Friday, October 4, 2013

The Baines Note

Around the time Christopher Marlowe was murdered, Richard Baines wrote a rather scandalous summary of the playwright's heretical ideas. Many subsequent scholars have taken this little list of blasphemies as an accurate account of Marlowe's beliefs. I've always found that rather ridiculous.

First of all, the Elizabethan government clearly wanted Marlowe dead, and in fact when he did get a knife through the eye, government agents were standing by but not interfering. It was in the best interest of authorities to spread the nastiest rumors about Marlowe they could.

But just supposing that the Baines Note is accurate, and Marlowe actually did say those things, did he believe them? I contend that it was impossible for Marlowe, or anyone else in Elizabethan England, to have truly believed what is contained in the Baines Note. Instead, if he did say those things, it seems most likely that they were deliberately calculated to shock his audience to the greatest degree possible. What emerges for me is a picture not of a blasphemer and an atheist (even though Marlowe might have been those things), but of a trickster.

Consider the following contentions Marlowe was alleged to have uttered:

That the first beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe.

That if there be any God or any good religion, then it is in the papists', because the service of God is performed with more ceremonies....

Wait a minute, here. Are we to believe that not only was Marlowe an atheist, and thus opposed to what all good subjects of the Queen believed, but that if there were a God, he would be a Catholic, and thus opposed to what all good subjects of the Queen believed?

Assuming Marlowe said such things, he must have been trying to be deliberately provocative. It's as if he were saying, if you're not scandalized by atheism, let me scandalize you by claiming to be Catholic. These are not the words of someone who is an arch-heretic. Rather, they seem to be the words of someone pretending to be an arch-heretic.

The litany of strange beliefs laid out by the Baines Note seems to confirm this view. Among other things, Marlowe supposedly believed:

That if Christ would have instituted the sacrament with more ceremonial reverence, it would have been had in more admiration; that it would have been much better being administered in a tobacco-pipe.

Scholars glibly proclaim that Marlowe was an atheist. Why do they not also claim that he believed the Eucharist should be smoked? This is clearly not a serious suggestion, but a joke. Marlowe is toying with his listeners, and also, at a distance of more than four centuries, with us.