Atheism and homosexuality in 16th century England are two highly complex, multi-layered subjects that I can hardly do justice to here. In some respects they have similarities, which is why it is beneficial to read the two contributions one after the other. For a comprehensive study of the subject, I recommend Homosexuality in Renaissance England by Alan Bray.1

Before we come to the parallels mentioned, the most serious difference should be named Marlowe was probably constantly accused of atheism during his lifetime and then immediately after his death. The only statement about his intimate life comes from Richard Baines, who went on record in the Baines note to say that Marlowe had said: "That all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles."2 Until the end of the 19th century, there is never any more mention of Marlowe’s homosexuality.

Analogous to atheism, today’s term "homosexuality" has very little to do with what the Elizabethans understood by it. The word itself was unknown to them.3 For them, it was a form of "sodomy", which in turn has a completely different meaning at present. For today’s reader, the accusation Richard Baines makes in the Baines note points much more to paedophilia than homosexuality.4 However, sodomy included a range of not quite clearly defined sexual practices, of which sex between men was only one. Nowadays say "sexual debauchery" instead of "sodomy". It was seen as a purely masculine sin that was not in the nature of the individual but in the nature of the man. Any man could be just as capable of this as of murder, for example. Furthermore, sodomy was a sexual, but also a political as well as religious crime. If one rebelled against nature, it was then surprising if he equally rebelled against the community, the queen and God, hence the charge of sodomy was often combined with that of atheism. What Elizabethan society lacked was "[…] the idea of a distinct homosexual minority, […] for whom alone homosexual desire is a possibility."5 Moreover, terms from the past now have a different meaning. In the 21st century, no one would suspect a sexual background to two people having a conversation. In the 16th century, "to converse" could also be used for "to copulate".6 In The Massacre at Paris, Marlowe calls Omer Talon the "bedfellow "7 of Ramée. What sounds completely unambiguous to us meant something absolutely different to Marlowe. The structural conditions (John Thorpe did not design the first corridor for a house until 1597.8) always forced people to go from one room to the next until they were in the room they wanted to go to. Who was in bed with whom could hardly be kept secret under these circumstances. Furthermore, the bed was by no means the haven of privacy that it is considered to be today. People not only slept in bed, they also talked there. Someone’s bedfellow, was a trusted person who could influence you if necessary. Becoming the bedfellow of a higher-ranking person was quite desirable.9 William Laud noted a dream in 1625 in which his patron was the Duke of Buckingham appeared.

"that night in a dreame the Duke of Buckingham seemed to me ascend into my bed; where he carried himselfe with much love towards me, after such rest wherein wearied men are wont exceedingly to rejoyce: And likewise many seemed to me to enter the Chamber, who did see this."10

This was not a sexual fantasy of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud dreamed that the powerful Duke of Buckingham demonstrated before the eyes of many how highly he was regarded by him by publicly making him his bedfellow. Taken out of context and without the necessary background information, this text would hardly be understood in this way at present. It is the same with the way friendship was depicted and described in the late 16th century. A kiss, a hug or a stroke over the hair in public was a sign of favour. If this did not happen, it could be assumed that the person in question had fallen out of honour. Friendship was a strong emotional connection that included passion as well as jealousy. In writing, it found expression in a choice of words that was very exuberant for our ears. It was not unusual for an earl to close a letter to a client with the words: "'Your loving master'"11. This Elizabethan ideal, according to which one showed one’s favours outwardly and wrote down one’s friendship in an emotional way, was free of sexual connotation unless someone deliberately wanted to use it against one. The list of those who have been accused of being a sodomite by disagreeable contemporaries includes the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Castlehaven, and extends to James I.12 When Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford accused Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundell of conspiracy in 1580, they accused him of atheism and sodomy. Although there was no connection with Christopher Marlowe, the accusations bear a striking resemblance to the Baines note. It was claimed about de Vere: "that way with so many boyes that it must nedes come out"13 and: "that when wemen were vnswete fine yonge boyes were in season"14. None of this was true. The whole thing came to nothing. Atheism and sodomy were popular accusations should a man’s reputation be damaged.

"Homosexual relationships did indeed occur within social contexts which an Elizabethan would have called friendship, between masters and servants included. But accusations like those […] are not evidence of it; and the ease with which [they were made] out of the most everyday of materials should make us wary. We see in them rather the unwelcome difficulty the Elizabethans had in drawing a dividing line between those gestures of closeness among men that they desired so much and those they feared."15

One can see how ambivalent, confusing and contradictory the matter was for the Elizabethans. What was commonplace behaviour yesterday could be used against you tomorrow. That was one of the unbeatable advantages of the charge of sodomy. Whether the accusations were true was, as so often, irrelevant. In Edward II in particular, Marlowe played skilfully with this ambiguity. That says something about his talent as a writer, but not about his person. Because over time Richard Baines, along with his claims, has lost some credibility, it is Marlowe’s work in which a number of critics continue to see Marlowe’s own confession of homosexuality.16 It is at this point that the major difference with Marlowe’s alleged atheism becomes apparent. Although his dramas reveal as little about his faith, they all have moments in which religion is considered unorthodoxly within the acceptable framework of the time.17 If Edward II and Gaveston are the lovers they are thought to be, they are a singular phenomenon in Marlowe’s dramatic oeuvre. His protagonists do not lead harmonious family lives and none of them can claim to be a romantic lover, but there is no indication that their private lives did not follow the prevailing conventions. Aeneas, Tamburlaine, Faustus, Barabas, Guise, Mortimer, they all had a wife, have a wife or want a wife. As it stands, Marlowe’s work obviously does not suggest that he was homosexual.

How did Marlowe become homosexual?

"By some mysterious process, it is, for instance, widely current that Marlowe was homosexual, […]"18 The answer is already in there: it’s a mystery Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds published an edition of Marlowe’s works in 1887 as part of the Mermaid Edition, which gave more readers access to the author than probably ever before.19 In it, the complete Baines note was printed for the first time in the 19th century. Until then, it had only been known among academics, who had thoughtfully kept it hidden from the eyes of the public.20 Symonds had already made a name for himself as a literary scholar as well as a poet. In both fields he showed great interest in same-sex love. His bisexuality was an open secret. Ellis, who had an unconventional marriage with lesbian and women’s rights activist Edith Mary Oldham Lees, was an prominent sexologist. Both he and Symonds advocated the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Both wanted to show that this is not a behavioural abnormality, but a constant in human development, which is reflected above all in art. So artists of all genres and eras were sought who had either lived out free love or at least paid homage to it in their works. In A Problem in Modern Ethics Symonds assumes that since ancient Greece authors, apart from pornography, have dealt with homosexuality. Some of Marlowe’s work also refers to homosexuality. However, Symonds does not cite a passage and speaks only of Marlowe’s work, not his life.21 In 1896, Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl, a collaboration between Ellis and Symonds, was published in Leipzig. The authors presented the first objective study on homosexuality, which they did not want to be understood as a disease, a perversion or a crime, causing a tangible scandal the following year when the English version was published under the title Sexual Inversion. Marlowe’s work and life are clearly linked, in keeping with the spirit of the time.

"[…] Marlowe’s poetic work, while it shows him by no means insensitive to the beauty of women, also reveals a special and peculiar sensitiveness to masculine beauty. Marlowe clearly had a reckless delight in all things unlawful, and it seems probable that he possessed the bisexual temperament."22

Like Symonds, Ellis did not address Marlowe’s text more specifically in this regard, but only spoke generally about the homoerotic tendency in Edward II. That was neither new nor revolutionary. As early as 1895, an article had appeared in the Free Review whose author saw Gaveston as a hermaphrodite.23 The legal situation and the social climate prevented a broad reception of Ellis’s theses. From 1967, homosexuality was no longer a punishable offence in Britain. Shortly afterwards, censorship was abolished. This allowed for new possibilities of representation in the artistic field and gave new impetus to the struggle for recognition of same-sex partnerships in all aspects of everyday life. Sometime after that, the aforementioned mystery set in. Marlowe had – according to biographers and critics – always had sex. For over three hundred years with women, now suddenly with men. No point in time, no particular discovery or anything else can be identified that led to the assumption that Marlowe was homosexual. As is so often the case with Marlowe, there is no evidence to support this claim. A shortcoming that is compensated for by the fact that it has been propagated just too mantra-like since its mysterious creation. And it works. Nothing seems to interest people in connection with Marlowe as much as his sexual preferences. I have met people who had never read a line of his but knew about his sex life.24 The idea of a continuous struggle for acceptance of one’s own sexuality with Marlowe as a comrade-in-arms may seem attractive in times when such a battle should have been won long ago but unfortunately still isn’t, but in this case it must be asked whether the wish is not the father of the thought, or as Kenneth Tucker put it more drastically: "Marlowe’s alleged homosexuality, furthermore, makes the material interesting […] to those wishing to advertise their own broadmindedness."25

Bray, Alan. 1990. “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England.” History Workshop Journal 29 (1): 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/29.1.1.
———. 1995. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. 2nd Ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ellis, Havelock H. 1915. Studies in the Psycholog of Sex. 3rd edition. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: F. A. Davies.
Flanders, Judith. 2015. The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Masten, Jeffrey. 1997. “Playwrighting: Authorship and Collaboration.” In A New History of Early English Drama, edited by John D. Cox, 357–82. New York: Columbia University Press.
Prynne, William. 1644. A Breviate of the Life of William Laud, Arch-Bishop of Canterbury: Extracted from His Owne Diary, and Other Writings, Under His Owne Hand. Collected and Published at the Speciall Instance of Sundry Honourable Persons, as a Necessary Prologue to the History of His Tryall; for Which the Criminall Part of His Life, Is Specially Reserved. London: F. Leach.
Simpson, John, ed. 2009. Oxford English Dictionary: On CD-ROM ; Including 7000 New Words and Meanings. 2. rev. ed., Version 4.0. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Symonds, John Addington. 1896. A Problem in Modern Ethics: Being an Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion, Addressed Especially to Medical Psychologists and Jurists. London.

  1. Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. 2nd Ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.↩︎
  2. BL Harley MS.6848 f.185v↩︎
  3. According to the OED, "homosexuality" was first used in 1892. Simpson (2009)↩︎
  4. Erne (2005)↩︎
  5. Bray (1990), 2 u. 15↩︎
  6. Masten (1997)↩︎
  7. The Massacre at Paris. 9, 12↩︎
  8. Flanders (2015)↩︎
  9. Bray (1990)↩︎
  10. Prynne (1644), 6↩︎
  11. Bray (1990), 5↩︎
  12. Bray (1995)↩︎
  13. PRO SP12/151[/57], ff. 118-119↩︎
  14. PRO SP12/151[/46], ff. 103-4↩︎
  15. Bray (1990), 14↩︎
  16. Kuriyama (1980); Cunningham (1990); Bredbeck (1991); Comensoli (1993); Cartelli (2003); DiGangi (1998); Goldberg (1999); Hopkins (2003)↩︎
  17. Hunter (1964)↩︎
  18. Hopkins (2003), 4↩︎
  19. Ribner (1964)↩︎
  20. Dabbs (1991)↩︎
  21. Symonds (1896)↩︎
  22. Ellis (1915), 43↩︎
  23. Nicklin (1999)↩︎
  24. As an example, I would like to mention an episode during my traineeship in the cultural department of the ORF. When I mentioned to Michael Fischer-Ledenice that I was going to write my dissertation on Christopher Marlowe, his only reaction was to ask: "And, was he really gay?"↩︎
  25. Tucker (1995), 121↩︎

Aktualisiert am 24.05.2024

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