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Marlowe, Christopher 1564–1593 English Playwright and Poet

Marlowe, Christopher
1564–1593
English playwright and poet

Christopher Marlowe lived and worked in the late 1500s, a period when Renaissance drama was blossoming in England. His short life was packed with adventure, mystery, and violence. Although he died young, he had a lasting impact on the structure of English drama and left behind a collection of works that have earned the praise of generations of scholars.


Early Career. The son of a poor shoemaker, Marlowe received a scholarship at age 15 to study at the King's School in Canterbury, which offered places to "fifty poor boys." Marlowe learned classical* Latin at the King's School and later won another scholarship to Cambridge University. He began his studies in 1580 and received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Cambridge. Rumors that he had left the university to attend a school in France nearly cost him his master's degree, but royal officials spoke in his defense, claiming that he had been engaged in the service of the queen, Elizabeth I. Historians have suggested that Marlowe was acting as a spy for the English government.

Like most Renaissance scholars, Marlowe took an interest in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. One of his earliest works was a translation of the Amores, a group of Latin love poems by the Roman poet Ovid. As the first translator of these pieces, Marlowe introduced Ovid's work to the English-speaking world, and it soon became a major influence on Renaissance poets. Another ancient work inspired one of Marlowe's first plays: Dido, Queen of Carthage. Based on the Aeneid, an epic* by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, it focuses on the passionate love affair between Dido and the hero Aeneas. Marlowe cowrote the play with another playwright, Thomas Nashe, and a company of child actors performed it around 1587.

Marlowe's first major dramatic work was Tamburlaine the Great, performed in 1588 by the acting group known as the Lord Admiral's Men. The play reveals Marlowe's interest in the fall of leaders, a theme he would return to later in his career. The hero of the piece, Tamburlaine, is a peasant who rises to the monarchy. Believing that his rule is the will of God, he argues that he has the right to destroy everyone who resists him. Unlike earlier plays about unjust rulers, Marlowe's work portrays violence at all levels of society. The mighty attack the weak, and vice versa.

Tamburlaine the Great was a huge success on the London stage and resulted in a sequel, Tamburlaine, Part Two. The entire drama became the most frequently quoted play of the English Renaissance. It also established blank verse* as the standard form for English drama. The leading English authors of the Renaissance, including William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and John Milton, all produced classic pieces in this style.


Dramatic Developments. In 1589 Marlowe became involved in a murderous feud between a fellow actor and another man. Marlowe spent two weeks in prison, where he became friendly with another prisoner, John Poole. Poole was a counterfeiter who shared some of his knowledge with Marlowe. He also had ties to a group of Roman Catholic rebels interested in overthrowing Elizabeth I. These connections eventually led Marlowe into danger.

Marlowe wrote several of his best-known plays in the early 1590s. The Jew of Malta, first performed in 1592, fell into a dramatic style known as the revenge play, in which a character commits bloody acts to take revenge on his enemies. Mixing tragedy and farce*, The Jew of Malta told the story of a Jewish merchant, Barabas, living in an immoral Christian society. Seeking revenge against the city's wealthy Christians for seizing his money, he commits a series of murders through trickery. At one point, he poisons an entire house of nuns. Eventually, one of his own schemes brings about his downfall. This play established the character type known as the "Machiavel," or scheming villain, a name taken from the political writer Niccolò Machiavelli.

In Doctor Faustus, the title character sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of earthly pleasure. Marlowe based this work on the morality plays* of the Middle Ages, in which good and bad angels sought to direct the actions of the main character. The play mocked the Calvinist* belief in predestination, which held that only those chosen by God could enter heaven. Faustus turns this argument on its head to justify his evil actions: if he is already guilty in the eyes of God, his choices make no difference.

Marlowe's Edward II reflected the influence of Shakespeare's history plays. Like many of Shakespeare's works, it featured a weak king whose actions damage his country. Marlowe gave this theme a new twist by focusing on the king's homosexual affections for two of his favorite courtiers. By raising these lowborn men to power, Edward threatens the class structure. His actions provoke a rebellion, leading to a tragic cycle of violence and vengeance.

Final Acts. The last year of Marlowe's life saw him in trouble with the law on several occasions. He spent the winter of 1592 in the Netherlands, where he fell in with a gang of counterfeiters. When one of these men turned Marlowe in to the English governor, the playwright confessed his involvement but tried to shift the blame onto his attacker. The governor arrested Marlowe, but by spring he was back on the streets of London, where an officer arrested him again for disturbing the peace.

Later that year the plague* struck England, and officials closed all the playhouses in London. Along with other British playwrights, Marlowe turned his creative attention to other forms of writing, especially poetry. In his long narrative* poem Hero and Leander, Marlowe retold an ancient Greek myth about two young lovers. While the original story ended with Leander's tragic death, Marlowe chose to end his poem at the point when the lovers fulfill their passion for each other. Hero and Leander went through ten editions between 1598 and 1637, becoming the most widely read of Marlowe's works.

In 1593 Marlowe quarreled with another man about money. The other man stabbed Marlowe in the eye, killing him. The court found that the man had acted in self-defense, but some scholars believe the playwright was the victim of foul play. After Marlowe's death, his reputation rose and fell over the centuries. Many scholars attacked his plays as immoral, but others praised him for his skill with language and for his unique collection of unforgettable—if highly flawed—characters.

(See alsoDrama, English; English Language and Literature. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

Marlowe the Unbeliever

In late 1592 rumors swept through London that Marlowe had denied the existence of God. Officials arrested him in 1593 and brought him before a court, which released him on bail but ordered him to report to the authorities on a daily basis. A week later a list of Marlowe's supposed antireligious jokes reached the queen, who ordered her servants to prosecute Marlowe to the fullest extent. Only his death a few days later saved him from the law.

* blank verse

unrhymed verse, usually in iambic pentameter—lines of poetry consisting of ten syllables, or five metric feet, with emphasis placed on every other syllable

* farce

light dramatic piece that features broad comedy, improbable situations, stereotyped characters, and exaggerated physical action

* morality play

drama of the Middle Ages in which each character represented some human quality

* Calvinist

refers to a Protestant church founded by John Calvin

* plague

highly contagious and often fatal disease that wiped out much of Europe's population in the mid-1300s and reappeared periodically over the next three centuries; also known as the Black Death

* narrative

storytelling

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