Everyone is thinking the same thought these days,“What possessed those Russian youths to kill and maim American families out for a good time?” It seems clear that the elder was the motivating force, the one still alive pretty much just following in his brother’s footsteps The elder, Tamerlan, was an energetic youth, who tried and did well at a number of things in his American life. What turned him against the people of Boston?
Lacking an answer to that, we authorship scholars have something else we can think about, the man’s given name. It’s an unusual name, but probably as common in his birthplace as Alexander is in the West, for the Tamburlaine of Asian history, a great conqueror, is on a par with our Alexander or Napoleon. While the name means almost nothing to most westerners, it means a lot in the part of the world where the original Timur “the Lame” rose to power, a great conquerer who rose from the obscurity of a small local chieftan to oversee a vaster empire even than Alexander’s and a dynasty that lasted a lot longer. A man from Chechnya with the same name might be subject to delusions of grandeur. After all, what westerner would name their kid Napoleon? Or Adolf?
Authorship scholars, focussed on on sixteenth-century playwrights, know the name Tamburlaine because it is the title of the play that made one of our subjects famous. Just as Oxford unleashed his inner conqueror with Coriolanus and Hotspur, so after three years of apprenticeship with the Fisher’s Folly crew, Marlowe unleashed his with the monstrously heroic Tamburlaine. For the boistrous apprentices of Southwark, the heroic image of Edward Alleyn as the working class conqueror was heady stuff. Willing to pay to see it every time it was played, they made it the hit that turned the London Stage into a viable industry.
But the play was a disaster in another sense, it had crossed a line, one that threatened to shut down not only Henslowe’s theater, but all the theaters as well. Reports reached the Cecils of the kind of play it was, and how when Tamburlaine drives across the stage, whipping the beaten emperor and his vizier who are being forced to pull his chariot on their hands and knees, the audience of young apprentices show their enthusiasm in a way that frightened the Cecils. After all, Shakepseare’s Coriolanus and Hotspur came a to bad end, but Tamburlaine, as history confirmed, lived a long and successful life and died in bed. Walsingham and Oxford were probably called to account, but there was little they could do. They weren’t supposed to be in the theater business.
Marlowe had violated one of the unwritten rules for the theater of Elizabeth’s reign. He had brought to life for an impressionable and restless audience a powerful rebel who overthrew his monarch and, what was worse, was never forced to pay for his heinous crime. It didn’t matter that the rebel was a tribal chieftain from the steppes of Central Asia two hundred years and a thousand miles away, what mattered was that an acting company had dramatized how a poor subject with a powerful will could defeat and humiliate a monarch and get away with it. Timur was no fiction, he was an historical reality, but not quite the kind of history that Walsingham had hoped to get when he hired him.
The playwrights and “Divine Right”
Uneasy lay the heads that wore the Tudor crown. From Henry VIII on it was hammered home from the pulpit that an anointed monarch was sacred. God had put him or her on the throne and it was up to God how and when to take them off. Thus rebellion became heresy, and the depiction of rebellion, successful rebellion, was atheism, and atheism was treason.
Shakespeare was just as observant of this unwritten rule as all the rest. In Shakespeare’s Derived Imagery (1967), John Erskine Hankins notes how he almost never fails to pair the words sacred or annointed with the words monarch or majesty. Because Cecil was so clever (and his descendants throughout the centuries so powerful), and because literary historians pay no attention to mainstream history, and vice versa, this motive for Marlowe’s assassination has escaped them. Point being: the Cecils simply could not afford to let Marlowe, (or his patron, Lord Strange) get away with it. The rest of the company and the owner and manager of the theater where the seditious play was performed were let off the hook. To kill a poisonous weed, or rebellion, you must pull it up by the root.
Unfortunately Marlowe’s effrontery had come at the same time that a satirist calling himself Martin Mar-prelate caused a similar ruckus with the newborn commercial press, humiliating the bishops, lashing them with witty invective, suggesting base practices, and at the same time, demonstrating better than anything the tremendous latent power of the press.
Clearly the writers were out of control. Something had to be done. The Cecils hadn’t long to wait. Walsingham’s death in April 1990 opened the door to their acquisition of his papers, his staff, his agents, and his authority. Burghley took on the work of administration while Robert went after their enemies. Now in control of Walsingham’s black operatives, he used two of them to create a sting that was meant to charge Marlowe with attempting to hire one of them to help him make counterfeit coins to fund Catholic plots, a charge that would bring a stiff penalty. The renegade playwright escaped this one, but he wouldn’t escape the next.
Timur the Lame
Marlowe had a yen for the Middle East. We see that in two of his plays, the story of Tamburlaine, the great conqueror of the Scythian plains, and Barnabas, The Jew of Malta, where the great battle of Lepanto saw the Europeans under Don John of Austria stop the Ottoman Turks under Emperor Sulieman. Drawn to the Middle East, he was also drawn to its ancient and noble wisdom tradition. His name is connected with the group dubbed by historians “the School of Night” that included Sir Walter Raleigh, and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, a group that Cecil hated. This group had to be secretive because the scientific and philosophical matters they discussed were considered atheism by the Crown, but it wasn’t religion that inspired Cecil; his hatred was personal. This is evident in the way he charged Raleigh and Percy, by means of his operative Richard Baines, with atheism shortly after nailing Marlowe. He failed because they were still too strong for him, but later when he finally got enough power under James, he managed to put them both behind bars.
Aware that the Cecils were on the war path, Oxford put an end to his pamphletting as Robert Greene in September 1592. In his last hurrah as Greene (well, almost the last) , Greene’s Groatsworth of Witte, as the supposedly dying Greene confesses his sins, he includes a warning message to the “famous gracer of tragedians” that he had better reject “diabolical atheism” and “pestilent Machiavellian policy,” or else, “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.” Had Marlowe listened to reason and agreed to stick to less dangerous topics, perhaps he would have survived, but driven by an irresistable urge to connect with his audience, for whom he felt himself the mouthpiece, his next, and last, play dealt with another taboo subject, The Massacre at Paris, in which the leader of the French Catholic party, the Duc de Guise, is assassinated onstage. What’s left of the play gives no hint of what it might have been originally, as it’s about half the length of a normal play.
Oxford and Marlowe
We’ll never find any hard evidence of it, but it has to be that Marlowe was trained in playwriting by Oxford. Considering that this was the only place at that time where he could possibly have learned it, it’s the only thing that makes sense. In the early 1580s, Oxford and his “lewd friends” at Fishers Folly, where they had (probably) been enrolled by the Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, to provide plays for his recently formed Crown company, the Queen’s Men, plays written to inspire patriotic enthusiasm in the inhabitants of the coastal towns where the Spanish fleet was most likely to attack. Oxford was spread thin in the mid-’80s, writing for both the Queen’s Men and Burbage’s company, so Walsingham had arranged for Marlowe, word of whose abilities were spreading beyond Cambridge, to take time off from his lessons at Cambridge so the Fisher’s Folly crew could teach him to write for the stage. It seems that the Cambridge dons knew that Walsingham was responsible, but wrong about what he wanted Marlowe to do. They guessed it was to spy. In fact (of course!) it was to write. Why would Walsingham waste a brilliant writer on spying when he had an acting company that needed material? In the end it seems that Marlowe never did write anything for the Queen’s Men, whom he jeered in the opening lines of Tamburlaine as: “jigging veins of rhyming mother wits, and such conceits as clownage keeps in pay.”
Something of a genius, Marlowe learned fast. He came to the Folly just when Oxford was moving from euphuism to the style of The Spanish Tragedy, when he’d decided that iambic pentameter would be his basic meter. Marlowe adopted Oxford’s style as written in stone and soon became proficient at it.
Surrounded by irreverent wits like Oxford, Bacon, Lodge, Peele, Kyd and the Bassano musicians, the working class youth heard the kind of irreverent talk that such people indulge in when they’re together, some of it fairly anti-establishment. His stints in London in 1584 and ’85 coincided with the visit of the magus Giordano Bruno, who kindled enthusiasm in the English intellectual community for the Wisdom Tradition of the Middle East. Without a doubt he was included in this group.
With important members of the Stage community and the aristocracy dropping by for a laugh, a drink, an evening of music, it’s hardly surprising that it went to Marlowe’s head, for as he grew in ability he also grew in self-importance. He became restless with the restrictions imposed on writers by the Crown. Both Oxford and Walsingham were well aware of what lines they could cross, where they could speak freely and where they could not. They must have warned the youth, but he wouldn’t listen. He felt himself standing on the threshold of power. He knew he could bring the working class apprentices into the theater in a way that Oxford and Bacon with their Courtly themes and elegant styles could not. Both about the same age, Tamerlan Tsarnaev had bombmaking materials and skills; Christopher Marlowe had bombastic language, a theater, and an audience.
At Fisher’s Folly Marlowe became acquainted with young Edward Alleyn who lived at the Pye Inn next door. Still just a teenager, just learning the acting ropes from Burbage and his crew, Alleyn was a member of Marlowe’s own class. A big fellow, with a big voice, Alleyn had begun around fourteen or fifteen playing Romeo to Richard Burbage’s Juliet, graduating as he matured to roles like the Bastard Falconbridge and Coriolanus. Like Marlowe, Alleyn was restless and eager to fly beyond the confines of what Burbage and Oxford were working to build. When the rebellious pair heard that Philip Henslowe was planning to build a big public theater across the river, the second in all of London, they made a break for freedom. The play was a monster hit, probably the first to demonstrate that with the right material, actors, musicians, playwrights and theater owners could support themselves and maybe even a family.
With Marlowe no longer handy to warn in person, Oxford did what he could by inserting a warning in Robert Greene’s “deathbed” pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. Addressing him politely as “thou famous gracer of tragedians,’ he urged him to leave off “diabolical atheism” and “pestilent Machiavellian policy.” Admitting that he too had been guilty of scoffing at religion, he warns him “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.”
With the streets of the City emptied by the plague, Cecil’s agents were free to paste fake warning notices on walls around London that threatened violence to foreign workers. One, pasted on the wall of the Church where the Dutch had their service, written in rhyming iambics, and referring slyly to the themes of Marlowe’s last two plays, was signed “Tamburlaine.” His agents having warned the Privy Council, Cecil provided them with documents that painted Marlowe as a violent homosexual atheist. Within days Marlowe’s scribe, Thomas Kyd, was arrested and racked until he condemned his former housemate.
Marlowe was questioned in Star Chamber, then let go on house arrest to the home of Thomas Walsingham, a cousin of the former Secretary of State. What Walsingham’s share was in the sting is hard to unravel, but that he had a share in it can’t be denied. His agent was one of the men who “took care of” Marlowe in Deptford. As soon as Cecil got the power of Secretary of State he rewarded Walsingham with a knighthood and a place at Court, where, during King James’s reign, his wife developed a reputation, whether deserved or not, as Cecil’s procuress.
On the morning of May 30, Marlowe was “invited” to a dinner at a hostelry in Deptford, across the river from where the Court was getting ready to leave for Windsor to escape the plague. After ten hours of hanging about for no obvious reason, the three agents whose job it was to “take care” of Marlowe, either killed him, or put him on a boat heading for the Continent (or, one hopes, for the Middle East). If the latter, the bizarre ten hours may have been spent waiting for the corpse of John Penry to arrive. Penry, having been accused of the Mar-prelate satires, had been hanged the day before on the road to Deptford. If so it was a perfect plan, perfectly executed, and it netted the Cecils two enemy birds with a single sting.
Marlowe’s death has been examined by several notable literary historians, each proclaiming a different engineer, and all but one ignoring its only possible true creator, Robert Cecil. The book that provides the most evidence is Charles Nicholl’s 1992, The Reckoning. Nicholl’s choice for perpetrator is the Earl of Essex, but then Nicholl is British, and the Cecil descendants have always been powerful enough to stand in the way of the truth about their ancestors coming out. If he fudges on a conclusion, Nicholl provides enough evidence to convict Cecil (though not all of it). Considering the ferocious avalanche of filthy epigrams that followed Cecil’s death, certainly no one in his own time would have been surprised to hear that he got rid of a playwright back in the early ’90s, or just how he did it; he’d done the same thing to so many more important enemies since.
In considering what effect the name Tamerlan may have had on the young terrorist, it may be of interest to consider that, according to Wikipedia, scholars estimate that Tamburlaine’s brutal military campaigns “caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5 percent of the world’s population.” Someone must have played on this while Tamerlan was in Russia, learning bombmaking from expert terrorists. But while his namesake created a dynasty that lasted centuries, Tamerlan’s end was closer to something Shakespeare might have written.