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Tracking Marlowe’s Murderer


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

The Death of Christopher Marlowe. By J. Leslie Hotson. With an Introduction by G. L. Kitteredge. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $3.00.

“Murder will out” but the tracks of the murderer are not often three centuries old before they are followed up. At last, however, after more than three hundred years the mystery surrounding the death of Christopher Marlowe has been solved. Literary history and fiction have long been busy guessing the circumstances of Marlowe’s tragic end and weaving traditions of a sordid romance. Even the name of the man who killed the dramatist was uncertain and neither of the two names often given proves to have been correct. The story as told by the young American scholar, who followed the most shadowy clues with painstaking subtlety to his triumphant discovery, is more interesting than a tale of Scotland Yard. The scholarly detective in the case is J. Leslie Hotson of Harvard University and his exciting narrative, first told in part in the Atlantic Monthly, now appears in a small book “The Death of Christopher Marlowe” with an introduction by Professor Kitteredge. Mr. Kitteredge does not overestimate the importance of this book when he writes in his brief but ample introduction: “Seldom is it the good fortune of any scholar, young or old, to make so remarkable a find as that which Mr. Hotson modestly chronicles in this book, and the alert ingenuity that detected and followed the clue removes the discovery from the class of happy accidents.”

Mr. Hotson tracked his murderer among the old records of Chancery Lane, London, until he was able to disclose how, and by whose hand, Marlowe met his death. The documents discovered are three; an order from Queen Elizabeth for a Coroner’s Inquest into the circumstances of the poet’s death, the Coroner’s Report, and the Queen’s Pardon, granted the slayer on June 28, 1593, four weeks after the affray. The Coroner’s Report is so clear that we feel when reading it as if we had been witnesses at the tragic event which it describes. It discloses that on Wednesday, May 30,1593, Christopher Marlowe and three companions, Nicholas Skeres, Robert Poley, and Ingram Frezer, spent the day in an inn at Deptford, kept by Mistress Eleanor Bull, widow. They were there from ten o’clock in the morning ui.til six in the afternoon. At that time a dispute arose between Marlowe and Frezer over the reckoning, and in the ensuing strife, and solely in self-defense, Frezer drew his dagger and stabbed Marlowe above the right eye, killing him instantly.

This then, is the account, as given by the witnesses present, of the tragic fate of one of the greatest poets of the English Renaissance, not one of whose plays is more tragical than his life and death. The evidence of the men was accepted and Ingram Frezer, a substantial man of affairs, received his pardon. Whether we have here a true and impartial story of a reckless broil, strangely without apparent motive, or whether Frezer’s friends told a plausable tale to save their companion’s life, must remain the subject of conjecture. Not even Mr. Hotson’s acuteness can go behind the findings of the authorities of the law.

The account destroys the many legends and romances that have been built up around Marlowe’s fate. The “woman in the case” disappears. The name of the slayer is positively established as Ingram Frezer (and not Frazer, as has been generally supposed). There are two notes in the back of the book, one describing how Marlowe won his Master of Arts degree from the hostile authorities of Cambridge University, and the other giving details of other events in the life of his slayer.

The narrative of “The Death of Christopher Marlowe” is told with an interest that suggests less the mannered dullness of a typical record of research than the thrills of a Sherlock Holmes story. American Scholarship is honored almost as much by the literary charm of the relation as by the astuteness and results of the investigation.

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