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.
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.
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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