The weight of Thomas Kyd

12 May 1593, London: Thomas Kyd is arrested on suspicion of writing a piece of xenophobic and inflammatory doggerel later called the Dutch Church Libel. The DCL complains of the influx of refugees into London and threatens violence and fire ‘per Tamburlaine’. It also alludes to all of Christopher Marlowe’s well-known plays save Edward II, which had not been performed. 1593 was a plague year; the theatres were closed. And in 1592 the theatres had closed early, again because of plague.
Plague, indeed. I’ve studied Kyd’s work, his big play, pamphlets attributed to him (they sound like him), dedications, and letters, and I know the DCL inside out: on voice alone, I will go to my grave arguing Kyd did not write the DCL — never mind the danger writing and posting the thing. The Privy Council, the governing body understood to be exercising the will of the Queen, responded to the DCL and its threats of fire (London was made of wood; fire could easily become a disaster) with orders of search and seizure, interrogation, and torture in Bridewell, ‘to be used at such times and as often as you shall think fit’. Kyd writes afterwards in two separate documents that he was tortured, and in the dedication to his last published work he writes: ‘Having no leisure (most noble lady) but such as evermore is traveled with the afflictions of the mind, than which the world afford no greater misery…’
So. Kyd is arrested for a document he most likely did not write, a document which alludes to the plays of a man with whom he once shared rooms, a man who would on 20 May face the Privy Council himself on a charge of atheism — which does not quite mean for the Elizabethans what it means for us. In 1593 England, denying the existence of God — for the Elizabethans might see it as a denial, an act of defiance, not a reasoned argument — meant one also denied a God-appointed sovereign’s right to rule. Atheism would be a very heavy and dangerous charge, not just an inflammatory idea for a bad-boy poet to flip about a tavern. Our evidence for Christopher Marlowe’s atheism comes from Richard Baines and the famous Baines Note, from the Privy Council minutes of 18 May 1593 referring to the charge against Marlowe, and from Thomas Kyd, imprisoned and likely tortured in Bridewell, who refers to the charges in his letter to Sir John Puckering but never actually makes them himself, not without unstable and thereby questioning rhetoric.
The DCL, it seems, gets forgotten.

Kyd’s letter to Sir John Puckering, written after Marlowe’s death, complains of Kyd’s arrest and torture and attempts to distance the writer from the accused atheist … yet it doesn’t. The form of the letter is a petition, which had a set form and expectations, something a man likely trained as a scrivener would know. Kyd never joined the Worshipful Company of Scriveners, though his mostly legible handwriting suggests the training, and his father, Francis Kyd, once served as Company Warden. Thinking of Kyd’s later reference to ‘afflictions of the mind’, I can’t help but wonder what else contributes to that letter’s instability.

Last night I was part of a reading series in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, and I was reading from my new novel, This Marlowe. My novel is based on the last few months of Christopher Marlowe’s life and, of course, includes a character, Tom, based on Thomas Kyd. The DCL plays out, in its ugly way. I’d planned last night to read the scene in which Tom is arrested. I couldn’t. Various book reviewers have commented on how compelling they find my Kit character, the one based on Christopher Marlowe, and that’s lovely. I’m delighted. But yesterday I could think only of my Tom character, and of the real Thomas Kyd, of what might have been done to him … and, as my character Kit might say, for what? For all of poxed-up what?

 

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