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Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)


Elizabethan poet, dramatist, William Shakespeare's predecessor in English drama. Christopher Marlowe was killed at the age of 29 in a tavern broil by Ingram Frizer, and buried at St. Nicholas, Deptford. His dramatic career lasted only six years. And as we all know, the English-born mystery writer Raymond Chandler lent Marlowe's name to his own hero Philip Marlowe.

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.

(from 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love', c. 1589)

Christopher Marlowe (Cristofer Marley in his autograph) was born in Canterbury, the son of a shoemaker. He attended the King's School, which had a strong tradition in theatrical productions, and was awarded a scholarship from the foundation of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury. Marlowe studied the Bible and the Reformation theologians as well as philosophy and history at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. In 1584 he graduated with a A.B. and continued as an M.A. student. 

Instead of staying in Cambridge, Marlowe left his studies to carry out a secret mission for the government. When university authorities, believing he had been converted to Catholicism, were first unwilling to grant his M.A., the Queen's Privy Council interceded on Marlowe's behalf, the dispute was settled, and he finally graduated with the degree he wanted. It did not help him either, that he had been away too much from his studies.

After moving to London, Marlowe established his fame as a dramatist. He made important friends, including Sir Walter Raleigh, who had started the first colony in Virginia, and who was contending with the Earl of Essex of Queen's favours. Most likely Marlowe began writing on leaving Cambridge. His first dramas were composed in blank verse. It is assumed that the first part of his Tamburlaine the Great was performed in London in 1587. In the play Tamburlaine burns the Koran and after conquering the world he wants to conquer the heavens.

In 1589 Marlowe was charged with the murder of William Bradley and sent to Newgate Prison, but acquitted 12 days later. Thomas Watson, who had assisted him, is eventually released under self-defense. It was not the last time when the quick tempered author was arrested and jailed. In 1592 an injunction was brought against him because of a street fight, in which a man was killed. Marlowe was also deported from Netherlands for counterfeiting gold coins.

Numerous plays have been assigned to Marlowe. Unfortunately, Marlowe neglected to publish authoritative texts, and his literary remnants consist much of incomplete works. However, his blank verse, written with great intensity, and villain-heroes - a new type on the English stage - influenced deeply the theatre of his time. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) observed of Marlowe that "the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse was therefore also the teacher and the guide of Shakespeare." Shakespeare and Marlowe both wrote plays for Lord Strange's acting company and influenced each other's work. Also Shakespeare favored the blank verse.

Marlowe's major plays were written between 1585 and 1593, among them Tamburlaine, Parts I and II, and The Jew of Malta, a tragedy and parody of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). Machiavelli - or Machiavel as Marlowe calls him - is portrayed as the embodiment of political manipulator. "If one takes The Jew of Malta not as a tragedy, or as a "tragedy of blood," but as a farce, the concluding act becomes intelligible; and if we attend with a careful ear to the versification, we find that Marlowe develops a tone to suit this farce, and even perhaps that this tone is his most powerful and mature tone." (T.S. Eliot in Selected Essays, new edition, 1960)

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus drew on the medieval legend of the bargain with the Devil. "Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters," says Faustus in the beginning of the play, "Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires." Eventually, after making his pact with the Devil and finding only empty answers to his questions, the tragic hero rejects black magic and calls upon Christ to save him. Marlowe himself was a soulmate of Faustus, accused of atheism.

Edward the Second was a historical tragedy in blank verse and Marlowe's last play. Later it has inspired Leben Eduards des Zweiten von England (1924) by Bertolt Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger, Derek Jarman's film from 1991, which presented a homosexual relationship between the king and Piers Gaveston, Edward's protegé, and David Bintley's Ballet-Edward II (1995). Marlowe's plays were produced by the Earl of Nottingham's Company. He also wrote poetry, including Hero and Leander, based on work by the sixth-century poet Musaeus, The Passionate Shepherd, and translated Ovid's Amores.

"Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, like Goethe's Faust, finds himself before the specter of Helen (the idea that Helen of Troy was a ghost or apparition is already present in the ancients) and says to her, "Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss." And then, "O thou art fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars." He does not say "evening sky," but "evening air." All of Copernican space is present in that word air, the infinite space that was one of the revelations of the Renaissance, the space in which we still believe, despite Einstein, that space that came to supplant the Ptolomaic system which presides over Dante's triple comedy." (Jorge Luis Borges in The Total Library, 1999)

Marlowe's mysterious death in Deptford in Eleanor Bull's house - nominally about who should pay the bill - may have had a political cause. Accusations of atheism, blasphemy, subversion and homosexuality, also burdened his public image. When Marlowe died, he was under a shadow of charges of atheism. His former roommate and fellow dramatist, Thomas Kyd, had declared under torture that a document denying the divinity of Christ belonged to Marlowe. And Richard Baines contributed two notorious statements to Marlowe: "St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma," and "That all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles". Marlowe's connections saved him from imprisonment. The author might have worked as a government's secret agent according to Anthony Burgess. Possibly while still at university, he became an agent of Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1530-90), a statesman and a Puritan sympathizer, in the secret service of Elisabeth I and a favorite of Walsingham's brother, Thomas.

Research suggests he was murdered by an agent of Francis Walsingham, for reasons unknown. According to Charles Nicholl (The Reckoning The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, 1994), supporters of the Earl of Essex could have been behind the death. Scholars are still attempting to reconstruct the events. In the common version it is concluded, that after eating and drinking together in a tavern in Deptford, on Wednesday, May 30, 1593, Marlowe and his friend Ingram Frizer began to wrangle over payment of the bill. Marlowe wrenched Frizer's dagger from its sheath, and struck him twice about the head with it. In the struggle Frizer got the weapon. According to the coroner's inquest, "And so it befell, in that affray, that the said Ingram, in the defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid of the value of twelve pence, gave the said Christopher a mortal wound above his right eye." The dagger went in just above the right eye-ball.

A week earlier a warrant had been issued for the author's arrest. Marlowe was buried two days later in an unmarked grave. His killer pleaded self-defense and received a pardon from the Queen. This has partly confirmed the thesis of a political intrigues. Marlowe's life have been the theme of the tragedies Death of Marlowe by Richard H. Horne (1837) and Kit Marlowe by W.L. Courtney (1890). In the Oscar winning film, Shakespeare in Love (1998), directed by John Madden, Shakespeare believes that he has caused the death of his colleague.

Marlowe's violent end was not something that exceptional among writers. In 1599 the playwright John Day apparently killed the playwright Henry Porter, and the famous dramatist Ben Jonson killed the well-known actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. As a both spy and a writer, Marlowe was a representative of a long tradition, continued through Ben Jonson and Daniel Defoe to such modern day writers Graham Greene, John Le Carré, John Dickson Carr, Somerset Maugham, Alec Waugh and Ted Allbeury.

For further reading: Christopher Marlowe by Havelock Ellis (1948); Essays on Marlowe by T.S. Eliot in Selected Essays (1951); Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare by F.P. Wilson (1953); Essays on Marlowe, ed. by C. Leech (1965); The Dramatist and the Received Idea by W. Sanders (1968); Marlowe, Tamburlaine and Magic by J. Howe (1976); Christopher Marlowe: Poet for the Stage by Clifford Leech (1986); Christopher Marlowe by William Tydeman and Vivien Thomas (1989); Christopher Marlowe by Roger Sales (1991); The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl (1994); Christopher Marlowe and the Renaissance Tragedy Douglas Cole (1995); Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, ed. by Emily Carroll Bartels (1996); The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake by A.D. Nuttall (1998); Christopher Marlowe, ed. by Richard Wilson (1999); Marlowe: The Plays by Stevie Simkin (2001)

Selected works:

  • Tamburlaine the Great, I-II, 1590 (printed)
  • The Tragedie of Dido, Queen of Carthage, 1594
  • The Troublesome Raigne and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England: With the Tragicall Fall of Proud Mortimer, 1594 (prod. c. 1592)
    - Edward II (suom. Jarmo Haapanen, Lasse Kekki, 2003)
  • The Massacre at Paris, 1594? (acted 1593)
  • Hero and Leander, 1598 (completed by George Chapman)
  • Lucan's First Booke, Translated Line for Line by C. Marlow, 1600
  • Doctor Fautus, 1604 (see also: J.W. Goethe)
  • The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, 1633 (printed)
  • The Works of Christopher Marlowe: With Notes and Some Accounts of His Life and Writings, 1850 (3 vols., ed. by Alexander Dyce)
  • The Works of Christopher Marlowe, 1885 (3 vols., ed. by A.H. Bullen)
  • The Dramatic Works of Christopher Marlowe, 1889 (selected, with a prefatory notice, biographical and critical by Percy E. Pinkerton)
  • The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus: A Play, 1904 (4th ed., ed. with a preface, notes and glossary by Israel Gollancz)
  • The Works Christopher Marlowe, 1910 (edited by C.F. Tucker Brooke)
  • Poems, 1931 (ed. by L.C. Martin)
  • Christopher Marlowe, 1948 (ed. by Havelock Ellis, with an introd. by J. A. Symonds)
  • Plays, 1962 (edited by Leo Kirschbaum)
  • The Complete Plays, 1969 (edited with an introduction by J. B. Steane)
  • The Complete Poems and Translations, 1971 (edited by Stephen Orgel)
  • The Plays of Christopher Marlowe, 1971 (edited with an introd. by Roma Gill)
  • The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, 1973 (2 vols., edited by Fredson Bowers)
  • Dr Faustus: The A-Text, 1985 (edited by David Ormerod and Christopher Wortham)
  • Tamburlaine, Parts I and II; Doctor Faustus, A- and B-Texts; The Jew of Malta; Edward II, 1995 (edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen)
  • The Complete Plays, 2003 (edited by Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey)
  • Christopher Marlowes Doctor Faustus: With Introduction, Essays, and Notes, 2004 (edited by Irving Ribner, revised with a new introduction by James H. Lake)
  • The Collected poems of Christopher Marlowe, 2006 (edited by Patrick Cheney, Brian J. Striar)
  • Four Plays, 2011 (introduction by Brian Gibbons, edited by Brian Gibbons)

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