Authors: Christopher Marlowe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English playwright and poet

February 6, 1564

Canterbury, England

May 30, 1593

Deptford, England

Biography

The English playwright Christopher Marlowe was born at Canterbury on February 6, 1564, and was murdered at Deptford, outside London, on May 30, 1593. Marlowe was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, and at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (he received his BA in 1584 and his MA in 1587), where he attended on a scholarship usually awarded to students studying for the ministry. Instead of taking orders, however, he turned to writing plays and, apparently, to political intrigue: He received his master’s degree only after the Privy Council intervened on his behalf for good service he had done the queen. The nature of Marlowe’s involvement in state affairs remains the matter of much speculation. His first plays and poems, including the first part of Tamberlaine and perhaps Dido, Queen of Carthage, belong to his Cambridge days, but the lure of the public theaters soon took him to London, where he spent the rest of his brief and violent life.

In 1589 he and a fellow dramatist, Thomas Watson, were involved in a fatal assault on one William Bradley in Norton Folgate, but their plea of self-defense was accepted. It seems that Marlowe was known by this time as an exponent of unorthodox religious and political opinions. He was arrested on a charge of atheism in May 1593 but was fatally wounded in a brawl at Deptford before he could be brought to trial. His assailants, Ingram Frizer, Robert Poley, and Nicholas Skeres, are known to have been connected with various shady political intrigues, and it is possible (some say probable) that the murder of Marlowe was intended to safeguard the interests of the Walsingham family.

Marlowe’s literary beginnings were as a translator of Lucan and Ovid, but when he turned to Virgil’s Aeneid, he did so as a dramatist, the issue being Dido, Queen of Carthage. In Tamburlaine the Great, Part I Marlowe introduced blank verse into the English theater, perhaps his greatest legacy. This play is an astounding product of the uninhibited Renaissance imagination and, as such, it took London by storm, even though it was evidently performed under primitive conditions. The sequel, written and presented circa 1587, is a more professional affair and shows some measure of dramatic advance. The Jew of Malta, influenced in all probability by Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. ca. 1585–89), is a characteristic revenge play replete with horrors and sensationalism. The Massacre at Paris has survived only in a deplorably corrupt text, but even this reveals something of the vigor and powerful dramatic conflict of the original. Many critics have unwisely condemned this play out of hand, but it was probably a masterpiece in its kind. Edward II, the first genuine English historical tragedy and an important precursor of the great history plays of William Shakespeare, shows a remarkable maturing of Marlowe’s tragic genius.

Scholars are divided as to the date of composition of Marlowe’s masterpiece, Doctor Faustus. Traditionally it has been thought to have first been produced in 1592 or 1593. By the 1990s, however, many (perhaps most) scholars believed it to have been first performed in 1588 or 1589. This play was mostly composed by Marlowe, but the scenes of low comedy are almost certainly the work of a collaborator. The true text of the play has not been established with certainty.

Marlowe’s earlier plays are deficient in a real tragic sense, and they show little skill in characterization and dramatic contrivance. Interest in them centers on a single character who is a mouthpiece for rhetorical declamation and a perpetrator of monstrous violence. The extent to which these characters are projections of Marlowe’s own personality or ideals is a moot point, but it seems likely that he was fascinated by the spectacle of a man in pursuit of the infinite and by crude exemplars of Machiavellian doctrine. The final tragedies, however, prove that Marlowe outgrew the impulse to traffic in horrors and moved to a more tragic view.

Character types such as Tamburlaine, Barabas, and Guise may well have been determined by the particular talents and preferences of Edward Alleyne, the leading actor of the Lord Admiral’s Company, and it is surely significant that Edward II, written for Pembroke’s men, abandons the superman in favor of an even distribution of parts, a feature it shares with the earlier Dido, Queen of Carthage, written for a boys’ company.

Whatever clues to Marlowe’s personality the plays seem to offer may be illusory, and they often run counter to the received biographical evidence—which, in its turn, is ambiguous. Marlowe’s death may well have been a political assassination; certainly his assailants and accusers were desperate and perjured men. On the other hand, Thomas Nashe, Michael Drayton, and especially publisher Edward Blount wrote of him with affection, and Shakespeare’s allusion to him as “dead shepherd” strongly suggests that he was a person of gentle temperament. Most of the gibes at religion, the crown, and so forth collected by Richard Baines are probably authentic and are corroborated by Kyd’s letters to Sir John Puckering, but it is hard to know how much reliance should be placed on seemingly outrageous statements which have been wrenched from their contexts. Marlowe’s “atheism,” actually a form of Unitarianism, may have been a passing phase, a riband in the cap of youth, and Doctor Faustus suggests that Marlowe had moved to a more orthodox position. Marlowe was apparently an earnest seeker after truth who was not prepared to submit complacently to acceptance of the existing order.

Marlowe’s mind reached beyond the Ptolemaic and Neoplatonic orthodoxy of his time, and the basic Elizabethan notion of order and degree was something which he and all his tragic heroes set out to challenge. The tragic irony in Marlowe’s work lies in the opposition between a man’s illusion that his progress is an infinite, vertical ascent and the reality that he moves on Fortune’s wheel. His heroes rise from base beginnings to sovereign power and to a hubris from which they are flung headlong to destruction. Although such an outlook on human affairs can obviously degenerate into cynicism, it can also attest a deep-seated moral order. The splendors of Tamburlaine were succeeded by the murky nihilism of The Jew of Malta and the sardonic complexities of The Massacre at Paris, but in the final plays there emerges a tragic potential which is exceeded only by Shakespeare. Marlowe also exhibited compelling excellence in his nondramatic writing; one lyric, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” and the narrative fragment Hero and Leander survive as evidence of this.

Author Works Drama: Dido, Queen of Carthage, pr. ca. 1586–87 (with Thomas Nashe) Tamburlaine the Great, Part I, pr. ca. 1587 (commonly known as Tamburlaine) Tamburlaine the Great, Part II, pr. 1587 Doctor Faustus, pr. ca. 1588 The Jew of Malta, pr. ca. 1589 Edward II, pr. ca. 1592 The Massacre at Paris, pr. 1593 Complete Plays, pb. 1963 Poetry: Hero and Leander, 1598 (completed by George Chapman) “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” 1599 (in The Passionate Pilgrim) Translations: Elegies, 1595–1600 (of Ovid’s Amores) Pharsalia, 1600 (of Lucan’s Bellum civile) Miscellaneous: The Works of Christopher Marlowe, 1910, 1962 (C. F. Tucker Brooke, editor) The Works and Life of Christopher Marlowe, 1930–33, 1966 (R. H. Case, editor) The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, 1973 (Fredson Bowers, editor) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Christopher Marlowe: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This volume consists of thirteen selections, mainly excerpts of previously published books that are landmarks in Marlowe criticism. The bibliography at the end of the volume includes most of the major critical studies of Marlowe. Downie, J. A., and J. T. Parnell. Constructing Christopher Marlowe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. This scholarly study contains essays on Marlowe’s life and works. Includes bibliography and index. Grantley, Darryll, and Peter Roberts, eds. Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture. Aldershot, Hants, England: Scholar Press, 1996. This collection of essays covers topics such as Marlowe and atheism and the staging of his plays and provides in-depth analysis of most of his plays. Bibliography and index. Hopkins, Lisa. Christopher Marlowe: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A study of Marlowe’s career and what is known of his life. Hopkins focuses on Marlowe’s skepticism toward colonialism, family, and religion. Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992. Riggs, David. The World of Christopher Marlowe. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. This rich study of the poet/playwright, including both biography and analysis of Marlowe’s works, is an excellent source of information about Marlowe’s historical and social context. Simkin, Stevie. A Preface to Marlowe. New York: Longman, 2000. Provides comprehensive and full analysis of all Marlowe’s dramatic and non-dramatic works, brings the texts to life, and emphasizes the performance aspects of the texts. A controversial and challenging reading which reopens debates about Marlowe’s status as a radical figure and as a subversive playwright. Tauton, Nina. Fifteen-nineties Drama and Militarism: Portrayals of War in Marlowe, Chapman, and Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2001. Tauton looks at war in the works of Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and George Chapman, writing in the late sixteenth century. Bibliography and index. Tromly, Fred B. Playing with Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Tromly discusses the dramatic works of Marlowe from the playwright’s use of tantalization. Bibliographical references and index. Trow, M. J., and Taliesin Trow. Who Killed Kit Marlowe? A Contract to Murder in Elizabethan England. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2001. This discussion focuses on Marlowe’s mystery-shrouded death, providing both the evidence that is available and the many theories that exist. Bibliography and index.

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