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A BRIEF LIFE OF
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE

By Kevin L Nenstiel

Uncovering the truth in the life of playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe is no small feat.  Besides the poor record keeping of his era and the low esteem in which playwrights were held, the murkiness of his life is further compounded by slanders and disinformation advertised in the wake of his passing by Puritan detractors, rivals, and ideological opponents.  However, because his name is usually considered second only to that of William Shakespeare in English drama, it is only natural to want to examine the circumstances that contributed to the formation of his classic literature.

Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury on 6 February 1564, only a few months before William Shakespeare.  He came from a similar tradesman’s background – where Shakespeare’s father was a wheelwright, Marlowe’s father was a tanner.  There were also similar histories of the writers’ mothers marrying below theirstation.  Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was a gentleman’s daughter; likewise, Katherine Arthur, probably a clergyman’s daughter, married John Marlowe despite his being of the working class (Bakeless 13).

As with Shakespeare, there are several variant spellings of Marlowe’s name on record.  Prominent variants include Marloe, Marlin, Marley, Morley, and even Merlin.  Attempting to reconstruct the life of Christopher Marlowe is very difficult because of these variants, and there are many places where historians resort to guesswork to reconcile these names together.  Moreover, the Marlowe name and its variants were fairly common in England at the time; attempting to pin down a single identity is hard work.

Marlowe’s early life isn’t well documented, but he enrolled at King’s School, Canterbury, at the New Year, 1579 (“Literary Page”).  This was unusually late in life – Marlowe would have been nearly fifteen years old, only months away from the upper limits for enrollment.  The reason for this delay isn’t recorded.  However, it was while at King’s School that Marlowe probably first became interested in drama.  King’s School appears to have been a center for study of dramatic literature, and young Marlowe would have been introduced to the likes of Seneca and Terrance there.

Where the family of William Shakespeare fell on hard times, truncating the young man’s education, Marlowe’s family had no such problems arise.  At the end of 1580, Marlowe left King’s and enrolled at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on scholarship.  A picture thought to be of Marlowe was uncovered there in 1953; it shows a young man of some substance and standing, to judge by the color and quality of his clothes, not to mention the fact that he could afford to hire a portrait painter (Nicholl 9).  Though his scholarship subsidized his education, there is little doubt regarding where Marlowe got the money for the expensive clothes and the portrait.

While at Cambridge, Marlowe was first contacted by Sir Francis Walshingham, spymaster and later Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth II.  Though he enjoyed a good record of grades and attendance through his undergraduate days, he suddenly developed a habit of protracted, unexplained absences while pursuing his Master’s Degree.  He is known to have spent some time in Rheims, a Catholic city in France, and was thought to have converted to Catholicism, a serious offence.  Between his absences, his suspected Catholicism, and his apparent refusal to take holy orders (one of the stipulations of his scholarship package), the authorities at Cambridge apparently intended to withhold Marlowe’s Master’s Degree.

However, a letter from the Privy Council, the cabinet to Queen Elizabeth (of which Sir Francis Walshingham was an important member), to the heads of Cambridge, sought to ensure Marlowe received his degree (Bakeless 80).  The letter stated, in part,

Their Lordships’ request was that the rumor thereof [of converting at Rheims] should be allaied by all possible meanes, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take this next Commencement:  Because it was not her Majesties pleasure that any one employed as he has been in matters touching the benefitt of his countrie should be defamed by those who are ignorant in th’ affaires he went about.

It is notable that the Privy Council were willing to admit that Marlowe was involved in affairs of state, “in matters touching the benefitt of his countrie,” yet there were willing to keep the Cambridge dons “ignorant in th’ affaires he went about.”  This letter, recorded in the minutes of the Privy Council, and Marlowe’s affiliation with Walshingham, lend credence to the belief that Marlowe was involved in the Secret Service. 

Upon graduation, Marlowe moved to London, where he became a professional playwright.  It is worth note that this occupation would have been seen as beneath his education, since writing plays was poor work.  Playwrights were essentially work for hire in theatres unless, like Shakespeare, they owned a share; and their work would have to be continually changed to match shifting politics and fickle public demand (“Christopher Marlowe”).  However, Marlowe was acclaimed a skilled and popular playwright very quickly, indicating that his first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, was probably already written when he arrived in town.

While in London, Marlowe was reputed to be very outspoken and quarrelsome.  He harbored dissident views on religion in a closed society, which put him in awkward social positions.  Marlowe was occasionally tarred with the epithet “atheist,” though in his day there were only three kinds of religious dissidents recognized: Catholics, Puritans, and atheists.  Recorded evidence of his actual views indicates Marlowe was possibly a Unitarian.  He certainly took a dim view of the alliance between public power and religious faith.  Records indicated that Marlowe believed Jesus was not the Son of God, a typical Unitarian view.  However, he was also said to have claimed that Jesus and the apostle John were homosexual lovers.  Whether this was his actual view or not is unclear – Marlowe seems to have had no compunction against eliciting a reaction out of others by shocking and offending them.

Marlowe also never backed down from a fight.  On 18 September 1589, for reasons that were never written down, Marlowe got into some form of armed brawl, possibly a duel, with one William Bradley (Nicholl 178).  Because the fight took place in the middle of Hog Lane, a public street, a great hue and cry arose.  Marlowe’s friend and fellow poet, Thomas Watson, intervened in the conflict, ostensibly to preserve the peace.  According to the court record after the fact, Bradley said to Watson, “Art thou now come?  Then I will have a bout with thee” (Eccles 23).  Moments later, Bradley was dead, stabbed by Watson in apparent self-defense.

Bakeless suggests this bout inspired the conflict between Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (157).  This claim is uncertain, but the mêlée developed poorly for all involved.  Both Marlowe and Watson were imprisoned in Newgate, awaiting the impending trial.  The ruling held that Watson’s killing of Bradley was in self-defense, but both Watson and Marlowe were ordered held anyway, to set an example of the consequences of disturbing the peace.  Notably, Marlowe was released after a very brief imprisonment, while Watson was held in Newgate until February.  This may be a testament to Marlowe’s prominence; it may also reflect on his relationship with Sir Francis Walshingham.  If Marlowe were a spy after all, it would hardly do to have him keep company with criminals.  There would be too great a risk of him telling tales.

Rumors also persist that Marlowe was a practicing homosexual during his time in London.  The claims supporting this are spurious, however.  The only statement Marlowe was supposed to have made on the issue was, “All they who love not tobacco and boys are fools.”  This statement comes to us only in a letter given to the Privy Council by Puritan agitator Richard Baines, who sought to prosecute all “deviants” and non-conformists as opponents of Christianity (Nicholl 342).  There are strong homosexual themes in Marlowe’s plays Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Edward II.  However, Marlowe is also known to have translated Ovid’s unabashedly ribald Amores without following the custom of bowdlerizing the text (Knoll 26).  It’s likely that Marlowe enjoyed trying to get a reaction out of his audiences by shocking and offending them.  There is little evidence to support any speculation on Christopher Marlowe’s sexual orientation.

Marlowe developed into a skillful playwright while in London.  He is known to have befriended with Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, and he maintained a friendly rivalry with Robert Greene.  In 1591, Kyd and Marlowe were writing in the same rented room.  Marlowe and Kyd apparently had repeated philosophical and theological debates, as evidenced by statements Kyd made in the wake of Marlowe’s death (Boas 68).  There is no apparent evidence that the two ever wrote together.

Marlowe wrote professionally for Philip Henslowe.  This wasn’t distinctive, since virtually all theatre artists in London at the time wrote at least occasionally for Henslowe (Cook 233).  As builder of the Rose and owner of the Bear Pit, Henslowe was possibly the most powerful gatekeeper of English theatre.  Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus and the Henry VI trilogy for Henslowe’s troupe, which included the famed actor Edward Alleyn and the clown Will Kemp (Nicholl 225).  Marlowe appears to have spent the bulk of his professional life working for Henslowe, and most of his strong lead characters, including Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus, were probably written for Alleyn.

Marlowe’s first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, is credited in its earliest edition as a collaboration with Thomas Nashe, a friend and fellow thinker.  However, Nashe was probably just a compositor and editor (Boas 68).  Although collaboration between playwrights was common practice in Elizabethan theatre, there is no evidence that any of Marlowe’s seven surviving plays had any hand in them except Marlowe’s.

Seven plays by Marlowe survive.  In addition to Dido, there are two parts of Tamburlaine the Great, The Jew of Malta, The Massacre at Paris, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II.  Of these, only the two parts of Tamburlaine were published in Marlowe’s own lifetime.  There is reason to believe that all the other plays are at least somewhat corrupted, though at least Faustus and Edward II were popular enough to be preserved in near the form Marlowe created them.  Levin suggests that one play, The Massacre at Paris, is so badly flawed, drawing on the contents of other plays and abridging many characters’ presence on stage, that it must have been reconstructed from an actor’s memory rather than an original manuscript (83).  It is certainly a very short script physically, with brief acts and truncated scenes, containing several long, rambling speeches by the Duke of Guise.  It is not hard to think that a more presentable, equitable original version once existed and is now lost.

Two plays deserve special attention.  Doctor Faustus presented a look at the corrupting influence of too much knowledge, an odd thesis from a Cambridge scholar and Latin translator.  Edward II addressed social taboos and also treated a king of England like an ordinary person, unheard-of in other chronicle plays of the Elizabethan era.  Because of the poor record keeping regarding the sequence of Marlowe’s plays, there is no agreement as to which play came first.  However, it’s certainly the Faustus that commands a greater presence in our theatrical study today.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was the first play based on the supposed life of Johannes Faustus, a necromancer who was familiar with Martin Luther at Wittenberg.  The actual name of the man was Georg Faust, and while he certainly claimed to be a wizard, he wasn’t the blasphemer he would become in popular legend.  In Marlowe’s play, the character begins by seeking an appropriate field to study now that he has been awarded his higher degree.  Medicine, theology, philosophy, and more dissatisfy him, and, hungry for knowledge of the world, he turns to necromancy.

His familiar demon, Mephistophilis, gives him a view of the universe, and offers him power to do wonders.  Taking this power and signing his soul away, Faustus attempts to spread wisdom to the people.  His audiences include kings of Hungary and Germany, and even the Pope.  However, the longer he keeps up the power, the more he’s reduced to simple conjuring tricks and stunts.  In the end, he’s taken bodily into Hell, leaving behind confused but pious colleagues to deliver a straightforward moral message.

Doctor Faustus offers an uncomplicated message.  In the English Renaissance, there was great love of learning, and doubtless there were many in the audience, including possibly Marlowe himself, who would have been willing to sell his or her soul to the Devil in return for wisdom beyond their peers.  However, that wisdom proves to be a loaded gift, one that can offer the bearer no hope of salvation, and no escape from the torments of the payback on the bargain with the Devil.  Wisdom is great, the story suggests, but not at the cost of the soul.

It is easy to see how the anonymous author of “Magical Forces” would believe Faustus was damned by the magical power he was given.  However, observation of the storyline reveals that Faustus damns himself as he pursues his love of earthly knowledge and venal self-aggrandizement.  The story concerns itself less with the wisdom Faustus gains or the power he wields, than with his gradual disintegration as he moves away from the original intent of his learning.  Wisdom is fine in this world, Marlowe suggests, but don’t burn your bridges in your attempt to gain it.

One statement in Faustus deserves especial note.  When asked where Hell is, Mephistophilis replies in I.v.124-129:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place.  But where we are is hell,
And where hell is there must we ever be.
And to be short, when all the world dissolves
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not heaven.

In modern times, as Christians increasingly think of the Biblical description of Hell as allegorical and regard Hell as eternal separation from God, this isn’t as distinctive an idea.  However, in Marlowe’s time, the images of a subterranean lake of fire where sins are purged away were very current.  A statement like this may have been revolutionary.

No less revolutionary may have been Marlowe’s chronicle of the reign of Edward II.  Though the late British monarch would probably have been looked on poorly in his own time, by Marlowe’s day his stock had risen significantly (“Christopher Marlowe”).  Moreover, there were strong taboos as to what could be shown on the stage.  Marlowe disregarded all this and crafted a portrayal of an initially ineffectual king who grew into his crown, but who was ultimately overthrown and ignominiously executed.

The most startling fact of this treatment of Edward was that Marlowe openly painted the king as a homosexual.  “Deviant” sexuality wasn’t considered acceptable for the stage at the time, and though no records survive, it’s easy to imagine the uproar.  Early in the play, the king’s wife, Isabella, describes her husband thus (I.iii.49-54):

For now my lord the king regards me not,
But dotes upon the love of Gaveston.
He claps his cheeks, and hangs about his neck,
Smiles in his face, and whispers in his ears;
And, when I come, he frowns, as who should say,
‘Go whither thou wilt, seeing I have Gaveston.’

Edward II is a strong and well-told story.  However, it was probably shocking and possibly offensive to members of the audience.  It is with this play that we may begin seeing the beginning of the Puritan backlash against the man and his work.

In 1593, Thomas Kyd was arrested on charges of atheism (Bakeless 169).  Ample papers found in Kyd’s study were found to contain religious statements of a dissident nature.  These were termed “atheist,” because Protestant England officially recognized only three forms of religious dissidents: Catholics, Puritans, and atheists.  However, Nicholl points out (43) that the papers were actually of a more Unitarian nature, claiming Jesus Christ was not the Son of God, but a man who achieved a great standing in relation to God.

Put to the torture, Kyd insisted that the papers actually belonged to Christopher Marlowe, and had become mixed in with Kyd’s effects when they shared a study in the summer of 1591.  A warrant was issued for his arrest, but oddly enough, where Kyd was subjected to torture, Marlowe was only required to appear daily before the Privy Council (“Literary Page”).  The reason for this double standard is unclear.  Marlowe’s former employer, Sir Francis Walshingham, was now dead, but his influence may have lingered on in government, especially as Sir Francis’ cousin, Thomas Walshingham, was now sponsoring Marlowe.

Marlowe attended on the Privy Council only briefly.  On Wednesday, 30 May 1593, Marlowe was stabbed to death.  According to the official story, a man named Ingram Frizer, whom Marlowe attacked in a brawl over the bill for dinner, stabbed him.  The killing took place in a house, presumably a rooming-house or hostelry, belonging to Eleanor Bull, in the shipbuilding town of Deptford, just downstream from London.  Two other men, Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres, witnessed the death (Nicholl 17).  A coroner’s inquest quickly found that Frizer had acted in self-defense, and on Thursday, 28 June, Queen Elizabeth offered an official pardon.

The coroner’s inquest was lost for some time, allowing rumor and innuendo to surround Marlowe’s death for some time.  Various erroneous versions of his death were put about by those who wanted to disparage Marlowe as a sinner, while his friends and defenders tried to publicize the true story.  The coroner’s inquest was uncovered in 1925 by Leslie Hotson of Harvard (Nicholl 86).  However, this has only muddied the issue – we know who killed Marlowe, but all three witnesses are considered suspect (Frizer and Skeres were both accused swindlers, while Poley was a known spy with connections to Sir Francis Walshingham’s office).  The circumstances of Marlowe’s death are known, but why he died has only become a more frustrating mystery through the years.

Even in death, Christopher Marlowe remains an enigma.  The most popular English dramatist apart from Shakespeare, his life and works reflect contradictory philosophical ideas, linked only by their iconoclasty.  The importance of his works is reflected in the fact that poets such as Nashe, Kyd, Ben Johnson, and William Shakespeare all imitated the style of Marlowe’s works.  But for all his significance in the development of English drama and language arts, he remains a poorly understood figure who carries confusion behind him.  Only time will reveal the truth of Christopher Marlowe.


Works Cited or Referenced

Bakeless, John.  Christopher Marlowe: the man in his time.  New York: William Morrow and Company.  1937.

Boas, Frederick S.  Marlowe and His Circle: a biographical survey.  New York: Russell & Russell.  1929.

“Christopher Marlowe.”  Incompetech: the web site.  N.D.: N.Pub. http://incompetech.com/authors/kitmarlowe/

Cook, Judith.  The Slicing Edge of Death: who killed Christopher Marlowe?  New York: St. Martin’s Press.  1993.

Levin, Harry.  The Overreacher: a study of Christopher Marlowe.  Boston: Beacon Press.  1952, 1964.

Lewis, Kyle, et al.  “Christopher Marlowe Literary Page.”  Houston Community College System: Southwest College.  N.D.: Houston Community College System.  http://swc2.hccs.cc.tx.us/HTMLS/ROWHTML/faust/index.htm

“Magical Forces in Doctor Faustus.”  WrittenByMe.  5 September 2000: writtenbyme.com.  http://www.writtenbyme.com/content/2079

Marlowe, Christopher: The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe.  Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc.  N.D.

Nicholl, Charles.  The Reckoning: the murder of Christopher Marlowe.  Chicago: the University of Chicago Press.  1992.