top of page
  • Writer's pictureSnappy notes


Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Christopher Marlowe was the most accomplished and important English playwright before Shakespeare based on Marlowe's several literary contributions to the emerging art of dramatic writing. First and foremost was his talent as a poet and his placement of refined, polished, and moving verses in the mouth of his characters. Some of his contemporaries, notably Lyly and Peele, had proven themselves as capable poets and had improved the quality of the English spoken by actors. But Marlowe was more than merely capable; he was the first truly great poet to write plays in English. More specifically, Marlowe recognized the potential power and beauty of blank verse as a medium for drama. Essentially unrhymed verse, blank verse had been used before on stage, by Peele and possibly by Kyd. But Marlowe became its master, using it in a sheer quantity and quality never before seen.

Marlowe also infused his dramas with a feeling of power and driving energy that had been lacking in the works of earlier playwrights. This was due in part to his technique of building each of his plots almost completely around a central character, an individual whose exploits the audience followed with interest throughout. This was new to English drama most earlier plays had tended to focus more or less equally on two or more character. Even more significant, more often than not Marlowe's central characters are flawed heroes, sometimes called villain heroes, each power, hungry, treacherous, revengeful, or some combination of such negative traits. They are, says Thomas Parrott, a group of villain heroes or of strong men fighting, often in vain, against an overwhelming force. It is this sense of urgency, coupled with Marlowe's sensitivity as a poet that makes these characters “passionate” and “real and living human beings, something other than the stiff figures of academic tragedy.” Parrott continues to constitute the authentic gift of Marlowe. With all its faults and extravagance and careless work, Elizabethan drama (following Marlowe) is keenly sensitive to human passion and to its destructive effect upon the lives of men.

It has been said that life and art imitate each other. And indeed, passion certainly had as much of a destructive effect on Marlowe's own life as it had on those of his characters. A vibrant, individualistic, feisty individual given to challenging authority, he often found himself on the wrong side of the law or social convention, and his violent temper and dangerous lifestyle ended up tragically cutting short one of the history's most brilliant literary characters.

His Early Life:

Marlowe was born in Canterbury on February 6, 1564, making him Shakespeare's senior by a little more than two months. John Marlowe, his father, was a prominent member of the local shoemakers and tanners guild, and his mother, Catherine Arthur, was the daughter of a Canterbury clergyman.

The primary school or schools, young "Kit" Marlowe attended remain unknown. But evidence indicates he entered Canterbury's King's School in January 1579, when he was fifteen. Four years earlier, Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, had died and provided in his will for the establishment of three yearly scholarships for King's School graduates. These grants were intended to cover expenses at Corpus Christi College, at Cambridge (the same school Robert Greene attended), and it was understood that the boys who received them would go on to become clergymen. Having garnered one of these highly coveted scholarships, Marlowe enrolled at Cambridge in March 1581.

It did not take long for the high strung young man to demonstrate that he was hardly clergyman material. In 1582, he began skipping school on a regular basis, and by the winter of 1584 he was absent more than half the time. This and other unacceptable behavior naturally upset the school authorities, and eventually his graduation and degree were in jeopardy. Yet Marlowe duly received his M.A. from Corpus Christi in July 1587. For a long time, scholars were perplexed about the young man's whereabouts during his long absences from school, as well as why the college overlooked them and awarded him his degree anyway. At least a partial answer to these questions emerged in 1925 with the pioneering work of the scholar J. Leslie Hotson. He discovered a highly revealing entry about Marlowe in the register of Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council (The council consisted of her personal and very powerful advisers, who oversaw national security of all kinds, from foreign threats to public morality.) Dated June 9, 1587, the entry reads:

Whereas it was reported that Christopher Marlowe was determined to go beyond the seas to Rheims and there to remain, Their Lordships thought it good to certify that he had no such intent, but that in all his actions he had behaved himself in an orderly and discreet manner, whereby he had done her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealings. Their Lordships' request was that the rumor should be ignored and that he should receive his college degree. It is not her Majesty's pleasure that anyone employed as he had been, in matters touching the benefit of his country, should be defamed by those that are ignorant of his whereabouts and actions.

This extraordinary document first informs us that there had been rumors floating around Cambridge that Marlowe had intended to move to Reims, in France. If so, it would have been a black mark against him. That city was then a major headquarters of English Roman Catholics, Elizabeth's enemies, and abandoning the Anglican Church for the Catholic cause would make the young man a traitor. However, Marlowe's trip "had no such intents." the queen's advisers asserted. He had “done her Majesty good service”. As to what kind of service Marlowe had performed the later phrase “in matters touching the benefit of his country” is apparently the key.

Brushes with the Law:

As for how Marlowe became involved in the espionage business to begin with, no one can say. What is more certain is that his ties to the inner circles of government remained in place in the years that followed and proved helpful in both his theatrical career and personal life. No sooner had he graduated from Cambridge when he acquired a wealthy patron, Sir Thomas Walsingham. Not only was Sir Thomas himself involved in the English spy network, he was also a kinsman of Sir Francis Walsingham, England's secretary of state and head of its intelligence service. Among the playwrights and poets for whom Thomas Walsingham already provided financial support were George Chapman and Thomas Watson; so it is not surprising that Marlowe became friendly with these writers, as well as with Thomas Nashe and others.

It was in the company of Thomas Watson that Marlowe had his first serious brush with the law. In September 1589, Marlowe got into a fight in an alley with a man named William Bradley, who had lately been threatening some sort of legal action against Watson. During the brawl, Watson arrived and went to his friend's aid. When the fight ended Bradley was dead, and the authorities arrested both Marlowe and Watson on suspicion of murder and held them in Newgate Prison. Marlowe's and Watson's unusually swift release may have been the result of pressure from their patron and his high placed associates. In any case, the police gave Marlowe a slap on the wrist and told him to stay out of trouble. However He did not follow this advice. In 1592, a London court summoned Marlowe to appear to answer charges of assaulting two constables in Shoreditch (in the eastern part of the city). The men were very shaken by the experience, claiming that the writer had nearly killed them. No evidence exists that Marlowe ever answered the charge, and once again his government connections appear to have shielded him. The secret service sent him to Rouen, in France, to aid its agents in supporting a group of Protestants against attack by Catholics.

In May of the following year, Marlowe was in trouble again, this time under arrest for suspicion of possessing anti-Christian documents. The author ties had first found them in the papers of playwright Thomas Kyd, with whom Marlowe had shared a room for a while; Kyd insisted that they belonged to Marlowe and had somehow gotten mixed in with his own manuscripts. This explanation seemed plausible because Marlowe had long been known for his “atheistic” sentiments and statements. It is important to note, however, as one scholar explains:

“Actually he was not an atheist in the proper sense; his writings clearly show that he believed in God. But he did indulge in a searching and irreverent criticism of both the Old and New Testaments, pointing out in jesting fashion some of their irrational inconsistencies, impossibilities, and absurdities calling Moses, for instance, nothing but a "juggler" in performing his miracles. It was basically the institutions and beliefs of contemporary orthodox religion that he rejected”.

Whatever Marlowe's personal beliefs may have been, they were not enough to override his usefulness to the powers that be. Some evidence suggests that the Privy Council summoned and questioned him. But unlike poor Kyd, Marlowe was neither imprisoned nor tortured and once again found himself free to go.

Taking the Town by Storm:

In retrospect, Marlowe's secret, often seamy and dangerous personal life seems an odd backdrop to his short but brilliant theatrical literary career. Even before leaving Cambridge, he had distinguished himself with a translation of the Amores, erotic expressions of love by the ancient Roman poet Ovid; a translation of the first book of the Roman epic poet Lucan's Pharsalia; and an original play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, also based on classical material.

These proved to be mere student exercises compared with Marlowe's professional creations. On reaching London in 1587, he scored an immediate hit with Tamburlaine the Great (in two parts), which he may have begun before graduating from Cambridge. Based on the life of the fourteenth-century Asian conqueror, Timur, the plot traces the title characters rise from an obscure shepherd to a mighty military leader who defeats the forces of Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. In staging the play, Marlowe marshaled a number of effective devices and resources. He centered the plot almost completely around Tamburlaine, endowing the work with power by focusing on a powerful man and he gave the character strong, moving speeches in blank verse more vital and realistic than audiences were used to. In addition, he had the fortuneof getting a major theatrical company the Lord Admiral's Servants, featuring noted actor Edward Alleyn to stage the work. Parrott writes:

The novelty, the music of the verse, the acting and thunderous declamation (speaking style) of Alleyn, great best actor of the day, took the town by storm Marlowe's first play was epoch-making in the development of Elizabethan drama.

In particular, Marlowe's heavy use of blank verse, with the placement of stresses and pauses varying from line to line, set a trend that other Elizabethan playwrights, including Shakespeare and Jonson, later followed Adopting this style allowed Marlowe to avoid the often wooden, sing song qualities of Kyd's lines.

A String of Masterpieces:

A combination of enormous talent, the proper connections, and fortunate timing had made Marlowe the most famous play wright in England at the tender age of twenty-three. Several other plays followed, each a masterpiece in its own right. The Jew of Malta introduced the concept of an unabashed villain as the leading character. That leading character, Barabas, is a wealthy Jewish resident of the Mediterranean island of Malta. The island scheming Christian govern or confiscates Barabas’s money, saying he will refund half, if the Jew converts to Christianity. Barabas refuses this insulting offer and plots his revenge, which includes collaborating with invading Turks to overthrow the one for eventually the law becomes governor himself, but soon pays the price for his treachery by falling into a cauldron of boiling liquid.

The Jew of Malta is important literally for several reasons. First, it was one of the first Elizabethan revenge plays written after the appearance of Kyd's Spanish Tragedy; second in its portrayal of both Jews and Christians as disreputable schemers, The Jew was darling for a writer in a society in which Jews were distracted and scorned and Christianity seen as the only true faith,and finally, the play's subject matter and characters influenced later English writers, including Shakespeare (especially in his The Merchant of Venice, another play about a wealthy Jew).

Although the exact sequence and dating of Marlowe's plays remain uncertain, it appears that The Jew of Malta was followed by The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus in 1590. The story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, it weaves themes from the old morality plays (human temptation, fall from grace, and damnation)into a complex, mature,tragic framework. Next, probably, came Edward II, in 1591. Here, Marlowe transformed a simple historical chronicle about a weak king into a moving tragedy highlighted by realistic dialogue.The dramatist's last play, The Massacre at Paris was composed in 1592 following his return from the siege of Rouen; unfortunately, only a badly mutilated version survives. Marlowe also has written a long and very popular narrative poem Hero and Leander based on the famous tale of star-crossed lovers from classical mythology.

These are the works that can be definitely attributed to Marlowe. Over the years, variouss cholars have argued that he authored other plays, including one about the villainous English king Richard III and one or more parts of the Henry VI trilogy now viewed as belonging to Shakespeare. Some theorists have gone so far as to suggest that Marlowe was Shakespeare,that he did not die in 1593, but somehow survived, assumed a new identity, and went on to write the greatest plays in the English language. However, no compelling evidence for this controversial claim has yet been advanced.

Marlowe's Mysterious Death

Much more speculation has surrounded the manner of Marlowe's confirmed death than his possible survival. Based on the limited reliable evidence available, the following scenario seems most likely. Only a few days after Marlowe had visited and been dismissed by the Privy Council (May 18, 1583), he traveled to the small village of Deptford, a few miles down the Thames from London. He may have been trying to avoid an outbreak of the plane that had just struck the city. On May 30, the play wright lingered for most of the day at Dame Eleanor Bull's tavern, dining and drinking with three characters of bad reputation. Robert Poley was a former spy and ex-convict, Ingram Frizer, at the time still an agent in Walsingham's service, was known for shady financial dealings; and Nicholas Skeres was a known thief and shoplifter.

For reasons that are clear the four men got into a quarrel and Marlowe sprang up and attacked Frizer, Snatching the other man's own dagger, the play wright cut him twice, but Frizer managed to wrestle him to the floor. Frizer then turned the dagger toward his opponent striking him just above the eye. The blade penetrated Marlowe brain and he died instantly.

What were Marlowe and others doing in the tavern that day? And what was the cause of the argument and brawl that ended in the dramatist's untimely death? Numerous scholars and popular writers have attempted to answer these questions. Some have claimed that the meeting was purely social, the fight spontaneous that Frizer acted in self-defense. Others most recently Charles Nicholl in his novel The Reckoning have proposed that Marlowe was murdered in a nefarious plot involving the sphere he had long been part of.

Until such time, if ever, that any solid evidence emerges to shed new light on the matter, Marlowe's unfortunate death will remain a mystery. One thing seems clear. The passion for living, violent temper, and bent in risk taking that finally did him in were integral facets of the same rebellious nature that fueled his dramatic innovations. As scholar Philip Henderson puts it, Marlowe was a master of stage-craft in the earlier days of the English drama, the pioneer from whose example those who followed profited most……. His life was as dangerous as his thought and, as much as he dared, he used the drama as a vehicle for his revolutionary conceptions.


Great Elizabethan Playwrights by Don Nardo

85 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page