Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
On 30 May, 1593, the playwright, poet and international man of mystery, Christopher Marlowe, was killed, allegedly in a bar fight.
Who was Christopher Marlowe?
A hard-drinking poet and playwright who influenced Shakespeare and was mourned by Ben Jonson, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe was almost certainly also a spy. And a gay spy, as well. Not to mention quite possibly an atheist. When he was stabbed through the eye in a Deptford lodging house, government officials presented this as a bar fight over a bill: it was more likely an assassination.
What did people wear to bars in those days?
Although shampoo, or even regular washing, were a thing of the future, Elizabethan men cared about their appearance, particularly facial hair. Beard fashions changed fast, with elaborate styles kept in place with a precursor of hair gel. High foreheads, however, were always in fashion, so men would shave their hairline back to the point where it seemed to be receding.
A padded doublet and ballooning short trousers with a neck ruff were the defining style items, with a sword and dagger as accessories. Perfume, given the absence of washing, was a must for wealthy men and women.
What did Christopher Marlowe drink?
Marlowe liked a drink, and was arrested on at least three occasions for fights that probably started in taverns: his bills from university indicate an impressive consumption of liquid.
Everyone, including children, drank beer or ale, which could be flavoured with anything from ivy to rosemary, as well as hops. Marlowe would also have enjoyed the sweet, warm mixes of milk, eggs, spices and ale or wine known variously as caudles and possets.
More lethally, he would likely have consumed the new fortified wines: Malmsey, Canary and sack. Heavily sweetened, they were much higher in alcohol than the beer and weak wines earlier generations had enjoyed, and partly to blame for the epidemic of violence at the time.
Marlowe said "all they that love not tobacco and boys are fools", and smoked a lot of the early Elizabethan tobacco, which appears to have got smokers high, particularly when paired with gallons of fortified wine.
Where did he drink?
Marlowe's plays were performed at London inns including the Cross Keys. The Mermaid Tavern on Bread Street, near Saint Paul's, was a mecca for intellectuals, as was the Nag's Head, on Cheapside. On government business, he would have enjoyed the hospitality of inns in Belgium and France.
Who did he drink with?
Marlowe almost certainly knew William Shakespeare, who would replace him as England's best-known writer, through acting and theatre circles: Shakespeare references his death in one of his plays. He worked for the Earl of Essex, Elizabeth I's lover, and shared a flat with the playwright Thomas Kyd.
What else was happening at that time?
Marlowe died five years after the Spanish Armada, which could well have conquered England, was caught in a storm. English armies were still fighting in France, Ireland and against the Spanish, while pirates like Sir Francis Drake were battling for gold and slaves in the Caribbean and Queen Elizabeth I was persecuting Catholics and heretics.
Plague outbreaks were still routine: the year before Marlowe died, the Black Death killed 10,000 people in London alone. And syphilis, then a fatal disease, was sweeping the arts and theatre scene like AIDS did in 1980s London and New York.