the authority of those who denounced his scepticism and held him up as a frightful warning. His fellow poets, like Chapman and Drayton, spoke of him with esteem. An anonymous eulogist called him "kynde Kit Marlowe"; and Edward Blunt, his friend and publisher, said "the impression of the man hath been dear unto us, living an after-life in our memory." Assuredly Shakespeare's "dead shepherd" was no scamp. He apparently sowed his wild oats, like hundreds of other young men who were afterwards lauded by the orthodox. He was fond of a glass of wine in an age when tea and coffee were unknown, and English ladies drank beer for breakfast. And if he perished in a sudden brawl, it was at a time when everyone wore arms, and swords and daggers were readily drawn in the commonest quarrels. Nor should it be forgotten that he belonged to a "vagabond" class, half-outlawed and denounced by the clergy; that the drama was only then in its infancy; that it was difficult to earn bread by writing even immortal plays; and that irregularity of life was natural in a career whose penury was only diversified by haphazard successes. After all is said, Marlowe was no man's enemy but his own; and it is simply preposterous to judge him by the social customs of a more fastidious and, let us add, a more hypocritical age.

Our Christian protestor is shocked at the suggestion that the Marlowe memorial should be placed in Westminster Abbey, "an edifice which I believe was originally built to the honor of Jesus Christ." "The blasphemies of Voltaire," he says, "pale into insignificance when compared with those of Marlowe;" he "deliberately accused Jesus Christ and his personal followers of crimes which are justly considered unmentionable in any civilised community," and "any monument which may be erected in honor of Christopher Marlowe will be a deliberate insult to Christ."

Now those "blasphemies" are set forth in the accusation of an informer, one Richard Bame, who was hanged at Tyburn the next year for some mortal offence. Marlowe's death prevented his arrest, and it is somewhat extravagant—not to give it a harsher epithet—to write as though the accusation had been substantiated in a legal court. One of Bame's statements about Marlowe's itch for coining is, upon the face of it, absurd, and the whole document is open to the gravest suspicion. It is highly probable however, that Marlowe, who was a notorious Freethinker, was not very guarded in his private conversation; and we have no doubt that in familiar intercourse, which a mercenary or malicious eavesdropper might overhear, he indulged in what Christians regard as "blasphemy." Like nine out of ten unbelievers, he very likely gave vent to pleasantries on the subject of Christian dogmas. There is nothing incredible in his having said that "Moses was but a juggler," that "the New Testament is filthily written" (Mr. Swinburne calls it "canine Greek"), or that "all Protestants are hypocritical asses." But whether he really did say that the women of Samaria were no better than they should be, that Jesus's leaning on John's bosom at the last supper was a questionable action, that Mary's honor was doubtful and Jesus an illegitimate child—cannot be decided before the Day of Judgment; though, in any case, we fail to see that such things make "the blasphemies of Voltaire pale into insignificance."

We candidly admit, however, that a memorial to Marlowe would be incongruous in Westminster Abbey if Darwin were not buried there; but after admitting the high-priest of Evolution it seems paltry to shriek at the admission of other unbelievers. It will not do to blink the fact of Marlowe's Atheism, as is done by the two gentlemen who took up the cudgels on his behalf in the Pall Mall Gazette. Setting aside the accusation of that precious informer, there is other evidence of Marlowe's heresy. Greene reproached him for his scepticism, and every editor has remarked that his plays are heathenish in spirit. Lamb not only calls attention to the fact that "Marlowe is said to have been tainted with Atheistical positions," but remarks that "Barabas the Jew, and Faustus the Conjurer, are offsprings of a mind which at least delighted to dally with interdicted subjects. They both talk a language which a believer would have been tender of putting into the mouth of a character though but in fiction." Dyce could not "resist the conviction" that Marlowe's impiety was "confirmed and daring." His extreme Freethought is also noticed by Mr. Bullen and Mr. Havelock Ellis. There is, indeed, no room for a rational doubt on this point. Marlowe was an Atheist. But a sincere Christian, like Robert Browning, is nevertheless ready to honor Marlowe's genius; quite as ready, in fact, as Algernon Swinburne, whose impiety is no less "confirmed and daring" than Marlowe's own. There is freemasonry among poets; their opinions may differ, but they are all "sealed of the tribe." And surely we may all admire genius as a natural and priceless distinction, apart from all considerations of system and creed. What Atheist fails to reverence the greatness of Milton? And why should not a Christian reverence the greatness of Marlowe? If creed stands in the way, the Christian may keep his Dante and his Milton, his Cowper and his Wordsworth; but he loses Shakespeare, Byron, and Shelley; he loses Goethe and Victor Hugo; nay, he loses Homer, AEschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, and all the splendid poets of Persia whose lyres have sounded under the Mohammedan Crescent. The distinctively Christian poets, as the world goes, are in a very decided minority; and it is a piece of grotesque impudence to ban Christopher Marlowe because he declined to echo the conventional praises of Jesus Christ.

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