Study Guide

Doctor Faustus

by Christopher Marlowe

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, England, on February 6, 1564, the son of a shoemaker. He was educated at King's College and Corpus Christi College and received a Master's degree in 1587. This award was not based solely on scholarship, however, and Marlowe's life of political machinations and possible spying for the English government began around the same time that he received it. Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council awarded the degree, stating that “he had done Her Majesty good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing in matters touching the benefit of the country.” Much of what Marlowe did politically in his life remains unknown, another fact that leads many to conclude that he played a part in secretive government activities.

He became friendly with both Sir Phillip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh. Influenced by them and determined to become one of the English literati, Marlowe wrote his first play, Tamburlaine the Great, which was performed as early as 1587, but not published until 1590. The play is one of the first ever written in blank verse, and it elevated that poetic form to high art. He continued his writing career, producing such masterpieces as The Jew of Malta (1589-1590), Edward II (1593) and The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1604).

However, just two years after the publication of Tamburlaine the Great, Marlowe was imprisoned for participating in a fatal swordfight that took the life of an innkeeper's son; Marlowe spent just two weeks in jail, and was found not guilty of murder.

The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, Marlowe's masterpiece, was first performed in 1588, but did not appear in the official records until later. Within this same time period, Marlowe was arrested for counterfeiting, but was released with no reason given, which lends additional credence to the spying-for-the-Crown theory. Some scholars speculate that Marlowe was also working as a double agent, which would have made his already risky life extremely dangerous.

In 1592, the Queen's Privy Council closed the theaters because of their portrayals of “heretical” themes, and around the same time, a Pamphleteer named Robert Greene accused Marlowe of heresy and atheism. According to Greene, Marlowe drew attention to inconsistencies in the Bible, a charge that placed him in very grave danger. Thomas Kyd, a playwright and former roommate of Marlowe's, was also arrested on the charge of atheism, and, under torture, implicated Marlowe, who was not immediately arrested. The Privy Council continued to gather information on him, however, especially after he gave some lectures on the subject of atheism.

Richard Baines, the other person involved in the earlier counterfeiting scheme, wrote a document titled, “Note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgement of Religion, and scorn of God's Word.” This paper was intended to disgrace Marlowe and cause his imprisonment, but the authorities again failed to arrest him.

Marlowe would be dead within three days, however, giving rise to the belief that his death was a deliberate murder by the British government. He was involved in a barroom brawl on May 30, 1593, and stabbed in the eye, a wound that killed him. The men at his table were known to be, at least superficially, affiliated with the government, and Queen Elizabeth pardoned the man who actually stabbed him, Ingram Frizer, about two weeks after Marlowe's death.

Christopher Marlowe is one of the English language's long-overlooked and under-appreciated playwrights, Had it not been for Shakespeare's genius, Marlowe would probably have been considered the greatest Elizabethan playwright.