Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was among the most famous English playwrights of the Elizabethan era (1558-1642). Modern scholars consider him a significant influence on his famed contemporary, William Shakespeare (1564-1616); in the years before his mysterious early death, he was the foremost dramatist working in London.

Christopher Marlowe Christopher Marlowe

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Table of contents

    Let's find out more about Christopher Marlowe and his work!

    Christopher Marlowe: biography

    Christopher Marlowe's life largely remains a mystery to modern scholars. Some events in his life were as extreme as his plays; however, the exact contexts of many of these events are ambiguous due to sensationalised reports, particularly surrounding his death in 1593.

    Marlowe's life (and his death) elicits much intrigue for modern scholars, who have offered many conjectures, but, much like many other Elizabethan figures, details are unclear due to a lack of proper documentation at the time.

    Early life and education

    Marlowe was born the second of nine children and was officially baptised on 26 February 1564 at St George's Church in Canterbury, Kent (he was likely born a few days before).

    At 14, Marlowe was awarded a scholarship to attend The King's School, Canterbury. Two years later was accepted to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he mastered Latin by reading and translating the works of Ovid. His translations of Ovid's Amores (The Loves) and the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia, were published and widely praised.

    Ovid (43 BC - 17/18 AD) was a Roman poet who is now considered one of the most important writers of Roman Literature. His most known work is Metamorphoses ("Transformations").

    He received a B.A. degree in 1584; however, in 1587, the university was hesitant to award him an M.A. degree due to frequent absences. This led to a rumour that he intended to travel to the English seminary in northern France for presumable ordination as a Roman Catholic priest.

    A seminary is a religious college that trains its students to become priests, rabbis, or ministers.

    This, if true, would be a direct violation of a 1585 royal edict issued by Queen Elizabeth I, which criminalised any attempt by an English citizen to become ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. Religious tensions were high during Protestant Elizabeth I's reign, with bouts of violence breaking out on the European continent.

    Luckily for Marlowe, the Privy Council intervened, commending him for "good service" to the Queen in a letter to the University of Cambridge. He received his degree on schedule, despite rumours.

    The Privy Council is a body of advisors appointed by the Sovereign.

    Much is unknown about Marlowe's involvement with the Privy Council. However, scholars speculate that he might have been a government agent of some sort, possibly in the Queen's secret service. This might help to explain his frequent absences from his studies.

    Whilst at Cambridge, Marlowe is thought to have written his first play, Tamburlaine the Great. Around this time, it is likely that he also wrote Dido, Queen of Carthage with Thomas Nashe, a peer and contemporary playwright.

    Adult life

    By this time, 1587, a 23-year-old Marlowe began his literary career, but, due to the nature of time and improper documentation, much is left unknown about what exactly happened during Marlowe's adult life. Many scholars have speculated about his character, private life and professional activities based on deductions made from various legal documents and of course, his literary works.

    Marlowe's brief adult life (from 1587 to 1593) has been extensively written about, particularly: his involvement in espionage with the Queen's Privy Council, his reputation as an atheist (though in Elizabethan times this may only indicate unorthodox religious opinions), his sexual preferences (Marlowe was rumoured to have had same-sex partners), and the authorship of some of his literary works.

    Christopher Marlowe: death

    On 18 May, 1593, the Privy Council issued an order for Marlowe's arrest. Marlowe was associated with various bills circulating in London, threatening foreign Protestant refugees settling in the city. Two days later, on 20 May, Marlowe presented himself for daily attendance, but there was no Privy Council meeting on that day.

    Only 10 days later, on 30 May, Marlowe was killed in a lodging house in Deptford, near the South Bank in London, by Ingram Frizer. Marlowe had been there all day, accompanied by Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley.

    The reasons for Marlowe's death remain ambiguous, with many theories abounding. Witnesses testified that a verbal fight between Frizer and Marlowe broke out over payment of the bill when Marlowe snatched Frizer's dagger and wounded him on the head. Whilst embroiled in a struggle, Marlowe was stabbed above his right eye, killing him instantly, according to the coroner's report. However, these witnesses were Frizer's companions and were considered unsavoury characters, so many have thought their testimonies were unreliable.

    Frizer was pardoned within a month after a jury concluded that he acted in self-defence.

    Marlowe was subsequently buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas's Church in Deptford on 1 June 1593.

    Christopher Marlowe: plays

    Though Marlowe's playwriting career spanned only a brief six years, he became widely acclaimed and celebrated for his literary achievements.

    Chronological ambiguities

    Like many other Elizabethan figures, it is hard for scholars to know exactly when or how events transpired. In Marlowe's case, the chronology of his works is widely debated due to conflicting or absent evidence.

    Despite this, it is widely accepted that five dramas can be attributed to Marlowe's single authorship. His first play, Tamburlaine the Great, was his only work published during his lifetime.

    Though there is much debate among scholars, evidence suggests that after writing Tamburlaine (c. 1587-1590), Marlowe likely wrote Doctor Faustus (c. 1588-1592), and then The Jew of Malta (c. 1598-1590). Following may have been Edward II (c. 1592) and The Massacre at Paris (c. 1593).

    It is believed that Dido (which he wrote with Thomas Nashe) was the first of Marlowe's plays to be performed; however, his first great success came when Tamburlaine was performed in London in both parts by the end of 1587. The production was extremely well-received, which granted Marlowe mainstream recognition, and critical acclaim. This ultimately bolstered his literary career.

    Marlowe soon established his place as a significant figure in Elizabethan theatre.

    During the Elizabethan era (1558-1642), English theatre blossomed.

    A renewed interest in the dramatic arts began after the English Reformation, when, in 1509, Henry VIII (Elizabeth I's father) broke from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. Where Medieval plays were limited by divisive religious themes, there was now more freedom for playwrights to explore other subjects, including history, love, and comedy among many others.

    But it was not until Elizabeth I took the throne that English theatre truly flourished. The Queen's admiration for the arts allowed for the emergence of professional actors as part of companies sponsored by the Crown and other nobles. Theatre became a thriving industry as plays became more popular among the poor and rich alike.

    Marlowe was a central figure of Elizabethan theatre; however, his early death allowed for the pre-eminence of Shakespeare, who is known by modern audiences as the most famous playwright in history.

    Many of Marlowe's plays were performed by the acting company, the Admiral's Men, during the 1590s. Its leading actor, Edward Alleyn, most certainly played Tamburlaine, Faustus and Barabas the Jew, and the roles may have even been written specifically for him.

    Tamburlaine the Great

    Marlowe's first play, Tamburlaine the Great, is considered to be important to the advancement of Elizabethan theatre. Marlowe revolutionised contemporary English playwriting, by diverting from clumsy language and plot typical of earlier Tudor plays. Instead, he deftly created verse with vivid language, intellectual complexity and striking action. It can be said that Tamburlaine was the first, popular success on London's public stage.

    The two-part play was written in approximately 1587, and published anonymously in 1590 with certain omissions made by an editor.

    Tamburlaine is a historical play, loosely based on the life of Timur, a 14th-century Central Asian emperor, known for his bloody conquests. The play depicts his rise from a lowly Scythian shepherd to a powerful emperor who conquers vast lands, including the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and at Part I's close, the Egyptian empire too.

    The Scythians were an ancient nomadic people who lived in modern Eurasia, which now includes Kazakhstan, parts of eastern Ukraine and some areas of Russia.

    In the play's second part, Tamburlaine's thirst for conquest extends and his arrogance heightens, even when he falls ill. After marrying Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian king, at the end of Part I, Tamburlaine grooms his sons to preserve his dynasty after his death. Tamburlaine's savagery grows as he kills his son, orders genocide on the people of Babylon and burns the Qur'ān, claiming that he is more powerful than God. In the play's final act, he falls fatally ill but still manages to defeat one last foe before his death, upon which he commands his sons to conquer the rest of the world.

    Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a significant, early example of a tragic hero, with complexities and weaknesses, who remains sympathetic. Marlowe gives him magnificent verses in which his dreams of power and beauty become vivid. His greed highlights his humanity; when his extreme cruelty becomes sickening to the audience, it becomes clear that his weaknesses are deeply human. Marlowe presents his protagonist as multi-faceted, creating a tragic hero that is as impressive and powerful as he is deeply flawed.

    Tamburlaine and blank verse

    Tamburlaine was the first English play written in blank verse. With this, Marlowe established the form as a staple of Elizabethan dramatic writing.

    Blank verse is a form of verse with no fixed number of lines. It almost always appears in iambic pentameter (lines made up of 5 iambs, or 5 unstressed syllables followed by stressed ones), and usually does not have a consistent rhyme scheme.

    Before the adoption of this form, most plays were written in rhymed verse and the few attempts at using blank verse seemed stiff and awkward; strict, regular and precise metrical rhythm made long verses sound monotone and uninteresting to audiences.

    Marlowe, however, varied regular stresses, creating a varied and beautiful sounding verse that utilised the innate musicality in the natural rhythm of blank verse. This was a technique later utilised and perfected by Shakespeare.

    Doctor Faustus

    Marlowe's most famous play, commonly known as Doctor Faustus, or simply Faustus, was titled in full The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The play was based on various German stories about a character named Faust. It was probably written between 1588 and 1592. However, this is widely debated among scholars, and was first published in 1604, though another version appeared in 1616. Its current form is thought to be largely corrupt, as some low comic scenes seem to be added later by other, less talented writers than Marlowe himself.

    Faustus is Marlowe's interpretation of a morality play, taking over its dramatic frameworks.

    A morality play is a dramatic form in which characters personify various moral qualities to impart moral lessons, usually through a central hero. Often, these plays present a story of temptation, fall and damnation, or redemption. Morality plays originated in the Middle Ages.

    Various morality figures are often present too. In Faustus, Marlowe's protagonist encounters a Good Angel, a Bad Angel, Lucifer and his intermediary, Mephastophilis.

    In Faustus, Marlowe follows Faustus, a low-born man who quickly and impressively achieved a doctorate in theology at a German university. His thirst for knowledge ultimately led him to necromancy (the supposed practice of communicating with the dead). Faustus sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. Mephastophilis, the devil's servant, is bound to Faustus for 24 years, after which Lucifer will claim him, body and soul. The play ends at the end of Faustus' contract, as he renews his pledge to the devil even after admitting his mistakes.

    Similarly to Tamburlaine, Faustus is presented as a tragic hero whose cruelty and absurdity are equal to his power and magnificence. Marlowe's eloquent verse allows for a more profound look at Faustus, expressing his great intellectual ambitions whilst condemning them as self-destructive and ultimately futile.

    Doctor Faustus is thought by many to be Marlowe's masterpiece, venturing into spiritual themes that were rarely explored by contemporary playwrights. The play considers themes of power, intelligence and of course, morality.

    Mephastophilis as a tragic hero

    It is important to consider Marlowe's presentation of Mephastophilis, who can be considered the second most important character in the play, after Faustus. He achieves tragic grandeur as a fallen angel who feels torn between his dark despair, satanic pride, and loyalty to Lucifer.

    Marlowe creates in him a cautionary tale: Mephistophilis warns our main character about the true horrors of Hell in brief moments between attempts to tempt Faustus towards darkness.

    It is in these moments that the audience sees Mephistophilis as a tragic figure who is 'tormented with ten thousand hells' (1.3.77); his experience as an angel in heaven makes his fall to hell that much more intense.

    Mephistophilis serves as a constant reminder of the true nature of hell, and what will await Faustus if he chooses this fate. However, he simultaneously acts as an agent for Lucifer as he is bound by satanic loyalty. The contradictions in his character create a multi-dimensionality that allows audiences to see Faustus's ultimate blindness more clearly, and also to consider nuance in even the evilest of characters.

    Christopher Marlowe: quotes

    MEPHASTOPHILIS: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of GodAnd tasted the eternal joys of heaven,Am not tormented with ten thousand hellsIn being deprived of everlasting bliss?

    (Doctor Faustus, 3.76–86)

    In this quote from Doctor Faustus, the audience sees Faustus as his most blind; even as he listens to Mephastophilis describe the horrors of hell; he proceeds to dismiss him promptly. Moreover, Marlowe presents Mephastophilis in a multidimensional light as he attempts to warm Faustus against his pride, urging him not to make the same mistakes.

    Be all a scourge and terror to the world,Or else you are not sons of Tamburlaine.

    (Tamburlaine the Great, Part II, 1.iii. 40-41)

    In Tamburlaine's blinding search for power, he grooms his sons to follow in his path of 'terror' and cruelty to cement his power for years to come. He longs for his dynasty to rule the 'world', even after he is dead.

    Our swords shall play the orators for us.

    (Tamburlaine the Great, Part I, 1.i.i.132)

    Marlowe's impressive command of language is evident in all of his verse, but particularly in various metaphors and imagery, such as this example from Tamburlaine.

    Christopher Marlowe - Key takeaways

    • Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, Kent, and was baptised on 26 February 1564.
    • Marlowe was a prominent early figure in Elizabethan theatre.
    • Five plays are widely agreed to be Marlowe's work.
    • The most famous of Marlowe's plays is Doctor Faustus.
    • Marlowe was killed on 30 May 1593, after a bar fight in Deptford, London.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Christopher Marlowe

    Where is Christopher Marlowe buried?

    Marlowe is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas's Church, Deptford, London, England

    How did Christopher Marlowe die?

    Marlowe was killed in a lodging house in Deptford, London, after being embroiled in a bar fight with a man named Ingram Frizer.

    How did Christopher Marlowe influence Shakespeare?

    Marlowe was an early contemporary of Shakespeare, whilst both were working as playwrights in London. Marlowe's early use of blank verse and his command of language was a significant influence on the young Shakespeare.

    What is Christopher Marlowe's most famous poem?

    Marlowe is mainly considered a dramatist; however, he began work on an epic poem Hero and Leander before his death. It was first published five years after his death.

    What did Christopher Marlowe write?

    Christopher Marlowe is a dramatist known for writing the plays Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine the Great and The Jew of Malta.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many plays are commonly attributed to Marlowe's authorship?

    In which year was Tamburlaine the Great performed for the first time?

    Who created the play Doctor Faustus?


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