Christopher Marlowe Biography

Biography (History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: An author concerned largely with the question of power and how it affects human beings, Marlowe was complex, lyrical, and frequently erotic in both his dramatic and his poetic writing.

Early Life

Dead at twenty-nine from stab wounds suffered in a tavern brawl, Christopher Marlowe led a life of violence, intrigue, mystery, and remarkable productivity. His dramas and poetry have established him as an Elizabethan dramatist second only to William Shakespeare. It is tempting to speculate on what he might have produced had he lived a normal life span.

The son of John and Catherine Arthur Marlowe, Christopher was born on February 6, 1564, and was thus almost an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, who was born on or near April 23 of the same year. Marlowe was the second child in a family of nine children, six of whom, two boys and four girls, survived infancy. John Marlowe was a leatherworker and a member of an affluent guild in Canterbury, the Kentish cathedral town in southeastern England in which the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket is located.

Despite the prosperity of the guild to which he belonged, John Marlowe was not a wealthy man. His family had gained the reputation of being contentious and litigious. John, judging from court records of the time, followed in his ancestors’ footsteps, as did his offspring. John was said to be loud, arrogant, demanding, and profligate.

Marlowe was enrolled in the King’s School in Canterbury—a noble institution of which Roger Ascham had been headmaster in the generation before Marlowe—at fifteen, the top age for admitting new students. The school was renowned for its emphasis on theater and was considered one of the best schools in Elizabethan England. The young Marlowe, fair of countenance, with unruly dark hair and the bright eyes of one ever alert to and aware of his surroundings, read selectively in the extensive private library of the headmaster, concentrating on medieval romances, particularly Thomas Malory’s versions of the Arthurian legends. Marlowe favored blood-and-thunder romances, indicating that perhaps the legendary Marlowe combativeness had been passed on to this young member of the family. Much of his writing appears to have as its source works from the library available to him during his days at King’s School.

In 1581, two years after he had entered King’s School, Marlowe became a student at Corpus Christi College of Cambridge University, where he was considered an excellent student and an accomplished poet, writing at that time primarily in Latin. He was named a Canterbury Scholar for his six years at Cambridge, apparently because he had expressed his intention of entering the clergy.

Marlowe’s college career was marked by long absences from the university, and it is now assumed that he was engaged in some sort of espionage activities in Europe for the Crown. This assumption is substantiated by the fact that when Cambridge moved to withhold Marlowe’s master’s degree from him in 1587, Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council intervened to see that Marlowe received his degree, saying in a letter to university officials that his absences from the university had benefited the Crown. It is known that Marlowe worked for Sir Francis Walsingham, the secretary of state for Queen Elizabeth, who was much involved in espionage.

In the early summer of 1591, Marlowe shared a workroom with Thomas Kyd, renowned for his The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1585-1589). Marlowe and Kyd were at that time both under the patronage of Thomas Walsingham, cousin of Sir Francis, who provided the workroom. Queen Elizabeth finally knighted Thomas Walsingham.

Life’s Work

After he received the master’s degree from Cambridge University in 1587, Marlowe rushed to London, England’s cultural and theatrical center. By that time, he had already completed two plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage (1586-1587) and Tamburlaine the Great (c. 1587), as well as translations of Lucan’s Pharsalia (first century c.e.) and Ovid’s Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.).

Tamburlaine the Great traces the life of the powerful Persian conqueror to his conquest of Egypt and his marriage to Zenocrate, daughter of the defeated Egyptian sultan. The Lord Admiral’s Company first performed the play in London probably in the fall of 1587, possibly as late as November. Marlowe had not intended to take his drama of Tamburlaine beyond Tamburlaine’s marriage to Zenocrate. The play was so successful, however, that it soon came to be billed as Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1, and shortly after its first performances that year, Marlowe followed it with the sequel, Tamburlaine the Great, Part 2, which continued the Tamburlaine story through to the death of the Eastern conqueror. Certainly, these two plays established Marlowe’s reputation as an important playwright, but they also left him open to charges of atheism by people of established reputation.

Charges of atheism and pederasty, both capital offenses in Elizabeth’s England, were to follow Marlowe throughout his brief life. The latter charges stemmed initially from Marlowe’s statements that all men who...

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Christopher Marlowe Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, England, in February, 1564. His father was a respected member of the tanners’ and shoemakers’ guild. Marlowe attended the King’s School of Canterbury in 1579 and 1580 and in 1581 began study at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He was the recipient of a scholarship funded by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. As a foundation scholar, Marlowe was expected to prepare for a post in the Church. In 1584, he took his bachelor of arts degree, after which he continued to hold his scholarship while studying for his master of arts degree. It appears that he would not have been granted his degree in 1587 except for the intervention of the queen’s Privy Council. This body declared that Marlowe had done the government some service—probably as a spy in Reims, home of exiled English Catholics—and ordered that he be granted his M.A. at the “next commencement.” Marlowe had no doubt been writing poetry while at Cambridge, and he probably decided to make his way in this profession in London. It is certain that he was there in 1589, because he was a resident of Newgate Prison during that year. He and a man named Thomas Watson were jailed for having murdered another man, although it appears that Watson actually did the killing. Three years later, in 1592, Marlowe was again in trouble with the law, being placed under a peace bond by two London constables. Clearly, the young writer and scholar did not move in the best of...

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Christopher Marlowe Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Biographical interest in Christopher Marlowe has been keen and perhaps too often controversial. Public records are relatively numerous, considering that he was a sixteenth century Englishman who died before he was thirty years old. His baptism, progress through school and university to the M.A. degree, and the details of his death are documented. Contemporary references to Marlowe and his works are likewise plentiful. The variety of interpretation placed upon this evidence, however, is truly astonishing. What is quite clear is that Marlowe was born into a relatively affluent family of tradesmen in Canterbury. His father was in the shoe trade, possibly as a shoemaker, possibly as an employer of shoemakers. In any case, in January, 1579, Marlowe entered King’s School, an institution operating just beyond Canterbury Cathedral. In December, 1580, he enrolled in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on a scholarship. In 1584, Marlowe graduated with a B.A. degree but continued his studies, still on scholarship. Marlowe’s attendance was, at least occasionally, irregular, and he was engaged from time to time upon some sort of secret work for the government, the nature of which remains unclear despite much speculation. It involved travel on the Continent; it may have involved spying at home or abroad. When, in 1587, the university determined to withhold the M.A. degree from Marlowe, the Privy Council intervened in the name of the queen and insisted that Marlowe’s services to the Crown were sufficient grounds for granting the degree.

Upon leaving Cambridge, Marlowe immediately immersed himself in the political and intellectual life of London, on one hand, in the aristocratic circles of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Thomas Walsingham, and...

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Christopher Marlowe Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, England, on February 6, 1564, the eldest son of a shoemaker. He was baptized exactly two months before William Shakespeare was baptized at Stratford—a significant detail, as Marlowe exercised an enormous influence on Shakespeare and is generally believed to be the rival poet of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

As a pupil at the King’s School, Canterbury, Marlowe was elected a “Queen’s scholar.” He entered Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1580 and was again awarded a scholarship. In 1584, he earned his B.A. degree and entered into graduate study of divinity in preparation for taking holy orders. Just before Marlowe was to receive his M.A., the university proposed to...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Christopher Marlowe Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Christopher Marlowe was a brilliant innovator and an intellectual nonconformist, with much to tell and much to question about power, desire, sensuality, greed, and suffering. His poetic images, vast in scale and cosmic in conception, as well as his larger-than-life characters of grand aspirations and prodigious sensual appetites, inspired critic Harry Levin to dub Marlowe “the overreacher.” No better word could be chosen to characterize the magnificence, the vehemence, and the violent egotism that give his genius such an intensely personal stamp.

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Christopher Marlowe Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The English playwright Christopher Marlowe was born at Canterbury on February 6, 1564, and was murdered at Deptford, outside London, on May 30, 1593. Marlowe was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, and at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (he received his B.A. in 1584 and his M.A. in 1587), where he attended on a scholarship usually awarded to students studying for the ministry. Instead of taking orders, however, he turned to writing plays and, apparently, to political intrigue: He received his master’s degree only after the Privy Council intervened on his behalf for good service he had done the queen. The nature of Marlowe’s involvement in state affairs remains the matter of much speculation. His first plays and poems,...

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Christopher Marlowe Biography (Poetry for Students)

Many scholars believe that had Christopher Marlowe lived longer, he might have become a greater dramatist than William Shakespeare. Marlowe...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Christopher Marlowe Biography (Drama for Students)

Born in Canterbury, England on February 6, 1564, Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker. He attended King’s School in Canterbury and was...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Christopher Marlowe Biography (Drama for Students)

Born in 1564, the same year as fellow playwright William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe's great dramatic achievements appeared on London's...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Christopher Marlowe Biography (Drama for Students)

Born in the same year as William Shakespeare, 1564, Christopher Marlowe was the son of an affluent shoemaker in Canterbury. Like Shakespeare,...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Christopher Marlowe Biography (Drama for Students)

Many scholars believe that had Christopher Marlowe lived longer, he might have become a greater dramatist than William Shakespeare. Marlowe...

(The entire section is 504 words.)