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Shakespeare & Beyond

"A Great Reckoning": a closer look at a fateful Final Jeopardy clue

James Holzhauer thinks about the Final Jeopardy clue on the June 3 episode of Jeopardy
James Holzhauer thinks about the Final Jeopardy clue on the June 3 episode of Jeopardy

After 32 stunning wins on Jeopardy, professional gambler James Holzhauer was finally beaten on last night’s episode. University of Chicago Librarian Emma Boettcher was ahead of Holzhauer going into Final Jeopardy, and her wager put her just out of Holzhauer’s reach.

All three contestants gave the correct answer in Final Jeopardy—and if you’re a regular Shakespeare & Beyond reader, you probably did too. Here’s the clue: “The line ‘a great reckoning in a little room’ in As You Like It is usually taken to refer to this author’s premature death.”

The correct response: Who was Christopher Marlowe?

Amanda Giguere, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s Director of Outreach, highlighted this line in a blog post we shared at the end of May, “5 things to look for when you watch As You Like It (we like to think that the Jeopardy Writers’ Room has been reading our work). Giguere wrote:

There’s a line in the play that some scholars believe is a reference to playwright Christopher Marlowe’s death. Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl, supposedly over the bill (which was called “the reckoning” in Shakespeare’s day). Touchstone has a line in the play (which was written after Marlowe’s death): “it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” Scholars think this is Shakespeare’s shout-out to his deceased play-writing colleague.

Not everyone is so sure this line is a reference to Marlowe. In the Folger Edition of As You Like It, Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine write:

It has become popular to see this line as a reference to Christopher Marlowe’s death in 1593 “in a little room,” where he was stabbed in a fight over the “reckoning.” The possible echo of Marlowe’s line “Infinite riches in a little room,” from his play The Jew of Malta, has encouraged this association. Many editors, however, remain skeptical.

What happened in that “little room?” The date was May 30, 1593. The coroner’s inquest into the matter says that Marlowe had been eating, drinking, and talking with three men—Ingram Frizer, Robert Poley, and Nicholas Skeres—at the house of a widow, Eleanor Bull. Marlowe got into an argument with Frizer over the “reckoning,” or the payment.

… it so befell that the said Christopher Morley on a sudden & of his malice towards the said Ingram aforethought, then & there maliciously drew the dagger of the said Ingram which was at his back, and with the same dagger the said Christopher Morley then & there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head of the length of two inches & of the depth of a quarter of an inch; whereupon the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, and sitting in the manner aforesaid between the said Nicholas Skeres & Robert Poley so that he could not in any wise get away, in his own defence & for the saving of his life, then & there struggled with the said Christopher Morley to get back from him his dagger aforesaid; in which affray the same Ingram could not get away from the said Christopher Morley; and so it befell in that affray that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid of the value of XIId. gave the said Christopher then & there a mortal wound over his right eye, of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch, of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died.

Marlowe, apparently, grabbed Frizer’s knife and stabbed Frizer twice with it. In the end, Frizer wrested the knife away from the playwright and stabbed Marlowe (“Morley,” in the inquest) above the right eye. The knife pierced the Marlowe’s brain and he died instantly.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe. Wikimedia Commons.

Some people believe that Marlowe’s death was actually a political assassination, but that’s likely another thing that we’ll never know for sure about the playwright who wrote Tamburlaine the Great and Doctor Faustus. Another lingering question: did he collaborate with William Shakespeare on Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3?

We asked Folger Director Michael Witmore and Eric Rasmussen, chair of the English Department at the University of Nevada, Reno that question on our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast in 2017, when a new edition of the New Oxford Shakespeare listed those plays as having been written “By William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe” based on new computational evidence.

Of course, just like questions and theories still swirl around Kit Marlowe and his death, lots of Jeopardy fans have suggested online there was something fishy about Holzhauer’s loss. Unlike Marlowe, Holzhauer is able to set the record straight on those conspiracy theories on Twitter: