Christopher (“Kit”) Marlowe (baptized February 26, 1564 – May 30, 1593) was an English dramatist, poet, and translator of the Elizabethan era. Marlowe is considered to be the only playwright of the Elizabethan period whose talents were equal to those of William Shakespeare. Were it not for his untimely death at an early age, some speculate that it might be Marlowe—and not Shakespeare—who would have garnered the reputation as the single greatest writer in the English language. Marlowe is known to have pioneered all of the traditions of the Elizabethan stage. Marlowe was the first writer to introduce blank verse (that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter) to the modern English language, and it was by borrowing and imitating the traditions Marlowe introduced that Shakespeare, Milton, and all the other great epic dramatists of England would find their own poetic voices.
As an educated man of ideas closely connected to the court (some have speculated that Marlowe may have been a secret agent of the queen), Marlowe was the most cerebral poet and playwright of his day. His plays can at times seem to be incredibly spare, without any of the exhaustive decorousness we expect from an Elizabethan. In this sense he reads, as Shakespeare, like a strikingly modern writer. Marlowe is not so much interested in the conventions of classical theater as he is in the minds of his characters and the ideas that they confront. In Dr. Faustus, Marlowe’s greatest play, he directly addresses the issue of the rise of science and rational inquiry in an age of superstition; and we see Marlowe, mirrored in the play’s main character: a restless, probing thinker with the acuity of a philosopher and the artistry of one of the greatest poets of his or any era.
Born in Canterbury the son of a shoemaker, he attended The King’s School, Canterbury and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on a scholarship, receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1584. In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his master’s degree because of a rumor that he had converted to Catholicism and gone 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 sensational 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 queen in some capacity.
The brief Dido, Queen of Carthage seems to be Marlowe’s first extant dramatic work, possibly written at Cambridge with Thomas Nashe.
Marlowe’s first known play to be performed on the London stage was 1587’s Tamburlaine, a story of the conqueror Timur. The first English play to make effective dramatic use of blank verse, it marks the beginning of the mature phase of Elizabethan Theatre. It was a smashing success, and Tamburlaine Part II soon followed. The sequence of his remaining plays is unknown. All were written on controversial themes. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, based on the recently published German Faustbuch, was the first dramatic version of the Faust legend of a scholar’s deal with the devil. The Jew of Malta, depicting a Maltese Jew’s barbarous revenge against the city authorities, featured a prologue delivered by Machiavelli himself. Edward the Second was an English history play about the dethronement of Edward II by his dissatisfied barons and his French queen. (The possibility that Elizabeth I might be dethroned by pro-Catholic forces was very real at the time). The Massacre at Paris was a short, sketchy play portraying the events surrounding the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, an event that English Protestants frequently invoked as the blackest example of Catholic treachery.
His other works include the first book of the 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 his 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.
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.
The Marlowe Legend
As with other writers of the period, such as Shakespeare, little is known about Marlowe. Most of the evidence is contained in legal records and other official documents that tell us little about him. This hasn’t stopped writers of both fiction and non-fiction speculating about his activities and character. Marlowe has often been regarded as a spy, a brawler, a heretic, and a homosexual. The evidence for some of these claims is slight. The bare facts of Marlowe’s life have been embellished by many writers into colorful, and often fanciful, narratives of the Elizabethan underworld. Unfortunately, these speculations and flights of fancy are the closest thing we have to a biography of the poet.
Marlowe the Spy
The only evidence that Marlowe worked for the government is the letter of the Privy Council mentioned above. The nature of this work is unknown. In an obscure incident in the Netherlands in 1592, Marlowe was apprehended at Flushing, then an English possession, after being accused of involvement in counterfeiting money. Marlowe confessed, but was not punished on his return to England. This has suggested to some that he was working for the secret service again, but it could be that the authorities accepted the story he told the governor of Flushing—that he had only wanted “to see the goldsmith’s cunning.”
Marlowe the Brawler
Although the fight that resulted in his death in 1593 is the only occasion where there is evidence of Marlowe assaulting a person, he had a history of trouble with the law.
Marlowe was arrested in Norton Folgate near Shoreditch in September 1589 following a brawl in which Thomas Watson killed a man named William Bradley. A jury found that Marlowe had no involvement in Bradley’s death and Watson was found to have acted in self-defense. In Shoreditch in May 1592, he was required to provide a guarantee that he keep the peace, the reason is unknown. In September 1592 in Canterbury, he was charged with damaging property. He subsequently counter-sued the plaintiff, alleging assault. Both cases appear to have been dropped.
Marlowe the Atheist
Marlowe had a reputation for atheism. The only contemporary evidence for this is from Marlowe’s accuser in Flushing, an informer called Richard Baines. The governor of Flushing had reported that both men had accused one another of instigating the counterfeiting and of intention to go over to the Catholic side, “both as they say of malice one to another.” Following Marlowe’s arrest on a charge of atheism in 1593, Baines submitted to the authorities a “note containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God’s word.” Baines attributes outrageously blasphemous ideas to Marlowe, such as “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest unchaste,” “the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly,” and “St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom” (cf. John 13:23-25), and “that he used him as the sinners of Sodom.” He also claims that Marlowe had Catholic sympathies. Other passages are merely skeptical in tone: “he persuades men to atheism, willing them not to be afraid of bugbears and hobgoblins.” Similar statements were made by Thomas Kyd after his imprisonment and possible torture; both Kyd and Baines connect Marlowe with the mathematician Thomas Harriot and Walter Raleigh’s circle of skeptics. Another document claims that Marlowe had read an “atheist lecture” before Raleigh. Baines ends his “note” with the ominous statement: “I think all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped.”
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).
Marlowe the Homosexual
Marlowe is often described today as homosexual, although the evidence for this is inconclusive. Much like other aspects of Marlowe’s biography, speculation on his sex-life abounds while evidence is nowhere to be found. A number of Marlowe’s enemies, most notably the aforementioned Richard Baines, made numerous lewd suggestions about Marlowe. Likewise, after his death, many hardliner Anglicans wrote fiery sermons citing Marlowe as a sinner who got his just deserts.
Marlowe as Shakespeare
Given the murky inconsistencies concerning the account of Marlowe’s death, an ongoing conspiracy theory has arisen centered 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:
- Wilbur Gleason Zeigler, It Was Marlowe (1895)
- Calvin Hoffman, The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare (1955)
- Louis Ule, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1607): A Biography
- A.D. Wraight, The Story that the Sonnets Tell (1994)
Although it is necessary to mention Marlowe’s connection with this conspiracy theory due to its ongoing popularity and marginal influence on interpretations of both Marlowe and Shakespeare, no strong evidence that Marlowe and Shakespeare were the same person has ever emerged, while the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.
In early May 1593 several bills were posted about London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands who had settled in the city. One of these, the “Dutch church libel” , written in blank verse, contained allusions to several of Marlowe’s plays and was signed “Tamburlaine.” On May 11, the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels. The next day, Marlowe’s colleague Thomas Kyd was arrested. Kyd’s lodgings were searched and a fragment of a heretical tract was found. Kyd asserted, possibly under torture, that it had belonged to Marlowe. Two years earlier they had both been working for an aristocratic patron, probably Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, and Kyd speculated that while they were sharing a workroom the document had found its way among his papers. Marlowe’s arrest was ordered on May 18. Marlowe was not in London, but was staying with Thomas Walsingham, the cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham. However, he duly appeared before the Privy Council on May 20 and was instructed to “give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary.” On May 30, Marlowe was murdered.
Various versions of events 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, an account which is often repeated even 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, together with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, had spent all day in a house (not a tavern) in Deptford, owned by the widow Eleanor Bull. 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 coroner concluded that Frizer acted in self-defense, and he was promptly pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Deptford, on June 1, 1593.
Marlowe’s death is still considered to be suspicious by some for the following reasons:
- The three men who were in the room with him when he died all had links to the intelligence service as well as to the London underworld. Frizer and Skeres also had a long record as loan sharks and con men, as shown by court records.
- Their story that they were on a day’s pleasure outing to Deptford is implausible. In fact, they spent the whole day closeted together, deep in discussion. Also, Robert Poley was carrying confidential dispatches to the queen, who was nearby at Greenwich. Instead of delivering them, he spent the day with Marlowe and the other two.
- It seems too much of a coincidence that Marlowe’s death occurred only a few days after his arrest for heresy.
- The unusual way in which his arrest for heresy was handled by the Privy Council. He was released in spite of prima facie evidence, and even though the charges implicitly connected Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Northumberland with the heresy. This strongly suggests that the Privy Council considered the heresy charge to be a set-up, and/or that it was connected with a power struggle within the Privy Council itself.
For these reasons and others, it seems likely that there was more to Marlowe’s death than emerged at the inquest. However, on the basis of our current knowledge, it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions about what happened or why. There are many different theories, of varying degrees of probability, but no solid evidence.
Since we have only written documents on which to base our conclusions, and since it is probable that the most crucial information about Marlowe’s death was never committed to writing at all, the full circumstances of Marlowe’s death will likely never be fully known.
Marlowe’s Contemporary Reputation
Whatever the particular focus of modern critics, biographers, and novelists, Marlowe was above all an admired and influential artist for his contemporaries in the literary world. Within weeks of his death, George Peele referred to him as “Marley, the Muses’ darling”; Michael Drayton noted that he “Had in him those brave translunary things/That the first poets had,” and Ben Jonson wrote of “Marlowe’s mighty line.” Thomas Nashe wrote warmly of his friend, “poor deceased Kit Marlowe.” So too did the publisher Edward Blount, in the dedication of Hero and Leander to Sir Thomas Walsingham.
The most famous tribute to Marlowe was paid by Shakespeare in his only reference to a contemporary writer, 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.” It would appear from the reference that Shakespeare had read the official inquest document.
Recent Marlowe controversies
In November 2005 a production of Tamburlaine at the Barbican Arts Centre in London was accused of deferring to Muslim sensibilities by amending a section of the play in which the title character burns the Qur’an and excoriates the prophet Muhammad; the sequence was changed so that Tamburlaine instead defiles books representing all religious texts. The director (in the view of many, mendaciously) denied censoring the play, stating that the change was a “purely artistic [decision] to focus the play away from anti-Turkish pantomime to an existential epic.” This, however, shifts a considerable degree of focus from a number of anti-theist (and specifically anti-Muslim) points within the play and changes, significantly, the tone and tenor of the work.
The Elizabethan stage begins with Marlowe. All of the conventions (in poetic technique and rhetorical tone) of Elizabethan theater were set down conclusively by his first two major plays Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus. Prior to Marlowe, most dramatic verse had been rhymed in couplets, following the example of Chaucer, who himself had followed the trends of other European poets of his time. In other European languages (Italian or French, for example) rhyme is more common in everyday speech, making a rhymed dramatic narrative sound more natural, but in English the result is strained. (Other Elizabethan plays staged in rhyme, even Shakespeare’s early comedy, Love’s Labour Lost, can strike the viewer as odd, and at times irritating.) Marlowe was the first to see this and to borrow from an earlier English tradition of unrhymed blank verse (blank verse exists in English as far back as the pre-historical period of Old English). He reinvigorated English theater to such a degree that, for centuries afterwards, when Europeans thought of English literature, their first thought was directed toward English drama.
Tamburlaine (written in two parts) was based loosely on the historical conqueror Timur the Lame and was immensely popular in Marlowe’s time, turning him into an instant celebrity.
The play is about a great and almost superhuman leader who conquers most of the kingdoms of the Orient. Profound religious questions are raised when Tamburlaine arrogates for himself a role as the “scourge of God” (an epithet originally applied to Attila the Hun). Some readers have taken this stance to be indicative of Marlowe’s atheism and rejection of the Christian message. Others have been more concerned with an apparently anti-Muslim thread of the play, which is highlighted in a scene in which the main character burns the Qur’an. There is little doubt that the play challenges some tenets of conventional religious belief.
In relation to this, it has been argued that the play carries a Cabalistic subtext in which the protagonist embodies the fifth Sephira on the Tree of Life, Gevurah (the merciless ‘left hand’ of God). If so, it would indicate a fascination with esoteric philosophy that later found more overt expression in the play Doctor Faustus. The Hermeticists Henry Cornelius Agrippa and Giordano Bruno are perceived as having had a considerable influence on Marlowe in this respect.
Doctor Faustus is a story based on an earlier German legend about an incredibly gifted scholar, Doctor Faustus, whose thirst for knowledge is endless. After learning everything there is to know from books (Faustus becomes a master scientist, orator, tactician, politician, and theologian, and is still unsatisfied) he makes a pact with the devil to be granted infinite knowledge, at the cost of his soul. The allegorical commentary on the rise of rationalism in the sixteenth century is clear: Faustus represents the rational mind, and while reason grants him more knowledge than he could ever have dreamed of, it also strips him of his humanity.
Like Tamburlaine, Faustus was incredibly popular in Marlowe’s time. Like Tamburlaine, it was also incredibly controversial. Although it is commonplace in contemporary culture to criticize religion, especially religious superstition in the name of rationality, no one prior to Marlowe had the sheer audacity to address the problematic aspects of the relationship between human rationality and religion. And, despite the routine nature of such criticism, no one before Marlowe or since has addressed the issue with his level of insight and succinctness. His example would inspire not only other English writers adopting the Faust legend (such as, two hundred years later, Mary Shelley in her Frankenstein) but even German authors, in whose cultural tradition the Faustus legend originated. Generations of German poets, among them Goethe and the twentieth century German novelist Thomas Mann would all owe a conscious debt to Marlowe’s pithy and probing tale.