Upstart Crow: The Facts – Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death

A very affectionate look by Chasqui Penguin at the Upstart Crow episodes, all of which were written by Ben Elton.

Each episode has a theme, usually revolving around one of Will’s plays, and in this series of articles the aim is to give a little more background to those and the surrounding Upstart Crow storylines, together with the facts, deliberate anachronisms and the characters involved.

Series 3 

Episode 2 – Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death

The title of this episode is from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost and is spoken by Lord Berowne (also known as Biron) to Rosaline in Act 5, Sc 2. Love’s Labour’s Lost is believed to have been first performed in 1597 at the Inns of Court for Queen Elizabeth I, and the full quote is:

To move wild laughter in the throat of death?

It cannot be, it is impossible

Mirth cannot move a soul in agony

Although this Upstart Crow episode includes references to Love’s Labour’s Lost, it is not based on this, nor on any other Shakespeare plays. In fact, it has a more historical theme surrounding the death of Christopher Marlowe and the associated speculation which arose centuries after. 

Scene 1 opens in Will’s lodgings in London with the Shakespeares, as well as Kit and Bottom, celebrating the actual historical granting of a coat of arms to John Shakespeare. In late 1596, John received a coat of arms (making him a gentleman officially), after an unsuccessful application in 1570. William’s later application, on behalf of his father, to the College of Arms in London still exists, together with the drafts for the coat of arms, and once this had been granted the Shakespeare family would have been allowed to display it over the front door of their house and on their possessions. The French motto on the Shakespeare coat of arms is ‘Non sans droict’, meaning ‘Not without right’. In addition, the family would have received the letters patent, this being the official document granting the coat of arms. Although this does not appear to have survived the passage of time, it is known that it was written in English, while many others of the era were in Latin. In this episode Hamnet is included in the family celebration, but in reality he died in August 1596, at least two months before the coat of arms was granted to his grandfather John. As a footnote, Robert Greene was never an official with the power to approve applications for coats of arms, as inferred in Upstart Crow. Added to that, he had died in September 1592, but without him Upstart Crow wouldn’t be the same and wouldn’t have a ‘baddie’.

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The Shakespeare Coat of Arms, granted to John Shakespeare in 1596Credit:‘File:Shakespeare1COA.png‘ by Tomasz Steifer, Gdansk is licensed under CC BY 2.5.

Kit reveals that his life is in danger as the government suspects him of being a double agent, and he is consequently lying low, apparently in Will’s London home. There were certain events which led to the arrest of the real Marlowe in 1593 – three years before John Shakespeare took possession of the coat of arms.

Meanwhile, Burbage has demanded that Will writes another comedy, following the popularity, even with Queen Elizabeth I, of his ‘big donkey gag play’, known to the world as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Will’s main problem is not having any comedy ideas, which prompts his father to remark, ‘That’s never stopped you before’.

The story shifts to Robert Greene in his office, and it is obvious he is very annoyed that Will is now considered a gentleman, reasoning that the coat of arms was only issued to his father on the strength of the queen’s liking of Will’s ‘big donkey gag play’! He then begins to hatch a plot whereby William Shakespeare will be denied credit for his writing.

Back in Will’s London lodgings, Kate mentions the comedy play he is working on. It transpires that this is Hamlet which she, Kit and Bottom find hilarious, while Will tries unsuccessfully to defend it as a tragedy by pointing out its salient points, but his friends continue to find these amusing.

Shortly afterwards, Bottom brings Kit a letter, found on the mat behind the front door. This is rather worrying as Kit is lying low in Will’s home yet someone knew of his whereabouts. Kit remarks, ‘Live by the sword, die by the sword’ – a saying Will instantly claims to have coined, having used it ‘in my Richard or a random Henry – a lot of swords in those’! Kate immediately tells him that he has been plagiarised, and when Will indignantly asks by whom, Kate replies, ‘The Apostle Matthew’, going on to tell him it is in the Bible, Chapter 26, Verse 22. She then informs him that this sentiment appeared in the Greek play Agamemnon by Aeschylus (first performed in 458 BC). Despite this, Will is convinced that he will eventually be credited with inventing the entire English language! 

Turning to the letter he has just received, Kit discovers that it is an invitation from Robert Greene to an intellectual salon of London’s foremost writers, and attendees are to spend a year at a countryside retreat discussing Roman philosophy while having no contact with women. Kit sees this as a good place to lie low, but Will is outraged at not being invited and decides to return to Stratford for a while, where he will host his own literary salon, which ends up being attended by just him!

In Lucy’s tavern Robert Greene is meeting Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford. He has a long-term plan to destroy Will’s reputation as a writer and outlines his thinking to his two companions. His first step is to lure Christopher Marlowe to the literary salon in the countryside, kill Marlowe and the sow the seed of doubt regarding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. More details of this idea are revealed later in the episode. In reality, with the writing of the works of Shakespeare in mind, both Bacon and Oxford, alongside Marlowe, have been named in more recent years as candidates in the Shakespeare authorship debate. 

When Will, accompanied by Bottom, arrives in Stratford, he gives vent to another transport rant. Having paid three shillings for his coach ticket, he found his fellow travellers had paid much less as they had taken advantage of various offers, including paying a farthing in a previous life for a ticket valid only on services where the driver’s middle name is Gerald! This is a particularly amusing observation by Ben Elton of today’s UK train services with their confusing multitude of ticketing prices and options, often available for booking online only. 

Will informs the family that he has come home to write amid the peace of the countryside but has few ideas for a new comedy. Susanna gives him an outline of a story, based on the literary salon to which he wasn’t invited, and Will then declares that all it needs is for him to ‘crowbar in the incomprehensible subplots and pointless minor characters’! These he envisages will become more popular as time goes by, especially with schoolchildren. Hamnet and Judith give him a look of disdain while John expresses his view that ‘It’s like a curse on youth ricocheting down the years’.

Undeterred, Will works on his new comedy which he intends to call Love’s Labours. While this is met with some interest by the family, Susanna thinks it is missing something – perhaps a third word beginning with L. This prompts the family to make their own suggestions:

Mary: lampooned?

Bottom: lanced?

John: lubricated…

Susanna: lost!

Will: licked!

As we know, ‘lost’ is the word which completed the title, with the end of this episode inferring that the family had decided this was the best, while Will still seemed to adhere to his suggestion of ‘licked’!  

Prior to this, Lucy calls into Will’s lodgings to warn Kit that his life is in danger. Having overheard Robert Greene’s conversation with Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford, she has gathered that there is a plan to kill Kit at the countryside retreat. His disappearance would fuel rumours, spread by Greene, that he has gone into exile and is writing plays in secret under the name of William Shakespeare. Kit is alarmed by this and decides not to accept the invitation to the literary salon.

In the midst of the Love’s Labours discussion, Kit arrives at the Shakespeare family home in Stratford in a panic, requesting help in faking his own death which must be convincing. Will agrees, adding that it must be ‘forensically astute, fearlessly realistic – a masterclass in the true nature of life and death’. Though initially enthusiastic, Kit becomes unimpressed when he realises that Will is referring to a scene in Hamlet

Robert Greene is next seen with Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford, already at his countryside literary salon, and suggesting that in their writing they mirror William Shakespeare’s style with similarities in words and punctuation. Sir Francis reminds him that as he and Shakespeare both write in English there will certainly be similarities. The Earl of Oxford also points out that there would be no evidence to support the theory that either he, Sir Francis Bacon or Marlowe are the writers of Shakespeare’s works. However, Robert Greene is convinced that this lack of evidence will serve as excellent proof of a cover-up, and on this basis has contrived a sequence of events beginning with the death of Christopher Marlowe. There is a parallel here with the Marlovian Theory which holds the view that Christopher Marlowe did not die in 1593, but lived on to write under the pseudonym William Shakespeare. There are many eminent scholars who subscribe to this theory and many others who refute it, and so the debate continues.

Back in London at the Red Lion theatre, Will is speaking to Burbage, Condell and Kempe and has revealed that Kit is desperate to fake his own death, giving the reasons. Will’s idea is for Kit and Burbage to have a fight in a tavern in which Kit will supposedly die. The plan follows the storyline of his new play Hamlet, but the actors, as well as Kate who is also present, just laugh at the various scenes described. In the midst of this Bottom arrives with the news that Christopher Marlowe is dead. It is just as well Will’s plan didn’t go ahead; Burbage would surely have been arrested and charged with murder when he had committed no crime. 

The next scene shows Will, Kate, Lucy and Bottom at Kit’s unmarked graveside in Deptford, now in South London but in the 16th century it was within the borders of his home county of Kent. They are mourning his passing, with Will reminiscing:

‘I had prepared for him a truly great death scenario, but instead he is stabbed in the eye, in a brawl in a small room over the reckoning of a bill, and such were the number and variety of his enemies at his end, that we four are all that come to mourn him.’

A voice agrees – the voice of Kit himself, who is alive and expressing his disappointment as he had hoped for a state funeral. Surprised to see his friend again, Will checks and is assured by Kit that he is alive, his death having been faked with three friends from the spy ring who rigged a fight with a stage dagger; ‘a plague corpse’ lies in the buried coffin. Will is a little put out as he had intended to help with the faked death, but Kit admits he wasn’t keen on the Hamlet influence, with Bottom adding, ‘He didn’t want people to think he’d laughed himself to death.’ Kate now concludes that with Kit believed dead instead of having mysteriously disappeared, there can be no suspicion of his writing Mr Shakespeare’s plays, while Lucy is of the opinion that people will believe anything they want to believe.

In reality, Christopher Marlowe is recorded as having died on 30th May 1593, stabbed above the right eye by Ingram Frizer in a fight over ‘the reckoning’. This is said to have taken place in a building thought to have been a government safe house, not a tavern, in Deptford. It was owned by Eleanor Bull, a respectable widow from a minor aristocratic family, who let rooms and served meals, often to government employees, and Marlowe was spending time there with Robert Poley, Nicholas Skeres and Ingram Frizer, almost certainly all members of the spy ring, when the alleged altercation arose. An inquest took place on 1st June 1593, and in 1925 the coroner’s report was discovered in London’s Public Record Office by academic Dr Leslie Hotson. Since then, doubt has been cast on the accuracy of this document, though this is not unanimous and scholarly opinion is divided.

The three gentlemen with whom Marlowe spent time on 30th May were present at the inquest, but the reliability of their evidence has been queried, their roles in the spy ring leading them to be labelled ‘professional liars’. At the inquest, Frizer was found not guilty of Marlowe’s murder, being deemed to have acted in self-defence, and on 28th June 1593 he was pardoned by the queen. There is also question relating to the legal status of the coroner. These and other details have led to the Marlovian Theory which is defended by some academics while others hotly dispute its ideas.

Kit Marlowe is said to have been buried in an unmarked grave later on the day of the inquest. Given his success as a playwright and probable service as a government secret agent, many dismiss the idea that this was his final resting place. However, others argue that as he had fallen out of favour with the authorities, a more impressive burial would not have been considered. Whatever the truth, the debate continues, and it is interesting to note that Marlowe was no stranger to controversy – during his life, through the content of his plays and even in death. Nevertheless, he is still recognised as an outstanding playwright, in fact a pioneer whose dramatic skills influenced Shakespeare and many other writers of his era and after. In the Deptford churchyard where Christopher Marlowe is said to have been buried there is a plaque on the wall, with a quote from his famous drama Doctor Faustus:

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The plaque on the wall of the churchyard of St Nicholas in Deptford, dedicated to the memory of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under

Returning from history to Upstart Crow, the final scene is the familiar one of Will and Anne chatting in their Stratford home late at night. Aware of Kit’s faked death and sojourn in Will’s London lodgings, the astute Mrs Shakespeare warns her husband that his friend won’t rush to get a new identity and move to a place of his own. She is of the opinion that Kit will be happy to continue accepting Will’s hospitality with free ale and pie provided. 

As no one knows for certain whether Marlowe survived 30th May 1593, the idea that he went into exile abroad, at least for a while, is often put forward. On the other hand, perhaps he was quaffing Will’s ale and gorging on his pies, as portrayed in Upstart Crow! Who’s to say?!

© Chasqui Penguin, 2022

Twitter: @ChasquiPenguin