Christopher Marlowe

Painting of a young man, perhaps Christopher Marlowe, 1585
Painting of a young man, perhaps Christopher Marlowe, 1585. © The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Biography

Christopher Marlowe’s short but active life, the rumours of ‘Diabolicall Atheisme’[1] swirling around him and his violent death have prompted comparisons with his most infamous dramatic creations: the blaspheming John Faustus of Doctor Faustus, the Machiavellian Barabas of The Jew of Malta, the homosexual Edward of Edward II. In reality, however, we don’t know what Marlowe’s life has to do with his works, although the comparisons are irresistible.

Birth, education and early life

Marlowe was born to John Marlowe and Elizabeth Archer in the cathedral city of Canterbury, and baptised on 26 February 1564. John was a shoemaker, and a notably argumentative man, a characteristic he shared with his son, who was involved in several violent confrontations. In 1589 Marlowe got into a ‘boute’ (fight), in which a man was killed, and he was briefly imprisoned; in May 1592 he was arrested after a street fight.

In 1578, at about 14, Marlowe was enrolled as a scholar of King’s School in Canterbury, and in 1580 he went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on a scholarship given to able scholars who could also, if possible, ‘make a verse’. Around 1585 he started working as a government agent. Exactly what Marlowe did is unclear, but he is likely to have been a part of Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence network.

Theatrical career

Marlowe’s theatrical career kicked off in the later 1580s with Tamburlaine the Great, first performed in London in about 1587 to great popular success. A sequel was quickly produced, and the plays were printed together in 1590. The chronology of the rest of Marlowe’s plays is uncertain, but the first recorded performance of The Jew of Malta was in 1592, and The Massacre at Paris in 1593. The sophisticated and poetic Edward II may be one of Marlowe’s last works. This play’s depiction of a love relationship between two men has often been taken as evidence of Marlowe’s own homosexuality. Another major work from the 1590s is the sensual, homoerotic poem Hero and Leander.

Rumours, controversy and death

Rumours about Marlowe’s unconventional religious and political beliefs intensified before his death. After the posting of an anti-immigrant libel signed ‘Tamburlaine’ in London on 5 May 1593, Marlowe’s lodgings were raided and his room-mate Thomas Kyd arrested. Under interrogation Kyd accused Marlowe of blasphemy. On 18 May the Privy Council issued a warrant for his arrest. A few days later the council received a document compiled by the spy Robert Baines, listing 19 dangerous beliefs allegedly held by Marlowe, including ‘that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest’, and that ‘all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools’. On 30 May Marlowe was stabbed to death during a fight at a house in Deptford, apparently after an argument about a bill. The incident’s relation, if any, to Marlowe’s investigation by the Privy Council is unknown. He was about 29.

Further information about the life of Christopher Marlowe can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


[1] Robert Greene, Greenes Groatsworth of Witte (London, 1592), sig.F1r.

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