I’m currently reading a biography of the Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s contemporary whose reputation is largely blotted out by the Bard’s considerable shadow. Marlowe died young, so he doesn’t have Shakespeare’s expansive oeuvre, but back in the day, his The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine and The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus were big hits, right up there with the best of the Bard’s stuff. If they’d had Tony Awards in the 1590s, Marlowe and Shakespeare would have been neck and neck every year up until 1593 when Marlowe died, stabbed above the right eye in what was dismissed at the time as a drunken brawl over a bar bill. In truth, Marlowe was almost certainly assassinated due to his work as an intelligencer in Sir Thomas Walshingham’s (and the Queen’s) service, his arrest on charges of heresy a few days before his murder, and the fact that he was caught up in a power struggle within the Queen’s privy council.
Not that it matters once you have a knife through your frontal lobe. Dead is dead.
In the early 1950s, a portrait of what is now believed to be Marlowe was discovered at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Marlowe was a student. I was taken by the motto – Quod me nutrit me destruit (That which nourishes me destroys me). Taken against the frantic and chaotic backdrop of Marlowe’s life, one imagines meanings as varied as Marlowe’s tastes. He indulged his intellectual appetites. He was a free-thinker, quite probably an atheist, and not shy with his opinions. Even today, when the only risk of such thoughts is to reputation (a 2010 poll found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual or a Muslim or a convicted felon for public office than would vote for an admitted atheist), I think that many people hold such beliefs in private but are loathe to admit to them in public. Marlowe embraced these thoughts in an age where such ideas could get you burned at the stake. He indulged his sexual appetites. Marlowe caused a bit of a contretemps at Cambridge, choosing to translate Ovid’s Amores, which are unabashedly erotic, as part of his studies – putting an even more erotic spin on the material. Marlowe was also likely homosexual, or at least bisexual at a time when the consequences of that orientation were as dire as those associated with his theological beliefs. Marlowe was a drinker and a brawler, proving his appetites were not confined to only finer thoughts or biological imperatives. He was a spy, a leading dramatist and, in his fashion, a scholar – all by the age of 29, all by a man of common birth, a cobbler’s son, at a time when birth was destiny. He should have spent a long, dull life making shoes. Instead he spent a short, bright one making history.
Shakespeare, too, was born a commoner and, in his way, overcame even more. Marlowe went to Cambridge at a young age on scholarship, the BA and MA he earned holding a weight that PhDs from even the most august institutions today do not hold. The annual matriculation at Cambridge in Marlowe’s time was a couple dozen in a good year, so just holding those degrees made him a full-fledged member of the Elizabethan intelligentsia and lent a weight to his authorship that Shakespeare, who held no academic credentials, could never claim. Yet Shakespeare went on to become the cornerstone of the English literary canon. Marlowe was a brilliant comet across the same Elizabethan sky. How long he might have shinned we can only guess.
Quod me nutrit me destruit. Perhaps Marlowe meant that in reference to the joys and consequences of his the voracious appetites he indulged in pursuit his own vision of a full life – indulged in the face of a moral climate that then, even more than today, would preach curbing those desires in the service of probity, of chastity, of God. But there is a longer thought, one that Shakespeare echoes in Sonnet 73, and one that holds a lesson for us all, particularly on the cusp of this new year.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by
Time is both the fuel of that fire and the flame that devours it. Time feeds us. It is the essential stuff of life, the thread of mortality with which we each weave in such days as we are allotted. But it consumes us, too. Each day is another bite out of a finite meal at the end of which awaits either death or dessert. Many of us pretend it will be the later, but I think we all know in our hearts it will be the former.
Marlowe chose to make that meal a feast – to gorge on every morsel life offered him, even knowing that every indulged appetite held out the promise of both sustenance and destruction, but knowing too that, however carefully we may choose to pick at life’s meal, the same grave awaits us each on that day we scrape our plates clean.
I’m closer to the end of that meal than to the beginning and have spent too much time already picking at my food either out of fear of insulting imagined gods or in pretended service to a society that I thought somehow better served by my restraint than by my action, or, in a harder and sadder truth, in plain sloth, in too many days and weeks and years where the simple effort of reaching for another joint of mutton seemed too much work when balanced against the myriad banal distractions that also litter life’s table. A promise to change is easy, but it is my intent to be more greedy of those morsels I desire, to recognize that my joyful gluttony has more to offer the world than my dour restraint, that the table is laid rich and full and that I cannot possibly hope to exhaust its bounty. To gorge at this table costs no other man a single crumb. To sit at it empty-mouthed, thinned with guilt or shame or sloth, that costs us each everything. The waiters are standing in the corner waiting to take your plate away.
Eat hearty and damn the consequences. Dead is dead.