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Shakespeare And Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Johnson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher And The Other Players In His Story - Stanley Wells

So, the life stories of Marlowe and Baines sound like a script for a riotous, action-packed, heist movie.


Has anyone taken up that challenge?

Baines has been described as Marlowe’s Judas – aptly enough, though the corollary that there was anything at all Christ-like about Marlowe is not justified. Baines had studied at Cambridge some years before Marlowe, had taken his MA in 1576, and then travelled to the seminary at Rheims as a candidate for the Catholic priesthood. In fact, however, he was – whether for profit or through genuine conviction – a secret heretic. Throughout his stay at the college he did all he could to undermine his fellow seminarians’ morale and to stir up disaffection by propagating views resembling those of which he was later to accuse Marlowe, and with which indeed he may have indoctrinated him. More trivially, he was alleged to have tempted his colleagues to eat meat pies on fast days. He was said to have been reporting to the Privy Council daily, and to have intended to return to England as an informer, with the hope of lavish rewards. One contemporary reported that he had actually been sent as a spy to poison the college president, Dr Allen; another that ‘in the seminary he became a naughty spy, and was taken and punished there as a spy, by the uniform consent of all from the highest to the lowest’. At Rheims he was subjected to horrifying and prolonged tortures after a tip-off that he was an undercover agent, but he stoically refused to confess. His most bizarre plan, which happily was not put into action, was to kill off the entire community by injecting poison into the college’s wells, or communal baths, a scheme echoed in the episode in The Jew of Malta in which Barabas declares: ‘Sometimes I go about and poison wells’ (2.3.177; as we have seen he does in fact ‘spice’ a ‘pot of rice porridge’ with fatal consequences for his own daughter, Abigail, 3.4, 3.6). In spite of everything Baines was ordained as a full priest in September 1581. Among the many heretical views he ascribed to Marlowe were the statements that ‘all Protestants are hypocritical asses’, that ‘the first beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe’, that ‘Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest’ (i.e. unchaste), that ‘Saint John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ, and leant always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma’, and that ‘all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools’. And the aesthete in Marlowe may be discerned in his reported criticism that ‘all the New Testament is filthily written’.

In January 1592 Marlowe lodged with Baines and a goldsmith named Gifford Gilbert in Flushing, a British-occupied town in the war-torn Netherlands. Their aim was, literally, to make money by coining, an enterprise in which the goldsmith’s skills were indispensable. The three men were detected and Marlowe was arrested and deported, accompanied on the journey back to England by the counterfeit coins and a letter from the governor of the town, Sir Robert Sidney – brother of the late great Sir Philip – addressed to Lord Burghley revealing that the treacherous Baines, who also accompanied the party, had acted as informer, and saying that the men should ‘take their trial as you [Burghley] think best’. The criminals admitted the crime to Sidney while claiming that ‘what was done was only to see the goldsmith’s cunning [skill]’, and Sidney mercifully expressed his belief ‘that the poor man was only brought in under that colour, whatever intent the other two had’. Only one Dutch coin had actually been put into circulation, and the coiners would have been unlikely to get away with many more since ‘the metal is plain pewter, and with half an eye to be discovered’. Marlowe and Baines fell out, accusing ‘one another of intent to go to the enemy [i.e. the Catholic cause], or to Rome, both as they say of malice to one another’.