Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 93)

Christopher Marlowe was one of the original bad boy rebels. He lived fast, died young (aged 29) and left a beautiful corpus of exhilarating plays and sensuous poetry. Marlowe’s half dozen plays are the first to use blank verse, demonstrating its power and flexibility, and so can be said to have established the entire format of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre.

Early life

Marlowe was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. There’s a record of his being baptised on 26 February 1564. He won a scholarship to King’s School, Canterbury, then another to Corpus Christi College Cambridge where he was awarded a degree in 1584. However the authorities hesitated to award him an MA in 1587 because of rumours that he had spent time abroad, at Rheims, consorting with English Catholic exiles who were ordained as Catholic priests there before being smuggled back into England. If true, this amounted to treason. However, there’s a record of a letter being sent from the Privy Council to the Cambridge authorities to dispel this rumour and confirm that Marlowe had done ‘good service’ to the Queen. What service? To this day nobody knows, but it has prompted speculation for over 400 years that Marlowe was, at the tender age of 23, an Elizabethan spy.

The plays

Marlowe came to London and almost immediately established himself as a major playwright. He wrote six plays in his six years as a public playwright before his early death. To this day, there is debate and disagreement about the order they were written in, though most scholars agree on the following order:

  • Dido, Queen of Carthage (c. 1585–1587)
  • Tamburlaine, Part I (c. 1587); Part II (c. 1587–88)
  • The Jew of Malta (c. 1589–1590)
  • Doctor Faustus (c. 1588–1592)
  • Edward the Second (c. 1592)
  • The Massacre at Paris (c. 1589–1593)

Massive success

Put simply, Marlow established blank verse as the standard medium for Elizabethan plays, an enormous literary achievement. To start reading Dido is to be immediately swept away by the combination of power and sensuality, the swaggering boom and lushness of what Ben Jonson called Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

But not only that, his most famous plays (Tamburlaine and Faustus in particular) depict protagonists of such grotesque and visionary ambition, who express their views in verse so viscerally powerful and compelling, that they established a kind of benchmark of imaginative achievement. His protagonists dominated the stage and thrilled audiences in an entirely new way, showing what theatre was capable of.

Marlowe’s plays were tremendously successful in his day, helped by the imposing stage presence of his lead actor, Edward Alleyn, the lead actor of the acting company Marlowe wrote for – the Admiral’s Men. Alleyn was unusually tall for the time and gave commanding performances of the bombastic roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus and Barabas (the protagonist of The Jew of Malta).

Bad boy

The obscure squabble about his Cambridge MA was just a taster for a short life packed with trouble.

Prison Marlowe was party to a fatal quarrel involving his neighbours and the poet Thomas Watson in Norton Folgate and was held in Newgate Prison for at least a fortnight in 1589.

Arrest In 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the English garrison town of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands, for alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, presumably related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was sent to the Lord Treasurer (Burghley), but no charge or imprisonment resulted maybe – again – because he was on official spying business.

Controversy His plays sailed close to the wind. The intensity of Dr Faustus led to accusations that Marlowe himself indulged in witchcraft and magic. Edward II presents the same-sex love of the king and his favourite Piers Gaveston in an unusually favourable light.

Atheism Worse was the accusation of atheism, technically illegal at the time. In May 1593 anonymous posters were put up around London threatening Protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands. One of these was in rhymed iambic pentameter, contained allusions to several of Marlowe’s plays and was signed, ‘Tamburlaine’. On 11 May the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels and they made a start with Marlowe’s colleague Thomas Kyd, who was arrested. When his lodgings were searched a three-page fragment of a heretical tract was found.

In a letter to the Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir John Puckering, Kyd claimed the document belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had shared a writing room two years earlier. In a follow-up letter Kyd – obviously seeking to exonerate himself – described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate and ‘intemperate & of a cruel hart’.

A warrant for Marlowe’s arrest was issued on 18 May and he was tracked to the country mansion of Sir Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster – more fuel for all those who consider Marlowe to have been a spy throughout his career. Marlowe presented himself to the Council on 20 May and was instructed to ‘give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary’.

Details of his death Ten days later, 30 May 1593, Marlowe was killed. He spent all day in Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford talking with three other men. In the evening, after supper, the four men quarrelled, one of them Ingram Frizer drew a dagger and stabbed Marlowe to death. At the inquest, Frizer said he did it in self defence, all three had worked for Walsingham at some point or another and were acquitted. Within a few weeks Frizer returned to Walsingham’s service.

So was it really a drunken brawl, did something Marlowe say genuinely offend the others? Or was it an assassination to hush up something Marlowe may or may not have been going to divulge to the Privy Council, maybe to exonerate himself from the charges arising from the atheistical and heretical document Kyd attributed to him? Or was it just a fight which got out of hand.

We will never know.

Baines’s testimony At the time of Marlowe’s arrest in Flushing, evidence had been presented against him by one Richard Baines who the governor of Flushing identified as an enemy of Marlowe’s. After Marlowe was arrested in May 1593, Baines sent the authorities a note ‘concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God’s word’. Baines attributes to Marlowe a total of eighteen items such as:

  • the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe
  • Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest
  • the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly’, ‘St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom’, and ‘that he used him as the sinners of Sodom’.

The School of Night Baines went on to claim that whatever company Marlowe came into, he sought to persuade people to his atheistical point of view. This helped bolster the legend of what later generations have termed ‘The School of Night’ referring to a group of intellectuals centred on Sir Walter Raleigh supposedly including Marlowe, George Chapman, Matthew Roydon and Thomas Harriot among others. But once again it is based on the slender evidence of Richard Baines, a paid informer who, in the unsworn deposition mentioned above, claimed he had heard from another that Marlowe had ‘read the Atheist lecture to Sr. Walter Raleigh [and] others’. Rumour and gossip from a stated enemy, in other words.

Gay The damning list of atheistical statements attributed to Marlowe in the Baines document overlaps with accusations that the playwright was gay, including such gossip as that Marlowe said: ‘All those who like not boys and tobacco be fools’ (which seems a very reasonable sentiment).

In fact, apart from Baines’s statement, there is no hard evidence about Marlowe’s sexuality either way, and some scholars reject reports of his homosexuality altogether. Those who want it to be true quote selected moments from his works in which characters give a favourable account of male same-sex desire (the lengthy homoerotic description of handsome young Leander in the poem Hero and Leander, the opening of Dido Queen of Carthage which finds Zeus flirting very obviously with the beautiful young boy Ganymede, in Edward II the entire treatment of the relationshiip between the king and his favourite, Piers Gaveston).

Maybe. As with the spy theories and the numerous theories which have sprung up as to the real cause of his death, it is clear that Marlowe –  like so many authors, in fact like so many eminent figures from the past – is a kind of Rorschach test, a complicated and contradictory figure onto whom later readers can project whatever fantasy feeds their needs.

Was William Shakespeare really Christopher Marlow? There’s even a group of people who believe that Marlowe faked his own death and resumed writing under the pseudonym William Shakespeare (the two playwrights were, after all, born in the same year).

People – as the internet age has shown us more clearly than ever before – will believe anything.

Banned As well as plays, early in his career Marlowe wrote some poetry, most impressively the short epyllion Hero and Leander and a translation of the Latin poet Ovid’s Amores. Copies of this latter were publicly burned as offensive in 1599, as part of Archbishop Whitgift’s crackdown on offensive material. Even after his death he carried on being a bad boy.


Marlowe’s works

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1 Comment

  1. Wilson

     /  October 10, 2020

    You give a lively overview of Kit Marlowe, probably the baddest boy of English drama until Joe Orton. Thank you for providing such a lively read.

    Somebody is bound to start quibbling with your assertion that Marlowe was the first to use blank verse in an English drama. Yes, there is Norton and Sackville’s “Gorboduc” (1561) and Kyd’s “Spanish Tragedy” just maybe might have been performed earlier than the first part of “Tamburlaine,” and was a big, big hit.

    But your larger point stands: “ Marlow established blank verse as the standard medium for Elizabethan plays,” I won’t quibble with that.

    Reply

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