‘All they that love not tobacco and boys’: a Christopher Marlowe reading list

February is LGBTQ history month here in the UK and for the first of hopefully a few posts to mark the occasion, I’m going to offer up some reading suggestions for Christopher Marlowe, everyone’s favourite suspiciously murdered, probable gay atheist spy playwright.

The title comes from the infamous ‘Baines note’, a document written by Richard Baines accusing Marlowe of saying ‘That all they that loue not Tobacco & Boies were fooles’ and also, amongst other things, ‘That St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma.’ Whether or not Marlowe did go around shouting such proclamations in late sixteenth century London (see Burgess’ novel A Dead Man in Deptford for the fictional image of him doing exactly that), his works show a fair deal of men loving men.

Marlowe is probably most famous (writing wise, as he’s probably most famous in general for being Shakespeare’s rival who was killed with a stab to the eye) for Doctor Faustus, his play on the Faust myth full of dramatic speeches on predestination, playing pranks on the Pope, and a devil a little too infatuated with Faustus, so I’m going to skip over that and start with the obvious for this list.

  • Edward II – Marlowe’s play on the English monarch overthrown by his barons for not being a very good king and preferring to just give a load of titles to his favourites, particularly Piers Gaveston. Marlowe spends plenty of time emphasising how much Edward loves Gaveston, despite this being not so great for his realm, and comparing them to classical male lovers.  Also famous for Derek Jarman’s incredibly artsy film adaptation which, among other things, adds in the word ‘fuck’.
  • Hero and Leander – A narrative poem about the hardships of two heterosexual lovers doesn’t sound like Marlowe, but he does add in a narrator who gives a very lingering description of Leander’s naked back and claims that ‘in his looks were all that men desire.’ Plus he’s compared to Ganymede, Jupiter’s male love/obsession/cupbearer, and if there was ever a Marlowe drinking game, it would be for how often he references Ganymede.
  • Dido Queen of Carthage – On that note, to see Ganymede and Jupiter in action (not quite like that), the opening scene of Marlowe’s play about Dido features them doing some godly fooling around before the plot begins. For basically no reason. Others of the four plays I’ve not mentioned here also mention Ganymede, unnecessarily.
  • Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy by Park Honan – I’ve finished up with the best Marlowe biography out there, because he’s nothing if not fascinating to read about. Honan’s book is readable and doesn’t require you to have an infinite memory for the names of early modern spies (as Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning does, though it is also worth reading if you like Marlowe).