William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) were born in the same year, but Marlowe died much earlier, meaning that he had a far shorter literary career. They both were the sons of tradesmen but their careers were quite different. Marlowe attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he obtained both BA and MA degrees. After graduation, he entered into service to the Queen and may have worked as a government spy, although details about his life are not known with any degree of accuracy. Shakespeare, on the other hand, did not attend university and began his theatrical career as an actor.
Marlowe and Shakespeare wrote both poetry and drama. Marlowe, however, wrote only five plays, all of which were histories and tragedies, while Shakespeare wrote comedies as well as historical and tragic plays. Both also wrote both short and long poems, but Marlowe also produced acclaimed translations of Ovid and Lucan from Latin, while Shakespeare, with "small Latin and less Greek", did not engage in translation.
The greater volume and variety of Shakespeare's work has made him acclaimed as the most important English playwright, and thus he has received far more attention in popular culture as a writer than Marlowe, while Marlowe has also been the subject of much speculation concerning his possible role as a spy and the complicated circumstances of his death, as well as being an admired writer, but less famous than Shakespeare.
Marlowe was one of the University Wits, and combined great erudition with a flair for dramatic, heroic narrative. He is considered an innovator in use of blank verse and development of the genre of revenge tragedy. His work was strongly influenced by the Latin writer Seneca.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, combined some of the classical tradition Marlowe followed with a more popular one, mixed comedy with tragedy, and include many "mechanicals" and other characters from the lower classes in his plays. His characters, style, and plots display more variety than those of Marlowe, ranging from romantic comedy to historical tragedy.
Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were contemporaries of the age. There are many similarities in their literary styles; so many, in fact, that it has often been speculated that Marlowe wrote some of Shakespeare’s plays. Marlowe definitely had an influence on Shakespeare. One of the most obvious similarities between the two was that they both wrote in blank verse. Marlowe took the idea of blank verse common to his time and changed its conventional form to a more flexible structure known as “the Mighty Line.” Shakespeare then perfected Marlowe’s form into the blank verse that we know in his plays today.
Both men also wrote tragedies following Aristotle’s idea of the tragic hero who has an inherent tragic flaw. Although their tragic heroes were very similar, however, there were some differences in their tragedies. Shakespeare was very fond of using supernatural elements in his plays in order to produce mystery, but Marlowe’s plays did not contain the supernatural and were more straightforward. Shakespeare was also known for using characters as foils (contrasts to the tragic hero to show his flaws), but Marlowe did not use this technique. Both men also used comedy in their plays, but comic scenes in Marlowe’s plays did not contain the genuine comic relief so apparent in Shakespeare.