Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (baptised 26 February 1564 – 30 May 1593) was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. The foremost Elizabethan tragedian next to William Shakespeare, he is known for his magnificent blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his own mysterious and untimely death.
Christopher Marlowe was christened at St George's Church, Canterbury, on 26 February 1564. He was born to a shoemaker in Canterbury named John Marlowe and his wife Katherine. Marlowe attended The King's School, Canterbury (where a house is now named after him) and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on a scholarship and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1584. In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his master's degree because of a rumour that he had converted to Roman Catholicism and intended to go to the English college at Rheims to prepare for the priesthood. However, his degree was awarded on schedule when the Privy Council intervened on his behalf, commending him for his "faithful dealing" and "good service" to the queen. The nature of Marlowe's service was not specified by the Council, but their letter to the Cambridge authorities has provoked much speculation, notably the theory that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham's intelligence service. No direct evidence supports this theory, although Marlowe obviously did serve the government in some capacity.
Dido, Queen of Carthage was Marlowe's first drama.
Marlowe's first play performed onstage in London stage was Tamburlaine (1587) about the conqueror Timur, who rises from shepherd to warrior. It is among the first English plays in blank verse, and, with Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, generally is considered the beginning of the mature phase of the Elizabethan theatre. Tamburlaine was a success, and was followed with Tamburlaine Part II. The sequence of his plays is unknown; all deal with controversial themes.
The Jew of Malta, about a Maltese Jew's barbarous revenge against the city authorities, has a prologue delivered by a character representing Machiavelli. The play is known for its unsympathetic portrayal of nearly all its characters.
The Massacre at Paris is short (believed a memorial construction by actors) portraying the events of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, which English Protestants invoked as the blackest example of Catholic treachery. It features the silent "English Agent" (rumoured to be Marlowe and his connection to the secret service). Along with The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, The Massacre at Paris is believed his most dangerous play, as it is about regnant monarchs and politicians (then a treasonable action), and, indeed, addressing Elizabeth I in its last scene.
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, based on the German Faustbuch, was the first dramatised version of the Faust legend of a scholar's dealing with the devil. While versions of "The Devil's Pact" can be traced back to the 4th century, Marlowe deviates significantly by having his hero unable to "burn his books" or have his contract repudiated by a merciful god at the end of the play. Marlowe's protagonist is instead torn apart by demons and dragged off screaming to hell. Dr Faustus is a textual problem for scholars as it was highly edited (and possibly censored) and rewritten after Marlowe's death. Two versions of the play exist: the 1604 quarto, also known as the A text, and the 1616 quarto or B text. Many scholars believe that the A text is more representative of Marlowe's original because it contains irregular character names and idiosyncratic spelling: the hallmarks of a text that used the author's handwritten manuscript, or "foul papers," as a major source.
Marlowe's plays were enormously successful, thanks in part, no doubt, to the imposing stage presence of Edward Alleyn. He was unusually tall for the time, and the haughty roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas were probably written especially for him. Marlowe's plays were the foundation of the repertoire of Alleyn's company, the Admiral's Men, throughout the 1590s.
Marlowe also wrote poetry, including a, possibly, unfinished minor epic, Hero and Leander (published with a continuation by George Chapman in 1598), the popular lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, and translations of Ovid's Amores and the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia.
The two parts of Tamburlaine were published in 1590; all Marlowe's other works were published posthumously. In 1599, his translation of Ovid was banned and copies publicly burned as part of Archbishop Whitgift's crackdown on offensive material.
As with other writers of the period, little is known about Marlowe. Most of the evidence is legal records and other official documents that tell us little about him. This has not stopped writers of both fiction and non-fiction from speculating about his activities and character. Marlowe has often been described as a spy, a brawler, a heretic, and a homosexual, as well as a "magician", "duelist", "tobacco-user", "counterfeiter", and "rakehell". The evidence for most of these claims is slight. The bare facts of Marlowe's life have been embellished by many writers into colourful, and often fanciful, narratives of the Elizabethan underworld. However, J.B. Steanes, remarked "it seems absurd to dismiss all of these Elizabethan rumours and accusations as 'the Marlowe myth'"
As noted above, in 1587 the Privy Council ordered Cambridge University to award Marlowe his MA, denying rumours that he intended to go to the English Catholic college in Rheims, saying instead that he had been engaged in unspecified "affaires" on "matters touching the benefit of his country". This from a document dated 29 June 1587, from the Public Records Office - Acts of Privy Council.
It has sometimes been theorized that Marlowe was the "Morley" who was tutor to Arbella Stuart in 1589, described by Arbella's guardian, the Countess of Shrewsbury, as having hoped for an annuity of some £40 from Arbella, his being "so much damnified (i.e. having lost this much) by leaving the University". This possibility was first raised in a TLS letter by E. St John Brooks in 1937; in a letter to Notes and Queries, John Baker has added that only Marlowe could be Arbella's tutor due to the absence of any other known "Morley" from the period with an MA and not otherwise occupied. Some biographers think that the "Morley" in question may have been a brother of the musician Thomas Morley. If Marlowe was Arbella's tutor, it might indicate that he was a spy, since Arbella, niece of Mary Queen of Scots and cousin of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, was at the time a strong candidate for the succession of Elizabeth's throne.
In 1592, Marlowe was arrested in the Dutch town of Flushing for attempting to counterfeit coins. He was sent to be dealt with by the Lord Treasurer (Burghley) but no charge or imprisonment seems to have resulted.
Various versions of Marlowe's death were current at the time. Francis Meres says Marlowe was "stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love" as punishment for his "epicurism and atheism". In 1917, in the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Sidney Lee wrote that Marlowe was killed in a drunken fight, and this is still often stated as fact today.
The facts only came to light in 1925 when the scholar Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner's report on Marlowe's death in the Public Record Office. Marlowe had spent all day in a house (not a tavern, as is widely claimed, even in some biographies) in Deptford, owned by the widow Eleanor Bull, along with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. All three had been employed by the Walsinghams. Skeres and Poley had helped snare the conspirators in the Babington plot. Frizer was a servant of Thomas Walsingham. Witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had earlier argued over the bill, exchanging "divers malicious words." Later, while Frizer was sitting at a table between the other two and Marlowe was lying behind him on a couch, Marlowe snatched Frizer's dagger and began attacking him. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner's report, Marlowe was accidentally stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly. The jury concluded that Frizer acted in self-defence, and within a month he was pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Deptford, on 1 June 1593.
Marlowe's death is alleged by some to be an assassination for the following reasons:
For these reasons and others, some believe there was more to Marlowe's death than emerged at the inquest. It is also possible that he was not murdered at all, and that his death was faked. There are different theories of some degree of probability. Since there are only written documents on which to base any conclusions, and since it is probable that the most crucial information about his death was never committed to writing at all, it is unlikely that the full circumstances of Marlowe's death will ever be known.
These thinges, with many other shall by good & honest witnes be aproved to be his opinions and Comon Speeches, and that this Marlow doth not only hould them himself, but almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both god and his ministers as I Richard Baines will Justify & approue both by mine oth and the testimony of many honest men, and almost al men with whome he hath Conversed any time will testify the same, and as I think all men in Cristianity ought to indevor that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped, he saith likewise that he hath quoted a number of Contrarieties oute of the Scripture which he hath giuen to some great men who in Convenient time shalbe named. When these thinges shalbe Called in question the witnes shalbe produced.
Similar statements were made by Thomas Kyd after his imprisonment and possible torture (see above); both Kyd and Baines connect Marlowe with the mathematician Thomas Harriot and Walter Raleigh's circle. Another document claims that Marlowe had read an "atheist lecture" before Raleigh; a man called Richard Chomley was charged with atheism and treason shortly after Marlowe's death, and noted in his testimony that "one Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons from atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity and that Marlowe told him that he hath read the atheist lecture to Sir Walter Raleigh and others".
Some critics believe that Marlowe sought to disseminate these views in his work and that he identified with his rebellious and iconoclastic protagonists. However, plays had to be approved by the Master of the Revels before they could be performed, and the censorship of publications was under the control of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Presumably these authorities did not consider any of Marlowe's works to be unacceptable (apart from the Amores).
The public burning in 1589 of Francis Kett, a tutor at Corpus Christi College, was used by many informants to associate the playwright with the writing of seditious literature. Kett was charged with heresy based on his avowal of Unitarianism, a denial of the Holy Trinity, and this matches the content of the heretical material blamed on Marlowe by fellow playwright Thomas Kyd (see above), but Kett's "fervent" religious beliefs seem at odds with Marlowe's supposed atheism. Kett had resigned his post only a few months after Marlowe joined the college.
Heresy and atheism were also used to describe those dealing in necromancy and alchemy. A common misconception about Marlowe, based solely upon Doctor Faustus, is that he himself was a proponent of the 'dark arts.' It is certainly true, when one considers the aforementioned play, that Marlowe had studied incantation rituals, but whether he practised them is another matter entirely.
Some scholars argue that the evidence is inconclusive and that the reports of Marlowe's homosexuality may simply be exaggerated rumours produced after his death. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen describe Baines's evidence as "unreliable testimony" and make the comment: "These and other testimonials need to be discounted for their exaggeration and for their having been produced under legal circumstances we would regard as a witch-hunt". It has also been noted that Kyd's evidence was given after torture, and thus may have little connection to reality. One critic, J.B. Steanes, remarked that he considers there to be "no evidence for Marlowe's homosexuality at all."
Some scholars have argued that Marlowe's writing contains some homosexual themes:
For debates of a somewhat similar nature, compare Sexuality of William Shakespeare.
Among the few contemporary dramatists to say anything negative about Marlowe was the anonymous author of the Cambridge University play The Return From Parnassus (1598) who wrote, "Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell,/Wit lent from heaven, but vices sent from hell."
The most famous tribute to Marlowe was paid by Shakespeare in As You Like It, where he not only quotes a line from Hero and Leander (Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might, "Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?") but also gives to the clown Touchstone the words "When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room." This appears to be a reference to Marlowe's murder (which involved a fight over the "reckoning" – the bill).
Shakespeare was indeed very influenced by Marlowe in his early work as can be seen in the re-using of Marlowe themes in Anthony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, and Macbeth (Dido, Jew of Malta, Edward II and Dr Faustus respectively). Indeed in Hamlet, after meeting with the travelling actors, Hamlet starts discussing Dido, Queen of Carthage and quoting from it. As this was Marlowe's only play not to have been played in the public theatre we can see that Shakespeare was quite the Marlovian scholar. Indeed in Love's Labour's Lost, echoing Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris, Shakespeare brings on a character called Marcade (French for Mercury – the messenger of the Gods – a nickname Marlowe bestowed upon himself) who arrives to "interrupt'st" the "merriment" with news of the King's death. This is a fitting tribute for one who delighted in destruction in his plays.
Given the murky inconsistencies concerning the account of Marlowe's death, an ongoing conspiracy theory has arisen centred on the notion that Marlowe may have faked his death and then continued to write under the assumed name of William Shakespeare. Authors who have propounded this theory include:
The play Lust's Dominion was attributed to Marlowe upon its initial publication in 1657, though scholars and critics have almost unanimously rejected the attribution.