Christopher Marlowe Biography

Christopher Marlowe will, historically, always be a runner-up to Shakespeare. Although Marlowe was one of the earliest writers to make use of blank verse, the style is most often associated with Shakespeare. Adding insult to injury, Marlowe’s early plays have been overshadowed by some of Shakespeare’s works that “borrowed” certain character ideas (see, for example, the similarities between Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice). And finally, Marlowe’s body of work is less expansive than the Bard’s—but perhaps only because Shakespeare managed to live a full three decades longer than Marlowe did. Despite these inevitable comparisons, Marlowe’s plays have stood the test of time and should be regarded as classics in their own right.

Facts and Trivia

  • Marlowe was stabbed to death at the age of twenty-nine under circumstances that remain a mystery to this day. Some believe his death was faked and that he continued to write plays under Shakespeare’s name.
  • Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus has been scrutinized for its authorship. Two different versions of the work were published over a decade apart, and many believe that another author (or authors) added many of the comic scenes that make up the middle of the play.
  • One of the many, many rumors surrounding Marlowe’s life is that he was a spy in the service of Queen Elizabeth I. In fact, some scholars believe that Marlowe’s death—usually thought to be the result of a bar fight—was an assassination.
  • Another area of speculation in Marlowe’s life is his sexuality. The question of whether or not he was gay is most often tied to same-sex love themes in his poetry and plays. The clearest example of this is in Edward II, which follows a monarch who rejects his queen in favor of a male lover.
  • Despite the endless comparisons, the overlap between Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s careers is relatively brief. Shakespeare arrived in London only a few short years before Marlowe’s murder.

Biography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2160

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.

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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 do not love tobacco and boys are fools and later from the fact that his Edward II (1592) is about a homosexual king. Because Marlowe reveled in shocking people, it is difficult to know whether he spoke out of conviction or out of a desire to get reactions from his listeners when he made his statements about boys. Certainly, writing a historical play whose protagonist is homosexual does not make the writer homosexual. Marlowe’s own sexuality has not been convincingly established. It is interesting, but not surprising, that one of Marlowe’s most vigorous attackers, Robert Greene, was also his most fervent imitator.

By 1589, Marlowe was living in Norton Folgate, close to London’s theatrical district. In September of that year, Marlowe was involved in a street fight with William Bradley. Marlowe’s friend, the poet Thomas Watson, came to Marlowe’s assistance and killed Bradley by inflicting stab wounds. Marlowe ran from the scene, but soon Watson was arrested and taken to Newgate Prison. Shortly thereafter, Marlowe was arrested and imprisoned in Newgate for a fortnight. Watson was held until February, when he was exonerated on the grounds of self-defense.

In 1587, Historia von D. Iohan Fausten was published in German in Frankfurt. Although Marlowe is not known to have read this seminal book in German and although it was not translated into English until 1592, Marlowe appears to have begun working on his renowned The Tragicall History of D. Faustus (known more commonly as Doctor Faustus) shortly after his two Tamburlaine plays were produced. The Stationers’ Register shows that a play presumed to be Doctor Faustus was registered on February 28, 1589, and other dramatists writing before 1592 show evidence in their work of having borrowed heavily from Marlowe’s play.

In 1589, the Lord Admiral’s Company performed Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, a play to which Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597) bears strong resemblances. Marlowe’s play, deemed atheistic by many of his contemporaries, should probably be viewed as a biting satire rather than as the tragedy that some critics have considered it to be. Barabas’ annihilation of a whole convent full of nuns is the sort of bloody, melodramatic theme that Marlowe liked and that Kyd also exploited in The Spanish Tragedy.

The three parts of Edward II, which Pembroke’s Men first performed in 1592, represent Marlowe’s most mature and well-crafted writing. Also, the text for the play is the most reliable extant text of any Marlowe play save Tamburlaine the Great. In Edward II, Marlowe’s chief concern is with the question of civil authority. The fact of Edward’s homosexuality is incidental, although Marlowe deals head-on with the king’s proclivity. The death scene in this play is among the most affecting death scenes in the whole of Western literature.

Four months after The Massacre at Paris was first staged on January 26, 1593, Marlowe was arrested as an atheist, a capital charge in his day. On May 12, Kyd was arrested on a charge of atheism, and on the rack he attributed the documents that had led to his arrest to Marlowe. On May 18, a warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest, and he was apprehended at the estate of Sir Thomas Walsingham, his patron. On May 20, having answered the charges against him to the Privy Council, he was directed to attend the council daily, a lenient sentence for one charged with a capital offense. Ten days later, on May 30, 1593, Ingram Frizer, Lady Walsingham’s business agent, fatally stabbed Marlowe in a tavern in Deptford during a dispute over a bill. Marlowe was interred in the Walsingham tomb in Deptford on June 1, 1593, and Frizer was promptly acquitted of his murder on grounds of self-defense.

Summary

In his short and colorful life, Christopher Marlowe cut a swath in British drama that no other playwright of his time equaled except Shakespeare. Indeed, Calvin Hoffman in The Murder of the Man Who Was “Shakespeare” (1955), argues that Marlowe, living under a cloud in 1593, was not actually murdered but, rather, went to the Continent and continued to write, producing before his death many of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. Hoffman’s claim has been thoroughly discredited but suggests something of Marlowe’s dramatic stature.

After Marlowe’s premature death, which many of his contemporaries took to be God’s judgment of a man who was atheistic and homosexual, a steady stream of his writing continued to appear. His translation of Lucan’s First Book (the first part of Pharsalia) and his incomplete poem Hero and Leander were entered in the Stationers’ Register in September, 1593, the former published in 1600, the latter in 1598.

In 1594, Edward II and Dido, Queen of Carthage were published, and Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s Amores, to be publicly burned in 1599 as heretical, appears also to have been published in 1594, although it is not dated. The Massacre at Paris was probably also published in 1594, followed ten years later by the publication of Doctor Faustus.

Marlowe was a literary giant, a genius who wrote some of the most compelling dramas of his day. He had a lyrical gift that showed both in his drama and in his poetry. His full power as a dramatist has yet to be fully recognized, although it is generally conceded that Marlowe’s only real peer in Elizabethan drama is Shakespeare, whose dramatic gifts generally exceed those of Marlowe.

Bibliography

Friedenreich, Kenneth, ed. Christopher Marlowe: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism Since 1950. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979. A comprehensive bibliography of almost three decades of Marlowe criticism. The editor is thorough and exhaustive, and his initial essay assesses Marlowe’s critical standing.

Hilton, Della. Who Was Kit Marlowe? The Story of the Poet and Playwright. New York: Taplinger, 1977. This great admirer of Marlowe seeks to explain his alleged atheism and homosexuality and also comments interestingly upon some of his mysterious espionage work. The book is at times lacking in objectivity, and the conjecture that Marlowe committed suicide is not credibly presented.

Hoffman, Calvin. The Murder of the Man Who Was “Shakespeare.” New York: Julian Messner, 1955. Hoffman’s contention that Marlowe was not killed on May 30, 1593, but lived on in Europe to write many of the plays attributed to Shakespeare is a fascinating fiction that has been convincingly disproved by scholars more knowledgeable than the dilettante who wrote this intriguing book.

Knoll, Robert E. Christopher Marlowe. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968. Knoll provides a useful overall coverage of Marlowe, dealing forthrightly with interpreting his work and with the controversies surrounding some of its interpretation. The standard Twayne format is useful for beginning readers of Marlowe. Knoll is quite successful in identifying Marlowe’s basic themes and in discussing them.

Levin, Harry. The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952. By far the best assessment of Marlowe to date, this book calls for a less romanticized assessment of the author than most of the treatments of him have been. Levin shows a Marlowe who is deeply intelligent, highly complex, and given to a hyperbole that many critics have taken more seriously than Marlowe apparently intended it.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe. 2 vols. Edited by Fredson Bowers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. This standard edition of the works of Marlowe includes introductions to each work. It summarizes bibliographical problems associated with the canon and contains detailed notes of help to both the scholar and general reader.

Norman, Charles. Christopher Marlowe: The Muse’s Darling. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971. A well-written, much reprinted biography of Marlowe that gives shrewd appraisals of the man and of his work. A thoroughly readable book that somewhat romanticizes its subject. The 1971 revision of Norman’s 1960 edition includes additional information on Walsingham, Peele, and Watson.

Pinciss, Gerald M. Christopher Marlowe. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1975. A brief discussion of Elizabethan theater, of Marlowe’s life and contributions, and of each of Marlowe’s seven plays. This is a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with Marlowe’s work.

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