In the pantheon of English playwrights and poets Shakespeare reigns above all but his contemporary (born two months earlier) Christopher Marlowe, was admired by Shakespeare and on many levels is his equal. His life, cut tragically short, may well have given the Elizabethan Age two giants of equal standing.
Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury to shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife Catherine. His exact date of birth is not known, but he was baptised on February 26th, 1564.
Marlowe attended The King's School in Canterbury and then Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he studied on a scholarship. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584.
In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his Master of Arts degree due to a rumour that he was bound for the English college at Rheims, France, presumably to later ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. In Protestant England this was not an ambition that would have any institution endorsing it. However, his degree was awarded when the Privy Council intervened on his behalf, commending him for his "faithful dealing" and "good service" to the Queen.
This service was not specified by the Council, but is ammunition for the theory that Marlowe was a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham's intelligence service. College records from the time show Marlowe had a series of lengthy absences from the university beginning in 1584–1585. College buttery (provisions store) accounts show he spent handsomely on food and drink during the periods he was there and certainly more than he could have afforded on his scholarship income.
Of the dramas attributed to Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage is believed to have been his first. It was performed by the Children of the Chapel, a company of boy actors, between 1587 and 1593. The play was first published in 1594 with the title page attributing the play to Marlowe and Thomas Nashe.
Marlowe's first play performed on the regular stage in London, in 1587, was Tamburlaine the Great, the conqueror, who rises up from shepherd to war-lord. Among the first English plays in blank verse, it was, together with Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, considered the beginning of a golden period of Elizabethan theatre. With Tamburlaine a success Marlowe readied Tamburlaine the Great, Part II for its stage presentation. The two parts of Tamburlaine were published in 1590.
All his other known works were published after his death. The sequence of writing is unknown but what is known is the quality of the writing and the controversial themes he summoned to his pen.
The Jew of Malta (first published as The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta), tells of a Maltese Jew's barbarous revenge against the city authorities, with a prologue delivered by a character representing Machiavelli. It was first performed in 1592. It was a success and remained popular for decades. The play was entered in the Stationers' Register on 17 May 1594.
Edward the Second is an English history play about the deposition of King Edward II by his barons and the Queen, who resent the influence the king's favourites have in court and state affairs. The play was entered into the Stationers' Register on 6 July 1593, a date some five weeks after Marlowe's death.
The Massacre at Paris is a short and extravagantly written work, portraying the events of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. It is considered his most dangerous play, as agitators in London seized on its theme to advocate the murders of refugees from the low countries and, indeed, it warns Elizabeth I of this possibility.
Doctor Faustus (or The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus), based on the German Faustbuch, was the first dramatised version of the Faust legend of a scholar's dealing with the devil. Versions of "The Devil's Pact" are traced to the 4th century but Marlowe deviates significantly by having his hero unable to "burn his books" or repent to a merciful God in order to have his contract annulled at the end of the play. Marlowe's protagonist is instead carried off by demons, and in the 1616 quarto his mangled corpse is found by several scholars. Two versions of the play exist: the 1604 quarto, also known as the A text, and the 1616 quarto or B text. Both were published after Marlowe's death. Scholars disagree as to which text is Marlowe's original.
Marlowe seems to have had a specific actor to play his leads. Edward Alleyn, an imposing stage presence and unusually tall for the time. It is thought the roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas were written especially for him. Marlowe's plays were the foundation of the repertoire of Alleyn's company, the Admiral's Men, throughout the 1590s.
Marlowe was also a supremely skilled poet. Hero and Leander (published in 1598), the ever popular "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", as well as translations of Ovid's Amores and the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia. Of course being Marlowe and his appetite for controversy in 1599, his translation of Ovid was banned and copies publicly burned as part of Archbishop Whitgift's campaign on offensive material.
As can be surmised little is known about many of the writers of this period. What can be gleaned is usually from the surviving legal records and other official documents. Because of this lack of evidence most writers are tarnished with a bewildering array of character traits. Marlowe is no exception: a spy, a brawler, a heretic, a "magician", "duellist", "tobacco-user", "counterfeiter", and "rakehell".
On September 18th, 1589 Marlowe, who was a party to a fatal quarrel involving his neighbours in Norton Folgate, was arrested and held in Newgate Prison for a fortnight, being released on bail on October 1st. At a Court appearance on December 3rd he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
In 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the town of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands for his alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, presumably related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was sent to be dealt with by Burghley, the Lord Treasurer, but no charge or imprisonment resulted.
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 rhymed iambic pentameter, pertaining to several of Marlowe's plays and signed, "Tamburlaine". On May 11th the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible. The next day, Thomas Kyd was arrested. Kyd's lodgings were searched and a fragment of a heretical tract was found. Kyd asserted that it had belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had been writing "in one chamber" some two years earlier. A warrant for Marlowe's arrest was issued on May 18th, when the Privy Council apparently knew that he might be found staying with Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's principal secretary in the 1580s and a man more deeply involved in state espionage than any other member of the Privy Council. Marlowe duly presented himself on May 20th but, there apparently being no Privy Council meeting on that day, was instructed to "give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary". On Wednesday May 30th, Marlowe was killed.
Various accounts of Marlowe's death were in circulation over the next few years. From being "stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love", as punishment for his "epicurism and atheism." And being killed in a drunken fight; the version that most often endures.
In 1925 the coroner’s report of the inquest on Marlowe's death, held two days later on Friday June 1st, 1593, by the Coroner of the Queen's Household, William Danby was discovered.
It related that Marlowe had spent the day in a house in Deptford, owned by Eleanor Bull, together with three men: Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. All three had been employed by one or other of the Walsinghams. Skeres and Poley had helped snare the conspirators in the Babington plot and Frizer would later describe Thomas Walsingham as his "master" at that time although his role was probably more that of a financial or business agent. These witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had argued over payment of the bill, exchanging "divers malicious words" 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 wounded him on the head. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner's report, Marlowe was stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly. The jury concluded that Frizer acted in self-defence, and within a month he was pardoned.
Christopher Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Deptford immediately after the inquest, on June 1st, 1593.
But there is doubt on this official version, mainly concerns as to the reliability of Marlowe's companions as witnesses. As an agent provocateur for the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Robert Poley was a consummate liar, the "very genius of the Elizabethan underworld", and is even on record as saying "I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm." The other witness, Nicholas Skeres, had for many years acted as a confidence trickster, drawing young men into the clutches of people in the money-lending racket, including Marlowe's apparent killer, Ingram Frizer, with whom he was currently engaged in just such a swindle. In other words, despite their being referred to as "generosi" (gentlemen) in the inquest report, they were all professional liars.
During his lifetime, Marlowe was reputed to be an atheist, which, at that time, held the dangerous implication of being an enemy of God and by association, an enemy of the state. With the rise of public fears concerning The School of Night, or the then called "School of Atheism" in the late 16th century, accusations of Atheism were closely associated with disloyalty to the then Protestant monarchy of England.
For his contemporaries in the literary world, Marlowe was above all an admired and influential artist. Within weeks of his death, George Peele remembered 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 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." This seems to be a reference to Marlowe's murder which involved a fight over the "reckoning", the bill, as well as to a line in Marlowe's Jew of Malta – "Infinite riches in a little room".
With admirers such as these Christopher Marlowe is rightly judged to be a major English literary artist and who is worthy to be in the top rank of those so called.