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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.4 (2000) 555-576
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Tobacco and Boys:
How Queer Was Marlowe?
Christopher Marlowe has been a significant figure in the refiguration of the English Renaissance, the working-class outsider/spy/sodomite who gives the lie to the Elizabethan world picture and to a whole complex of traditional assumptions about the aims of English Renaissance drama. My argument here, however, is that the transgressive Marlowe is largely a posthumous phenomenon. I begin with the portrait that hangs in the hall of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (fig. 1), though with no conviction that it is in fact a portrait of Marlowe. It was discovered, badly damaged, in a heap of builders' rubbish during the renovations of the Old Court of Corpus in 1952; it was then thoroughly and conservatively restored. It is inscribed with the date 1585; the sitter's age, twenty-one; and a motto, to which I will return. All that could be determined about its history was that it had been nailed to a wall in the Master's Lodge; the lodge was built in the 1820s, and there is no way of knowing when after that the picture was installed, where it had hung before that, or when it came into the possession of the college. There is, in short, no record of its existence before 1952, though it is undoubtedly an Elizabethan painting. 1 The suggestion that it is a portrait of Marlowe was made in 1955, not by anyone connected with the college, which does not claim that it represents him. Nevertheless, it is continually reproduced as the only extant portrait of the poet.
The problems with this identification are manifold: Marlowe certainly was twenty-one in 1585, but why would a Cambridge undergraduate, a scholarship boy from an artisan-class background, have commissioned such a portrait? If somebody else--some admirer or patron--commissioned it, who was he (or, less likely in Marlowe's case, she), and why did the painting end up in the possession of the college, rather than of the patron or the sitter? Charles Nicholl, who is eager for the portrait to be Marlowe and uses it on the cover of his book The Reckoning, about Marlowe's murder, suggests that the college itself commissioned the picture [End Page 555] [Begin Page 557] of its famous alumnus. This notion strikes me as inherently implausible, given both the youth and the presentation of the sitter and the fact that in 1585 Marlowe was utterly obscure. Nicholl cites as corroborative evidence the portrait of Spenser that hangs in the hall of Pembroke College and was unquestionably commissioned by that college (fig. 2), but the comparison is surely disingenuous. 2 The Spenser portrait is an eighteenth-century painting, said to be a copy of an earlier painting of unknown date, now lost. It shows Spenser as a mature man in the years of his fame, not as an undergraduate; if anything, it argues against the idea that Corpus [End Page 557] would have commissioned a portrait of Marlowe at twenty-one. If the sitter could be shown to be Marlowe, of course, it would tell us something important about how his colleagues wanted to remember him--not, that is, as a distinguished poet like Spenser. And whoever commissioned the painting, what is the significance of the outfit? The rich velvet jacket is liberally adorned with buttons that either are or look like gold and is slashed to show an orange silk lining. The collar is a simple band, but covered with the finest lawn. Why the exceedingly rich garment, rather than an academic gown or something a scholarship boy might reasonably have worn? And--a logical corollary to all these questions--if the painting is not Marlowe, why did anyone ever think it was?
Let us look at a couple of other literary youths of the same period, young men who are in some way comparable to Marlowe. Figure 3 shows Francis Bacon at eighteen, a pretty, rather cheeky...