Christopher Marlowe was an English playwright, poet, and translator. He also went by the name Kit Marlowe. He was a widely-known literary figure of the Elizabeth era. Marlowe remained the foremost dramatist in London before the literary success of William Shakespeare. Even Shakespeare was influenced by his use of blank verse in dramatic works. Marlowe’s use of blank verse form became the standard for the Elizabethan period. Marlowe’s plays, poems, and literary works are known for their controversial themes, in particular, towards the later part of his career. Marlowe’s atheism was a large reason why he faced troubles at the end of his life.
Despite being such a controversial character, not much was known about Marlowe. The enigmatic nature of Marlowe surrounding him has led to much speculation about his character and life. Many of his peers and contemporaries respected the work of Marlowe. Thomas Nashe referred to Marlowe as “a diviner Muse” than Musaeus, whilst George Peele described him as “the Muses’ darling.”
About Christopher Marlowe
Marlowe was born in Canterbury, England, in 1564. He was the eldest son born to his parents, John Marlowe and Katherine. Marlowe was likely to have been born a few days before his actual birthday and was rumored to be baptized on February 26, 1564. Besides, he was two months older than Shakespeare, who was baptized on 26 April 1564. Very little is known of his life up until he was enrolled in school by age 14.
At the age of 14, he attended The King’s School and was later awarded a scholarship to study at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He graduated from the college in 1584, gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree. He intended to continue on to receive his master’s degree, but the university required the convincing of the Privy Council to finally award it to him in 1587. They declared the frequent absences he had were due to his service to Queen Elizabeth I.
During his years in Cambridge, Marlowe translated Ovids’s Amores and the first book of Lucan’s Pharsalia from Latin to English.
It was after he obtained his master’s degree that he then moved to London to pursue his career; it was when he was here that he started to write full-time.
It is still unclear today what it was that Marlowe was doing for his country or what involvement he may have had with the intelligence service in state affairs. It is possible that he held a job with the service, in some kind of capacity as a spy, but there is no convincing evidence one way or the other.
After graduating from school, he moved to London and began his writing career.
- Marlowe’s first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, was published in 1594 but was written much earlier in 1585-1587. The play was the first of his.
- It was followed by the two-part, Tamburlaine the Great. This play was performed on the regular stage, was amongst the first English plays in blank verse, and is part of the greatest era of Elizabethan theatre. Both parts of Tamburlaine were published anonymously.
- In 1589-1590, he composed The Jew of Malta. The prologue contains a character that represents Machiavelli.
- Then appeared his literary masterpiece Doctor Faustus or The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. It was composed between 1588-1592 and first appeared in print in 1604. The story is built on an original The Devil’s Pact tale of the German Faustbuch from the 4th century. Two versions of the play exist.
- In 1592, Marlowe composed Edward II, one of his historical plays. It is an English history play about the troublesome reign and deposition of King Edward II, the King of England.
- The last play which is attributed to Christopher Marlowe, is The Massacre at Paris. It was based on the events of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. It was printed in 1594. The only surviving text of the play is a reconstruction of the memory of the original performance text.
These were just a few of the plays that served to build Marlowe’s reputation as a master playwright.
Christopher Marlowe’s poems were posthumously published. His poetic works include:
- Translation of Ovid’s elegiac work, Amores, was one of Marlowe’s notorious poetic works. It was burned publicly as offensive work in print.
- Later, he published one of his best-known poetic works of all time, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.’
- Marlowe’s unfinished poetic work ‘Hero and Leander’ was printed in 1598.
Throughout his life, mostly due to the subject matter of some of his written material, Marlowe was rumored to be an atheist. Atheism had dangerous implications as it opposed both God and the state. According to some historians, Marlowe’s professed atheism is confused with his support for Catholicism. An informer Richard Baines produced supportive documents containing Marlowe’s own words regarding his atheism. Similar specimens were shown by his contemporary playwright Thomas Kyd. Whatsoever, Marlowe’s dramatic works do not reveal whether he was a true atheist or not.
Life as a Spy
Marlowe’s government service in England was not specified by the Privy Council and continues to be a mystery. Although there were letters that existed stating that he was working “on matters touching the benefit of his country.” The council’s letter sent to Cambridge provoked speculation concerning Marlowe being a secret agent or spy. It was speculated that he was working for Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence service, but there was no direct evidence for this theory. Later, in 1592, Marlowe was arrested for seditious charges. However, no charge or imprisonment resulted after his arrest. It might have disrupted one of Marlowe’s spying missions.
Marlowe, a Homosexual?
Some scholars claimed that Marlowe was homosexual. They argue that homosexuality applied to sexual acts rather than sexual orientation or identity during the Elizabethan era. Rumors revolved around Marlowe’s homosexual activities were produced after his death. Some scholars even argue that Marlowe was not a homosexual at all. Though his works explore homosexual themes, there are no such historical facts proving his homosexuality.
Arrest and Death
Marlowe’s arrest occurred on May 20, 1593, on the charge of being a heretic. Oddly for the times, he was soon released by the court with the stipulation that he returned regularly to report to an officer of the law. The normal penalty would warrant burning the offender at the stake, so Marlowe was extremely lucky.
His freedom and good luck did not last long, as he was killed ten days later by Ingram Frizer after a fight broke out in a lodging house in Deptford, near London. Marlowe died instantly after being stabbed by Frizer in the forehead. Frizer was in the company of Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley when the incident happened. The reason for the playwright’s death is not thought to be this simple, though; some believe it was a result of his involvement with the secret service or perhaps to the previous charge of atheism.
After his death, some of Marlowe’s other works were published, with Tamburlaine being his last work in 1590.
The most crucial information about Marlowe’s death was never committed to paper. Hence the full details of his death will never be known. However, there are a few theories regarding his murder. These include:
- Audrey Walsingham arranged for Marlowe to be murdered, being jealous of the relationship between her husband and Marlowe.
- His murder was an accidental incident. Frizer and Skeres were actually pressuring him to repay the money he owed them.
- Queen Elizabeth I ordered his assassination for his atheistic beliefs.
- There was also a theory regarding Marlowe’s fake death. His death was faked to save him from trial and execution.
Influence on Other Poets
It is said that Christopher Marlowe inspired many poets and playwrights that came after him. His famous tragedy of the rich Jew of Malta, The Jew of Malta, is said to have inspired and had a major influence on William Shakespeare when he wrote the play The Merchant of Venice.
Ben Jonson was another famous playwright that appreciated the works of Marlowe, in particular his use of language and creation of characters.
There were many other poets who took great inspiration from Marlowe. These include the likes of John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and T. S. Eliot.
Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were two different playwrights from the Elizabethan period. Marlowe collaborated with some of William Shakespeare’s works. For example, Henry VI is now credited as the collaborative work of Marlowe and Shakespeare.
Christopher Marlowe was one of the greatest dramatists of the Elizabethan period. He was the foremost playwright in London after Shakespeare. According to scholars, Marlowe was the first to popularize blank verse in English drama, and he greatly influenced William Shakespeare.
Marlowe wrote a total of six dramas, either alone or in collaboration with other writers. His dramatic works include Dido, Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, Edward II, and The Massacre at Paris, which is considered to be his most dangerous play.
Shakespeare and Marlowe were contemporaries. Marlowe was only two months older than Shakespeare. Shakespeare was greatly influenced by Marlowe’s works. In his play As You Like It, he paid tribute to Marlowe. According to some scholars, Marlow collaborated in some of Shakespeare’s plays. Therefore, Shakespeare and Marlowe definitely knew each other.
Ingram Frizer killed Christopher Marlowe in the home of Eleanor Bull on 30 May 1593. He was an English gentleman and businessman.