BORN: 1564, Canterbury, England
DIED: 1593, London, England
GENRE: Poetry, drama
Tamburlaine the Great (1590)
The Tragedie of Dido Queene of Carthage (1594)
The Tragicall History of D. Faustus (1604)
The achievement of Christopher Marlowe, poet and dramatist, was enormous—surpassed only by that of his exact contemporary William Shakespeare. Most dramatic poets of the sixteenth century followed where Marlowe had led, especially in their use of language and the blank-verse line. The prologue to Marlowe's Tamburlaine (1587–1588) proclaims its author's contempt for the stage verse of the period, in which the “jygging vaines of riming mother wits” presented the “conceits [which] clownage keepes in pay” instead the new play promised a barbaric foreign hero, the “Scythian Tamburlaine, Threatning the world with high astounding tearms.” English drama was never the same again.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
On Her Majesty's Secret Service Marlowe lived his entire life during the Elizabethan era, the time period during which Queen Elizabeth I ruled England and Ireland. The era lasted from 1558 until her death in 1603, and was most notable for two great accomplishments: the rise of British sea superiority, demonstrated by both the British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the extensive oceanic explorations of Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh; and the advancement of English theatre to a popular and enduring art form, demonstrated by the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe.
Marlowe was born in February 1564, about two months before Shakespeare. His father was a prosperous middle-class merchant of Canterbury. Christopher received his early education at King's School in Canterbury, and at the age of seventeen went to Cambridge, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1584.
The terms of his scholarship allowed for a further three years' study if the holder intended to take holy orders, and Marlowe appears to have fulfilled this condition. But in 1587 the University at first refused to grant the appropriate degree of Master of Arts. The college records show that Marlowe was away from Cambridge for considerable periods during his second three years, and the university apparently had good reason to be suspicious of his whereabouts. Marlowe, however, was not without some influence by this time: Archbishop Whitgift, Lord Burghley, and Sir Christopher Hatton were among members of Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council who signed a letter explaining, “Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames and there to remaine …he had done her Majestie good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithfull dealinge.”
The reference to “Reames” makes everything clear. The Jesuit seminary at Rheims was the refuge of many expatriate English Roman Catholics, banished from Queen Elizabeth's newly Protestant realm, who were thought to be scheming to overthrow the English monarch. It is likely that Marlowe was sent to Rheims on some sort of espionage mission as part of greater efforts to foil Elizabeth's Catholic foes.
Wild Years in London In 1587 Marlowe went from Cambridge to London. For the next six years he wrote plays and associated with other writers, among them the poet Thomas Watson and the dramatist Thomas Kyd. He soon became known for his wild, bohemian ways and his unorthodox thinking. In 1589, for example, he was imprisoned for a time in connection with the death of a certain William Bradley, who had been killed in a violent quarrel in which Marlowe played an important part. He was several times accused of being an “atheist” and a “blasphemer,” most notably by his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. These charges led to Marlowe's arrest in 1593, but he died before his case was decided.
Marlowe's career as a poet and dramatist spanned a mere six years. Between his graduation from Cambridge in 1587 and his death in 1593 he wrote only one major poem (Hero and Leander, unfinished at his death) and six or seven plays (one play, Dido Queen of Carthage, may have been written while he was still a student). Since the dating of several plays is uncertain, it is impossible to construct a reliable history of Marlowe's intellectual and artistic development.
Dido, Queen of Carthage For what was probably his first play, Marlowe took from the Roman poet Virgil the account of Dido's passion for Aeneas, the Trojan hero shipwrecked on the Carthaginian coast after the destruction of Troy, and added a subplot of the unrequited love of Anna, Dido's sister, for one of Dido's suitors, whose name—Iarbus—is mentioned only infrequently in Virgil's epic, the Aeneid. Virgil's hero is a man of destiny, ordained by the gods to sail to Italy and there establish the Roman race, the true descendants of the Trojans. The interlude with Dido is only a part of the divine plan. Aeneas must not allow himself to be detained in Carthage, even though his departure is a tragic catastrophe for the Queen. Virgil's gods are always in control of the action.
Marlowe introduces the gods at the beginning of his play, daringly presenting them as a bunch of rather shabby immortals subject to very human emotions: Venus is anxious for the welfare of her shipwrecked son, Aeneas; Juno is jealous of Venus and irritated by her husband's infidelities; and Jupiter is besotted with a homosexual passion for Ganymede. This is a grotesquely “domestic” comedy, which might seem to endanger the tragic stature of the play's heroine and the epic status of its hero, since both Dido and Aeneas are at the mercy of such deities. The character of Aeneas has provoked varying reactions in critics of the play (one sees him as “an Elizabethan adventurer”; another adopts the medieval view in which he is the betrayer of Troy; and for yet another he is the unheroic “man-in-the-street” who has no desire for great actions). Dido, however, is unambiguously sympathetic. At first a majestic queen, she becomes almost inarticulate as she struggles with a passion that she does not understand. Her grief at Aeneas's departure brings back her eloquence, and then, preparing for death, she achieves the isolated dignity of a tragic heroine.
Tamburlaine the Great Based on the historical fourteenth-century Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, Tamburlaine the Great, a two-part play, was first printed in 1590 but was probably composed several years earlier. The famous prologue to the first part announces a new poetic and dramatic style: “From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,/ And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay/ We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,/ Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine/ Threat'ning the world with high astounding terms/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword./ View but his picture in this tragic glass,/ And then applaud his fortunes as you please.” The play itself is a bold demonstration of Tamburlaine's rise to power and his single-minded, often inhumanly cruel exercise of that power.
The Jew of Malta Although written sometime between 1588 and 1592, The Jew of Malta was not printed until 1633, but it was frequently performed by The Admiral's Men in the years immediately following Marlowe's death. The recorded box-office receipts testify to its popularity. The chief figure, the phenomenally wealthy merchant-prince Barabas, is one of the most powerful figures of Elizabethan drama. Unlike Tamburlaine, who asserts his will openly and without guile, Barabas is shrewd, devious, and secretive. Yet Barabas is also a sympathetic character in that, at the beginning of the play, he is a man more sinned against than sinning: the victim of prejudice, his fault lies in his Jewishness—and the Knights of Malta are prepared to use religion as a cloak for theft when they take the Jews' property to pay the Turks. Barabas discloses their hypocrisy: “Preach me not out of my possessions.” The prologue is delivered by a historical figure easily recognized by Marlowe's contemporary audiences: Niccolò Machiavelli, Italian political mastermind and author of The Prince.
Doctor Faustus Doctor Faustus, which is generally considered Marlowe's greatest work, was probably also his last. Its central figure, a scholar who feels he has exhausted all the conventional areas of human learning, attempts to gain the ultimate in knowledge and power by selling his soul to the devil.
In the last act of the play, he twice conjures up the spirit of Helen of Troy—the first time for the benefit of his scholar friends, who have requested to see “the admirablest Lady that ever lived.” The second time is for his own delight and comfort; he asks for Helen as his “paramour.”
The second appearance of Helen calls forth from Faustus the most famous lines that Marlowe ever wrote:
Was this the face that Launcht a thousand ships, And burnt the toplesse Towers of Ilium? Sweet Hellen make me immortall with a kisse: Her lips sucke forth my soule, see where it flies.
The high point comes in the portrayal of the hero's final moments, as he awaits the powers of darkness who demand his soul.
Audience enthusiasm for Marlowe's works reflect important elements of Elizabethan culture. Though the Italian Renaissance had already passed, the same interest in classical subjects is found in Dido, Queen of Carthage and Doctor Faustus. At the same time, these classical and historical subjects were counterbalanced by moments of humor that might be described as “low” or inappropriate in tone. This reflects the wide-ranging audiences that were drawn to the theater during this time; England had steadily grown more prosperous under Elizabeth's rule, and even lower-class citizens frequented the theater for an evening''s entertainment. Aside from historical and classical subjects, many of Marlowe's works reflected events and concerns of the Elizabethan era; The Massacre at Paris, for example, depicted the events of the 1572 Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (a wave of Catholic mob violence against Protestants in France resulting in tens of thousands of deaths), which mirrored the ongoing tensions between Catholics and Protestants within England.
A Violent Death The circumstances of Marlowe's death first came to light in the twentieth century with the discovery of the original coroner's report in the Public Record Office in London. The report tells of a meeting at the house of Mrs. Eleanor Bull in Deptford—not a tavern, but a house where meetings could be held and food supplied. On May 30, 1593 Marlowe spent the whole day there, talking and walking in the garden with three “gentlemen.” In the evening there was a quarrel, ostensibly about who should pay the bill, “le recknynge”; in the ensuing scuffle Marlowe is said to have drawn his dagger and wounded one of his companions. The man, Ingram Frizer, snatched the weapon and “in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid … gave the said Christopher then and there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then and there instantly died.”
Despite the unusual wealth of detail surrounding this fatal episode, there has been much speculation about the affair. It has been suggested, for example, that the deed was politically motivated and that Frizer (who was subsequently judged to have acted in self-defense) was simply acting as an agent for a more prominent person.
Works in Literary Context
In many ways, Marlowe's plays typify attitudes in Renaissance England. The intellectual and aesthetic rebirth known as the Renaissance began in Italy during the fourteenth century and, in the next two centuries, spread new ideas throughout Europe. Three aspects of Renaissance culture—Humanism, Individualism, and the New Science—figure as prominent themes in Marlowe's play. Rejecting medieval social and religious attitudes, Renaissance Humanists privileged individual over collective values. Humanism encouraged people to realize their happiness and potential in this, the material world, rather than focusing solely on eternal happiness in the afterlife.
Tragedy Although a number of English dramatists before Christopher Marlowe had achieved some notable successes in the field of comedy, none had produced a first-rate tragedy. It was Marlowe who made the first significant advances in tragedy. In each of his major plays he focuses on a single character that dominates the action by virtue of his extraordinary strength of will. Marlowe's thundering blank verse, although for the most part lacking the subtlety of Shakespeare's mature poetry, proved a remarkably effective medium for this kind of drama.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Marlowe's famous contemporaries include:
William Shakespeare (1564–1616): English poet and playwright widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's best dramatist. His plays have been translated into every major language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.
Ben Jonson (1572–1637): An English Renaissance poet, dramatist and actor best known today for his satirical plays and poetry.
Elizabeth I (1533–1603): The Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 to her death, and daughter of Henry VIII. Her reign saw the ascendancy of English drama and the beginnings of English naval power in the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the exploits of English “Sea Dogs” like Francis Drake.
Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596): English privateer, explorer, slave trader, adventurer. Second in command of the English fleet that faced the Spanish Armada, Drake became the scourge of the Spaniards with his raids on treasure ships returning from the New World.
Philip II (1527–1598): King of Spain and Portugal, ruler of the Spanish colonial empire, after whom the Philippine Islands are named. His reign saw the beginning of the Eighty Years' War with the Netherlands, and also the defeat of the Armada, which brought a permanent end to his ambitions to conquer Protestant England.
Blank Verse Critics tend to agree that Marlowe's innovation in verse was the first and most influential predecessor to the stylistic achievements of the era. It was Tamburlaine the Great that made this powerful verse style famous. Marlowe stresses in the prologue to Part I that it is his intention to depart from the “jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,” or unsophisticated rhymes like those of a mother giving silly advice in the form of a jig, of his predecessors. Instead, Marlowe wanted to create a work of high philosophical ambitions and powerful, “astounding” verse.
The poetic tool Marlowe uses for his “mighty line” is blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is a meter with five beats of two-syllable units called iambs. This style, adapted from Greek and Latin heroic verse, was developed in Italy before Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, introduced it in England. Marlowe was perhaps the chief innovator to instill blank verse with emotional force and rhythmic eloquence, and he was also influential in skillfully suiting his characters' temperaments to the nature of their lines.
Works in Critical Context
Within three or four years of his death, Marlowe's career was being cited by contemporary moralists as a classic illustration of the workings of divine retribution against a blasphemous atheist. In 1597, for example, Thomas Beard recognized in it “a manifest signe of Gods judgement …in that hee compelled his owne hand which had written those blasphemies to be the instrument to punish him, and that in his braine, which had devised the same.” But he was also recognized as a remarkable dramatic genius who, if he had lived longer, was on track to have rivaled the likes of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Contemporary poet Michael Drayton observed in him “those brave translunary things That the first poets had.” This early appreciation has extended over the years, so that now most critics—sharing the benefits of hindsight—would agree with A. C. Swinburne that Marlowe was “the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse.” According to Havelock Ellis, “Marlowe's place is at the heart of English poetry”; and T. S. Eliot even predicted “the direction in which Marlowe's verse might have moved … [which was toward] … intense and serious and indubitably great poetry.”
Although Shakespeare was able to bring his art to an ever higher level, most dramatic poets of the sixteenth century followed where Marlowe had led, especially in their use of language and the blank-verse line. English drama was never the same.
Doctor Faustus Although Doctor Faustus was a staple production for The Admiral's Men for several years after its creation, it was also a divisive work that some sources suggest was not that popular with Elizabethan audiences. It prompted Puritan author William Prynne, in his 1632 attack on Elizabethan theater known as Histriomastix, to proclaim that the production was sinful enough to cause actual demons to materialize onstage. The play, like many of Marlowe's works, was virtually forgotten through the eighteenth century, though it was rediscovered and appreciated by later scholars. William Hazlitt, in a lecture from around 1820, states that the play, “although an unequal and imperfect performance, is [Marlowe's] greatest work. Faustus himself is a rude sketch, but it is a gigantic one.” In 1908, poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne praised the play, stating that “in dramatic power and positive impression of natural effect it is … certainly the masterpiece of Marlowe.” Writing in 1971, scholar Gâmini Salgâdo confirmed the lasting impact of the work, stating that “the action and spectacle have retained undiminished their capacity to hold an audience enthralled.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Christopher Marlowe's version of the Faust story focuses on the dire consequences of his character's choices. The following are other works with a similar focus on action and consequence.
Macbeth (1603–06) by William Shakespeare. In plotting to kill their king, Macbeth and his wife metaphorically “sell their souls” in exchange for political power. Both Doctor Faustus and this play successfully explore the psychology of transgression, guilt, and punishment.
Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In this classic of Russian literature, a student named Raskolnikov murders a pawn broker and is haunted by paranoia even as he attempts to improve society through his actions.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946), a film by Frank Capra. In this holiday favorite, a desperate and down-on-his-luck man named George Bailey finds out what the world would have been like if he had never lived.
A Separate Peace (1959), a novel by John Knowles. In this coming-of-age tale, the lives of two boys—close friends with radically different personalities—are dramatically changed by a tragic accident caused by one of them.
Responses to Literature
- How are the moral themes of the plays Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine the Great similar? How do they differ? What does Dr. Faustus imply about one human's relationship to the universe? How does this differ from the implications of Tamburlaine the Great? How do the plays differ in style and form? Which one sheds more light on today's society, and which one would you rather see performed today? Explain your choices.
- In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the pursuit of knowledge fails to produce happiness. Do you believe that too much knowledge brings unhappiness? Are there some things people were not meant to know?
- Most readers of Marlowe's play feel that Doctor Faustus wastes a wonderful opportunity. If you had Faustus's power, what would you do?
- Often news reporters and pundits compare certain political and entertainment figures to Dr. Faustus, saying that they made a “deal with the devil” to attain their success. Write an informal paper in which you examine contemporary figures in light of the dramatic character Dr. Faustus.
Bakeless, John E. The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942.
“Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593).” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Edited by James E. Person. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993, pp. 325–402.
Kuriyama, Constance Brown. Hammer or Anvil: Psychological Patterns in Christopher Marlowe's Plays. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1980.
Leech, ed. Marlowe: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Prentice Hall, 1964.
Levin, Harry. The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952.
Weil, Judith. Christopher Marlowe: Merlin's Prophet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Grantley, Darryll. “The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe.” Yearbook of English Studies (2002): 271.
Hamlin, William. “Casting Doubt in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 41.2 (Spring 2001): 257.
BORN: February 1564 • Canterbury, England
DIED: May 30, 1593 • Deptford, England
Christopher Marlowe was the most influential dramatist of the Elizabethan Era, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history. He was the first English playwright to show the dramatic possibilities of blank verse, the form that William Shakespeare (1564–1616; see entry) perfected in his own plays. Marlowe's work also introduced exciting new themes in Elizabethan drama by focusing on tragic protagonists who dared to challenge traditional ideas about morality. In his private life, too, Marlowe defied convention. Evidence suggests that he worked as a secret agent for the English government. At the same time, he was often accused of holding anti-religious beliefs, a serious crime in Elizabethan England. Some accused him of being a homosexual. Marlowe was killed at age twenty-nine. The official report of the incident determined that he had been killed in a fight that he had started. Some historians, however, believe he was assassinated by the government. Marlowe died before he had reached the height of his
"I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains."
artistic powers. Many believe that, had Marlowe lived longer, his works could have equaled or even surpassed those of Shakespeare.
Early life and education
One of nine children born to shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife, Katherine Arthur, Christopher Marlowe grew up in Canterbury, the site of one of England's oldest cathedrals. Though not actually poor, the family never quite achieved a comfortable standard of living; nevertheless, it was stable and happy. As a boy Christopher received a scholarship to attend the King's School, a prestigious choir school under the cathedral's administration. Here he studied Greek, Latin, religion, music, and history. He also obtained a thorough knowledge of poetic structure, and he was expected to be able to compose his own poems in Latin. Students at the King's School often performed plays in Greek and Latin, and they were required to speak in Latin at all times, even during their free time.
At age sixteen Marlowe enrolled as a scholarship student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University. Here he deepened his knowledge of Latin and began writing his own poetry and plays. He completed his bachelor's of arts degree in 1584 and received his master's degree in 1587. The university officials had been reluctant at first to grant Marlowe's master's degree because he had been absent from the university for an extended period of time. They suspected he may have gone to Europe to meet with Catholic exiles there who had fled Protestant rule in England. If Marlowe had Catholic sympathies, they judged, his loyalty to the English government might be in question; if this were the case, they would withhold his degree.
Marlowe may very well have been in Europe, but if so his purpose was probably quite different from what the university authorities suspected. Many historians believe that, during his university days, Marlowe was recruited by Francis Walsingham (1530–1590; see entry) as a secret agent for the English government. There was intense religious conflict in England at this time, and Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry), a Protestant whose right to the English throne was disputed by Catholics, was vulnerable to Catholic plots to assassinate her. Walsingham sought intelligent and educated men like Marlowe to work as spies in England and Europe to help expose anti-government conspiracies. Marlowe's frequent absences from the university in the mid-1580s may have occurred while he was on undercover missions for Walsingham. The details of any such assignments, though, are not known.
The queen's Privy Council sent a letter to the university in Marlowe's defense. (The Privy Council was the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the queen's chief advisors.) It informed the authorities that any rumor about Marlowe working for the English Catholic cause in Europe was false. As quoted in The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs, the letter also told the university to grant Marlowe his degree because "it was not her Majesty's pleasure that anyone employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his Country should be defamed by those that are ignorant in the affairs he went about." The authorities granted the degree.
Moves to London
Soon afterward Marlowe moved to London, where he settled in the neighborhood of Norton Folgate just outside the city walls to the north. This was a suitable location for an aspiring playwright because it was free from city government control. Playhouses, of which the stricter Protestant faction called Puritans disapproved, could operate freely there. So could taverns, gambling dens, and houses of prostitution. Performances at playhouses often drew rowdy audiences, and robberies and fights were common.
Marlowe quickly developed a reputation for drinking and quarreling. He was arrested in 1589 after a street fight in Norton Folgate that resulted in the death of an innkeeper named William Bradley. Marlowe and Bradley were fighting in an alley when Thomas Watson, a poet, drew his sword to intervene. Bradley then attacked Watson, and Watson stabbed him to death. A jury ruled that Marlowe had not been involved in the killing, and that Watson had acted in self-defense. In 1592 authorities in Shoreditch, near Norton Folgate, demanded that Marlowe provide them with a guarantee that he would not disturb the peace. Later that year he was charged with damaging property in Canterbury.
A new age of drama
From his earliest days in London Marlowe became associated with a company of actors, the Admiral's Men, whose star performer was Edward Alleyn (1566–1626). Soon the Admiral's Men were staging the young dramatist's works. In late 1587 Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2 was performed in London. According to James E. Ruoff in Major Elizabethan Poetry & Prose, this play "heralded in spellbinding cadences [rhythms] a new age of drama." It was the first play in English to exploit the full potential of blank verse, a type of poetry with regular meter (the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables) but no rhyme. Theatergoers as well as Marlowe's fellow writers were entranced by this innovative use of blank verse; poet Ben Jonson (c. 1572–1637) called it "Marlowe's mighty line."
Tamburlaine also excited audiences with its subject matter. The play told the story of Tamburlaine, a poor shepherd from Scythia (a region near the Black Sea) who conquers the world. He is a cruel and pitiless tyrant, and the play is filled with scenes of graphic violence. For example, a captured emperor kills himself by smashing his head against the bars of the cage in which Tamburlaine exhibits him. Tamburlaine, played by Alleyn in a performance that brought him great fame, shocked Elizabethans because he openly enjoys his cruelty. Furthermore, he refuses to accept any social order that might limit his power. Though he was born poor, he decides to make his own destiny. "I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains," he declares. This insistence on his own power to do as he chose made Tamburlaine a new type of hero, one who completely rejected the traditional virtues of Elizabethan England. As Ruoff explained, this play and Marlowe's other works glorified the new ideas of the Renaissance, which emphasized individual freedom. (The Renaissance was the era beginning around 1350 in Europe, in which scholars turned their attention to classical Greek and Latin learning and shifted to a more rational [based on reason rather than spiritual belief or church authority] approach to philosophy, religion, and science.)
Between 1588 and 1592 Marlowe wrote at least four other plays; another, Dido, Queen of Carthage, may date from his years at Cambridge University. Tamburlaine was published in 1590, but the dates of Marlowe's other plays, which were performed but not published until after his death, are not certain.
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, published in 1604 but first produced around 1589, was based on the German story of a magician who sells his soul to the devil in order to gain forbidden knowledge. Marlowe's play, scholars believe, was the first dramatization of this story. The play features Faustus's famous speech about his fear of death, and his descent into hell. The few of Malta, first produced around 1590 but published in 1633, was considered a major influence of Shakespeare's TheMerchant of Venice. In Marlowe's play, a Jewish merchant, Barabas, embarks on a violent campaign of revenge after authorities in Malta deprive him and other Jews of their wealth in order to pay a tax demanded by the Turks. The Massacre at Paris dramatized the events of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, when Catholic mobs in Paris murdered thousands of Protestants. The Catholic Duke of Guise, one of the leaders behind the massacre, is the play's hero. Edward II, considered Marlowe's best-constructed play, is based on the reign of King Edward II of England (1284–1327), a homosexual ruler who struggled against powerful barons who eventually assassinated him. It focuses more closely on character development than previous examples of history plays, or plays about historical figures and events. It is also one of only a very few plays from this period that dealt with the subject of homosexuality.
Accused of atheism
Marlowe's actions and writings stirred up controversy, and almost from the start of his career he found himself accused of atheism, or not believing in God—a serious crime in Elizabethan England punishable by burning at the stake. In 1588 a rival writer and critic, Robert Greene (c. 1560–1592), published a pamphlet that hinted at atheism in Tamburlaine. Greene also wrote a play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, that appeared to criticize the lack of repentance and redemption in Doctor Faustus. In 1592 Greene published another pamphlet that more specifically associated Marlowe with atheism.
The playwright found himself in other kinds of trouble as well. When the plague, a disease that killed nearly one-fourth of the city's population, came to London in 1592, playhouses were temporarily closed. Around this time Marlowe went to the Netherlands, where Protestants had been engaged in a years-long rebellion against Spanish Catholic rule, at times with English military support. Marlowe was arrested in Flushing, a town under English control, and accused of counterfeiting and of intent to aid the enemy. Marlowe was sent back to London but was never punished. This incident has caused historians to theorize that Marlowe had received another espionage assignment.
In early 1593, with the plague still raging in London, Marlowe worked on the long narrative poem Hero and Leander. (A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story.) He died before completing it. The poem was based on a Greek legend about lovers who lived on opposite sides of a narrow strait, the Hellespont. Every night Leander swam across, guided by his lover's lamp. In the ancient legend Leander is drowned one night when a storm extinguishes the light. Marlowe's poem, however, breaks off after the lovers' first night together. The unfinished portion was published in 1598, and a version completed by poet George Chapman (c. 1559–1634) was published later that year. The other major poem for which Marlowe is known is "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love."
A violent death
In May 1593 more allegations surfaced about Marlowe's alleged atheism. Several bills, or pamphlets, had been posted around the city that threatened Protestant refugees from Europe. One of these, put up on the wall of the Dutch churchyard, was written in blank verse, contained references to Marlowe's plays, and was signed "Tamburlaine." Alarmed, the queen ordered city authorities to crack down on the authors of these bills. Thomas Kyd (1558–1594), a playwright with whom Marlowe shared a workroom, was one of those arrested. A search of Kyd's room unearthed papers expressing views that contradicted official religious teachings. The authorities described these views, in a report quoted by Riggs, as "vile heretical Conceits denying the deity of Jesus Christ."
After being tortured in prison, Kyd told the authorities that the papers were not his but Marlowe's. On May 18 the Privy Council issued a warrant for Marlowe's arrest. He was taken into custody at the estate of his powerful patron, Thomas Walsingham, nephew of the secretary of state who was also involved in the English espionage network. The council did not imprison the playwright, but it did insist that he provide daily reports on his activities. On May 26 Richard Baines, an informer, provided the council with a document that became known as the Baines Note. As quoted by Constance Brown Kuriyama in Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life, the note accused Marlowe of "damnable judgment of religion and scorn of God's word." Four days later Marlowe was dead.
On May 30 Marlowe was killed at the house of Widow Bull in Deptford, an area south of the river from London near several theaters. Witnesses reported that Marlowe had picked a fight with his companions about the bill for their food and drink, and he had attacked and wounded Ingram Frizer in the head. Frizer then killed Marlowe with an accidental stab wound just above the eye. Marlowe died instantly. A coronor's jury on June 1 found that Frizer had acted in self-defense. Marlowe was buried that day at St. Nicholas Church, Deptford.
The Passionate Shepherd and the Nymph's Satirical Reply
Although Marlowe is best known for dramas with powerful, violent heroes, his "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" is a very different work. Its first stanza contains one of the best-known opening lines in English poetry.
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals [songs].
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle [skirt]
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my Love.
The shepherd's swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move
Then live with me and be my Love.
Several contemporary poets wrote parodies of this poem. The best known is "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" by Walter Raleigh (1552–1618; see entry):
The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel [the nightingale] becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.
Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy bed of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten—
In folly ripe, in season rotten.
They belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.
SOURCES: "THE PASSIONATE SHEPHERD TO HIS LOVE," BARLEBY.COM AND "THE NYMPH'S REPLY TO THE SHEPHERD," LUMINARIUM.ORG.
Despite this official version of events, suspicions of foul play later arose. The men who were with Marlowe that day, who included Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley in addition to Frizer, had all worked for Walsingham, and some historians believe that they may have been part of a secret plot to assassinate the playwright. There may have been powerful individuals who feared what Marlowe might reveal about their own activities if he were brought to trial on the atheism charge. The queen herself may have wished to silence him. But other historians point out that Marlowe had a well-deserved reputation for violence, and he could very well have simply started a fight that turned deadly.
At the time Marlowe's enemies considered his death the logical result of his atheism. His friends mourned the loss of an exceptionally gifted writer. In 1599 Shakespeare alluded to Marlowe in As You Like It, when the character Phoebe addresses the "dead shepherd." Later in the play, the character Touchstone alludes to the quarrel in the small room in Deptford when he says that "When a man's verses cannot be understood … it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room."
Though Marlowe's artistic career was tragically brief, he gave the English language poems and plays that profoundly influenced the development of literature. As Ruoff concluded, "Marlowe's language towers above any life we have ever known or guessed…. [His] golden declamations were shouted across the narrow streets of London by young apprentices for twenty years after his death. It was perhaps their way of paying tribute to the 'dead shepherd' who had given them during his 'two hours' traffic of the stage' a rare glimpse of life as it is seen from the heady mountaintops of the world."
For More Information
Kuriyama, Constance Brown. Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2002.
Ruoff, James E. Major Elizabethan Poetry & Prose. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972.
"Christopher Marlowe." In Search of Shakespeare, http://www.pbs.org/shakespeare/players/player24.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Christopher Marlowe: 16th Century British Literature." Classic Literature Library: British Authors, http://www.classic-literature.co.uk/british-authors/16th-century/christopher-marlowe/ (accessed on July 11, 2006).
The Marlowe Society, http://www.marlowe-society.org/ (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." Luminarium.org. http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/nymphsreply.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com/106/5.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Walton, Brenda. "Christopher Marlowe and the Creation of Dr. Faustus." http://www.teachersfirst.com/lessons/marl-la.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Marlowe, Christopher (1564–1593)
MARLOWE, CHRISTOPHER (1564–1593)
MARLOWE, CHRISTOPHER (1564–1593), English dramatist and poet. Marlowe lived an exciting, if short, life—part writer of renown and part—it is claimed—government agent. The son of a Canterbury shoemaker named John Marlowe, he obtained a scholarship to the King's School in Canterbury; from 1580 he attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, receiving his B.A. in 1584. Although he remained at Cambridge, completing his M.A. in 1587, documents show that his attendance became sporadic, and there is much speculation concerning his activities from 1584 to 1587, the year he left. A Privy Council letter written to the college and dated 29 June 1587 indicates that prior to that date he had been engaged in government business, possibly as an agent spying on the Roman Catholic seminary at Rheims.
What is most discussed about the writer's life is to what extent he was a spy, an atheist, and a homosexual. In 1593, the year of his death, another government agent called Richard Baines reported that Marlowe had uttered heresies against the teachings of the church. He quoted Marlowe as saying that "Moyses was but a jugler," and that religion only evolved in order to control nations. According to Baines's testimony, Marlowe had said: "all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles."
Marlowe arrived in London soon after he left Cambridge, but not much is known about this time. His first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, was written in collaboration with his Cambridge associate Thomas Nashe (1567–1601), and may have been completed c. 1586, though it was not published until 1594. It was first performed by the Children of the Queen's Chapel. However, the Admiral's Men, an adult company under the management of Philip Henslowe, certainly performed his famous work for the stage—the highly successful Tamburlaine the Great, about a pagan leader, which appeared in 1587 and was published in 1590. This play along with its sequel, The Second Part of Tamburlaine, has been cited as marking "the beginning of modern drama" (Wiggins and Lindsey). The Admiral's Men went on producing Marlowe's plays into the late 1580s and early 1590s, with Edward Alleyn, the actor-manager of the company, taking the main role in all productions. These included The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (published in 1604), The Jew of Malta (1633), The Massacre at Paris (1594?), and Edward II (1594).
Marlowe's poetry, in particular his Hero and Leander, is also defined as distinctively ground-breaking work of the English Renaissance. All his verse, including Hero and Leander, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," and his translations of Ovid and Lucan, were reputedly written during his Cambridge years, although there is no real evidence of this. It was all published during the period 1598 to 1600, with two endings penned by other writers for the unfinished Hero and Leander of 1598.
The traces we have of Marlowe's life indicate a personality of violent temperament. In 1589 he was arrested after a duel with one William Bradley, and he was put into Newgate Prison in London. In 1592, having been sent back from the Lowlands by Sir Robert Sidney, the governor of Flushing, he was bound over to keep the peace after fighting with two city constables, and in September of the same year he was accused of assaulting a Canterbury tailor. He is known to have shared a lodging with another dramatist of the age, Thomas Kyd, who was to say of Marlowe (in 1593) that he was "intemperate and of a cruel heart," possessing "monstrous opinions" and given to "attempting sudden privy injuries to men." However, Kyd was himself arrested at the time, and doubt may be thrown onto his motives for this description. Marlowe's death makes a bloody end to a colorfully interpreted life. He was killed by Ingram Friser in a brawl that ostensibly concerned a "reckoning" or bill; however, because of the shady people involved, including Friser, who was employed by Thomas Walsingham, the nephew of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state, the doubt has persisted that Marlowe—an early, eloquent, and powerful user of the English language—was assassinated on the orders of a high-ranking official.
See also Drama: English ; English Literature and Language ; Shakespeare, William .
Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Plays. Edited by J. B. Steane. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1986.
——. Edward the Second. Edited by Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsey. London and New York, 1997.
Healy, Thomas. Christopher Marlowe. Plymouth, U.K., 1994.
Sales, Roger. Christopher Marlowe. Basingstoke, U.K., and New York, 1991.
The English dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was the first English playwright to reveal the full potential of dramatic blank verse and the first to exploit the tragic implications of Renaissance humanism.
Although a number of English dramatists before Christopher Marlowe had achieved some notable successes in the field of comedy, none had produced a first-rate tragedy. It was Marlowe who made the first significant advances in tragedy. In each of his major plays he focuses on a single character who dominates the action by virtue of his extraordinary strength of will. Marlowe's thundering blank verse, although for the most part lacking the subtlety of Shakespeare's mature poetry, proved a remarkably effective medium for this kind of drama.
Marlowe was born in February 1564, about 2 months before Shakespeare. His father was a prosperous middle-class merchant of Canterbury. Christopher received his early education at King's School in Canterbury and at the age of 17 went to Cambridge, where he held a scholarship requiring him to study for the ministry. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1584 and a master of arts degree in 1587. Toward the end of his stay at Cambridge he evidently aroused the suspicions of the university authorities, who threatened to withhold his degree. The Queen's Privy Council intervened, however, and assured the authorities that Marlowe "had done Her Majesty good service." The nature of this service is still a mystery, but it is likely that Marlowe was involved in a secret espionage mission abroad.
Shortly after receiving his master's degree, Marlowe went to London. He soon became known for his wild, bohemian ways and his unorthodox thinking. In 1589, for example, he was imprisoned for a time in connection with the death of a certain William Bradley, who had been killed in a violent quarrel in which Marlowe played an important part. He was several times accused of being an "atheist" and a "blasphemer," most notably by his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. These charges led to Marlowe's arrest in 1593, but he died before his case was decided.
Marlowe's career as a poet and dramatist spanned a mere 6 years. Between his graduation from Cambridge in 1587 and his death in 1593 he wrote only one major poem (Hero and Leander, unfinished at his death) and six or seven plays (one play, Dido Queen of Carthage, may have been written while he was still a student). Since the dating of several plays is uncertain, it is impossible to construct a reliable history of Marlowe's intellectual and artistic development.
Tamburlaine the Great, a two-part play, was first printed in 1590 but was probably composed several years earlier. The famous prologue to the first part announces a new poetic and dramatic style: "From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,/ And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay/ We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,/ Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine/Threat'ning the world with high astounding terms/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword./ View but his picture in this tragic glass,/ And then applaud his fortunes as you please." The play itself is a bold demonstration of Tamburlaine's rise to power and his singleminded, often inhumanly cruel exercise of that power. The hero provokes awe and wonder but little sympathy.
Although written sometime between 1588 and 1592, The Jew of Malta was not printed until 1633. The chief figure, the phenomenally wealthy merchant-prince Barabas, is one of the most powerful Machiavellian figures of the Elizabethan drama. Unlike Tamburlaine, who asserts his will openly and without guile, Barabas is shrewd, devious, and secretive.
Doctor Faustus, which is generally considered Marlowe's greatest work, was probably also his last. Its central figure, a scholar who feels he has exhausted all the conventional areas of human learning, attempts to gain the ultimate in knowledge and power by selling his soul to the devil. The high point comes in the portrayal of the hero's final moments, as he awaits the powers of darkness who demand his soul.
The circumstances of Marlowe's death first came to light in the 20th century. On May 30, 1593, Marlowe dined at Deptford with a certain Ingram Frizer and two others. In the course of an argument over the tavern bill, Marlowe wounded Frizer with a dagger, whereupon Frizer seized the same dagger and stabbed Marlowe over the right eye. According to the coroner's inquest, from which this information is drawn, Marlowe died instantly.
Despite the unusual wealth of detail surrounding this fatal episode, there has been much speculation about the affair. It has been suggested, for example, that the deed was politically motivated and that Frizer (who was subsequently judged to have acted in self-defense) was simply acting as an agent for a more prominent person. In any case, within 3 or 4 years of his death, Marlowe's career was being cited by contemporary moralists as a classic illustration of the workings of divine retribution against a blasphemous atheist. But he was also recognized as a remarkable dramatic genius who, if he had lived longer, would certainly have rivaled Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Among the best of the many full-length studies of Marlowe's life are Frederick S. Boas, Christopher Marlowe: A Biographical and Critical Study (1940); John E. Bakeless, The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe (2 vols., 1942); and Paul H. Kocher, Christopher Marlowe: A Study of His Thought, Learning, and Character (1946). The facts of Marlowe's death were discovered by Leslie Hotson and set forth in his The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925; repr. 1967).
Among the critical studies that take in all of Marlowe's works are Harry Levin, The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe (1952), and J. B. Steane, Marlowe: A Critical Study (1964). An important critical study is Roy W. Battenhouse, Marlowe's Tamburlaine: A Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy (1941). For an interesting aspect of Renaissance drama see Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden (1962).
Bakeless, John Edwin, Christopher Marlowe, New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1975.
Henderson, Philip, Christopher Marlowe, New York: Barnes &Noble Books, 1974.
Hilton, Della, Christopher Marlowe and the new London theatre, Edinburgh: Pentland Press, 1993.
Hilton, Della, Who was Kit Marlowe?: The story of the poet and playwright, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.
Ingram, John Henry, Marlowe & his poetry, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Lewis, J. G., Christopher Marlowe: outlines of his life and works, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Pinciss, G. M., Christopher Marlowe, New York: Ungar, 1975.
Urry, William, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury, London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1988. □
Marlowe grew up in Cambridge, the home of England's famous university. His father was a local shoemaker who had settled there after traveling about the country as an itinerant worker, and the young Marlowe was educated as befitted the family's rise in status. At fifteen he received a scholarship set aside for poor children at a secondary school, and a few years later he entered Corpus Christi College at the university. Under the terms of his scholarship Marlowe could receive four years of support, but he could extend this term another three years by promising to enter the clergy, which he did. At the end of his seven years at Cambridge, he took the MA degree, but only after a row in the university caused by his decision to abandon the priesthood. During his later years at Cambridge, Marlowe was also absent for long periods, having been recruited to serve as an agent of the queen by her powerful minister Thomas Walsingham. Walsingham sent Marlowe to the French city of Rheims to investigate rumors of plots being hatched there against Elizabeth. Later these duties undertaken for the queen excited rumors that Marlowe had converted to Roman Catholicism while in France. At the time of the dispute about the awarding of his degree in 1587, however, several members of the Privy Council wrote to the officials at Cambridge to assure them of Marlowe's orthodox Protestant beliefs.
Marlowe's first literary endeavor had been a translation of the love poetry of Ovid into English pentameter couplets, a work that he already had undertaken during his days at Cambridge. As he took up residence in London, this capable but sometimes stilted verse can be seen at work in the first play upon which Marlowe worked, Dido, Queen of Carthage. In the city Marlowe came into contact with the University Wits, a group of educated and urbane men who were then beginning to write for the London stage. He seems to have worked on Dido with one of the wits, Thomas Nashe, and at the time, he lived with another playwright, Thomas Kyd, author of the wildly popular play The Spanish Tragedy. Marlowe's first great success was Tamburlaine the Great, a play written late in 1587 and staged early in the next year by the Lord Admiral's Men. In Tamburlaine the author demonstrated the powers of simple unrhymed or blank verse. The commanding presence of the Tudor actor Edward Alleyn in the central role also enhanced performances of the play. Tamburlaine, however, was a morally ambiguous play by the standards of the time. Most Tudor drama up to this point had sought to defend queen, country, and conventional mores as orthodoxies that needed to be upheld at any cost. The central character in Marlowe's work, Tamburlaine, is a peasant rebel who, while doomed to failure, seizes power and founds his own religion. This attack on authority returned to haunt Marlowe at the very end of his life. But in 1588, the drama inspired a number of imitative plays; encouraged by his success Marlowe explored blank verse's potential and other innovative possibilities in his subsequent dramas. These included The Jew of Malta (c. 1589), which drew upon some elements of Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy; his bleak Edward II, which greatly opened up the possibilities of the genre of the historical play (c. 1592); and Dr. Faustus (c. 1588–1592).
During the last year of his short life, Marlowe experienced a series of adventures, and these may have ultimately contributed to his murder on 30 May 1593. In 1592 an outbreak of plague in the city closed London's theaters for a long period. Like other playwrights, including Shakespeare, Marlowe tried to support himself during the closure by writing poetry for noble patrons. Unsuccessful, he traveled to the Netherlands where he lived in the house of a counterfeiting goldsmith. Marlowe and the goldsmith found themselves denounced to the local English governor in the Netherlands, Elizabeth's agent Robert Sidney, for their part in the counterfeiting scheme, and the two accused each other of intending to defect to Roman Catholicism. During testimony given to Sidney, Marlowe admitted to being an intimate of two high-ranking English Catholics, rivals to Elizabeth I's throne. Although he escaped condemnation and returned to London, he soon fell afoul of the law and the queen's council again. First arrested for disrupting the public peace by London magistrates, he then faced even more serious charges that he was involved in a plot being hatched both by Catholics and atheists to murder the queen. On 18 May 1593, he was arrested and brought before the Privy Council on charges of espionage and blasphemy; although he posted bail, he reported each day before the queen's officials. When Queen Elizabeth heard evidence of Marlowe's atheistic pronouncements, she commanded that he be prosecuted to the maximum extent allowed by the law, in effect a death sentence. Marlowe was never able to defend himself against these charges. On his way to court, he died after being stabbed in the eye. The murder of Christopher Marlowe has long remained a mystery. The inquest held a few days later concluded that Marlowe's killer, Ingram Frizer, had acted in self-defense following a quarrel over money. But the playwright's long-term involvement in espionage has long made it plausible that Marlowe was murdered because he fell afoul of certain factions in Elizabeth I's court or because of his intimate knowledge of royal affairs. After Marlowe's death London's playwrights celebrated his poetic genius, and his influence lived on in further explorations of blank verse in later plays. At the same time the city's Puritan ministers continued to attack Marlowe's ideas and dramas as blasphemous and as a sign of the decadence and corruption that the public theater bred in urban society.
L. Hopkins, Christopher Marlowe: A Literary Life (New York: Palgrave, 2000).
C. B. Kuriyama, Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002).
C. Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (London, England: J. Cape, 1992).
M. J. Trow, Who Killed Kit Marlowe? A Contract to Murder in Elizabethan England (Stroud, England: Sutton, 2001).
Marlowe, Christopher (1564–1593)
Marlowe, Christopher (1564–1593)
English playwright and contemporary of William Shakespeare who wrote moving, tragic plays in the new medium of blank verse. Born in Canterbury, he prepared for the ministry at the University of Cambridge. Some historical documents indicate that Marlowe was engaged by the minister Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state, to serve as a spy in France. After earning a master's degree at Cambridge, he moved to London, where he joined the Lord Admiral's Company and soon ran into trouble with the law. He was arrested and jailed in 1589 for taking part in a deadly brawl. In 1593, he was arrested again under the charge of atheism.
Historians are still piecing together the obscure details of Marlowe's life and writing career. In the course of his short life, he wrote only one extended poem and six plays. His earliest work, Tamburlaine the Great, was written in two parts and printed in 1590. The play describes the career of a cruel Mongol tyrant. This play was followed by Dido, Queen of Carthage; The Massacre at Paris; Edward, II ; and The Jew of Malta, which presents a deviously ambitious central character presented quite sympathetically among a hostile milieu of Christians. All of Marlowe's works involves a powerful man who is laid low by his own outlandish personality and ambition. His best-known play is Doctor Faustus, which recounts the familiar story of a brilliant scholar who sells his soul to the devil.
Marlowe died in the town of Deptford on May 30, 1593, during a brawl in a private home. The circumstances of his murder are shrouded in mystery, and some historians believe it is connected to his shadowy double life as a spy and government agent. According to some accounts, his killer, Ingram Frizer, was working on instructions of a more powerful man or on the government's wishes for Marlowe's death. Others believe Marlowe's own fiery temperament and penchant for physical assault brought about his death at the hands of Frizer, who was judged by the authorities to have acted in self-defense.
See Also: drama; England; Shakespeare, William
Christopher Marlowe, 1564–93, English dramatist and poet, b. Canterbury. Probably the greatest English dramatist before Shakespeare, Marlowe, a shoemaker's son, was educated at Cambridge and he went to London in 1587, where he became an actor and dramatist for the Lord Admiral's Company. His most important plays are the two parts of Tamburlaine the Great (c.1587), Dr. Faustus (c.1588), The Jew of Malta (c.1589), and Edward II (c.1592). Marlowe's dramas have heroic themes, usually centering on a great personality who is destroyed by his own passion and ambition. Although filled with violence, brutality, passion, and bloodshed, Marlowe's plays are never merely sensational. The poetic beauty and dignity of his language raise them to the level of high art. Most authorities detect influences of his work in the Shakespeare canon, notably in Titus Andronicus and King Henry VI. Of his nondramatic pieces, the best-known are the long poem Hero and Leander (1598), which was finished by George Chapman, and the beautiful lyric that begins
"Come live with me and be my love."
In 1593, Marlowe was stabbed in a barroom brawl by a drinking companion. Although a coroner's jury certified that the assailant acted in self-defense, the murder may have resulted from a definite plot, due, as some scholars believe, to Marlowe's activities as a government agent.
See his Works and Life (6 vol., 1949–55); biographies by F. S. Boas (1940), C. Norman (rev. ed. 1971), C. Kuriyama (2002), and P. Honan (2006); studies by J. E. Bakeless (1942), P. H. Kocher (1946), H. Levin (1952, repr. 1964), W. Sanders (1969), J. B. Steane (1964, repr. 1970), R. Erikson (1987), C. Nicholl (1992), and D. Riggs (2004).