Christopher Marlowe: The man, the myth and the mighty line

Andrew Dickson looks at the infamous mysteries and controversies surrounding Christopher Marlowe's life, and celebrates the ambition, daring and skill of his work.

A tale of two sons. In late February 1564, a shoemaker called John Marlowe from Canterbury and his wife Katherine had a boy, their first, whom they christened Christopher. Almost exactly two months later, in April, a glovemaker from Stratford-upon-Avon called John Shakespeare and his wife Mary had a boy, also their first. They called him William. Both children were phenomenally bright, were dispatched to grammar school, and had ambitions to be writers. By their 20s, both were in London and forging reputations as playwrights. Shakespeare’s career soared: he wrote 40-plus works, died in his bed back in Stratford at the respectable age of 52, and became the greatest playwright the world has ever known. By contrast, Marlowe’s star crashed and burst into flames: dead at 29, killed in a brawl, with just seven plays to his name. Farcically, the dispute was said to have begun over a bar bill.[1]

Celebration of Shakespeare in Meres' Wit's Treasury, 1598

Celebration of Shakespeare in Meres' Wit's Treasury, 1598

‘Marlow was stabd to death by a bawdy serving man’.

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This, anyway, is the legend, burnished by films and TV series such as Shakespeare in Love and Upstart Crow. Shakespeare: careful, diligent, perhaps a little dull. Marlowe: reckless, sexy, dangerous, doomed. Having wowed the London stage with some of the most potent drama of the late 1580s, Marlowe allowed himself to be dogged by rumours of espionage, atheism and hints that he might have been gay. Like all the best celebrities, he lived fast and died young.

‘High astounding terms’

As ever, the truth is somewhat more complicated. From the documentary evidence of Marlowe’s formative years, there was little hint that his career would be so controversial. As a boy, he seems to have been a dutiful if exceptionally talented student: he raced through the King’s School in Canterbury, then in 1580 – at the age of just 16 – won a scholarship to Bene’t College, Cambridge (now Corpus Christi), to study Latin and Greek.

Painting of a young man, perhaps Christopher Marlowe, 1585

Painting of a young man, perhaps Christopher Marlowe, 1585

This painting, found under some rubble at Corpus Christi College, is thought by some to be Marlowe.

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Usage terms The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Held by© The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Yet even here there are hints of what would follow. One text he translated at university was the verse collection Amores (‘The Loves’) by the Roman poet. [2] More intriguingly, it was at Cambridge that he seems to have been drawn into the shadowy world of Elizabethan spycraft. Having taken his BA degree in 1584, he nearly failed to get an MA three years later because of his frequent absences from college. Only a government letter, assuring his tutors in carefully ambiguous phrasing that Marlowe had been busy in ‘matters touching the benefitt of his Countrie’, allowed him to graduate.[3]

Whatever the truth about his activities during this period – in 1589 he was briefly imprisoned for being present when a man was stabbed to death, and it’s been suggested that he spent time infiltrating Catholic circles in Paris – Marlowe’s real skill was with his pen. He might well first have encountered live theatre at university, but the first time he came to broader attention was with his play Tamburlaine the Great, which debuted in London in 1587 or 1588, soon after he was finally granted his Cambridge MA.

An audacious historical saga about a not-so-humble medieval shepherd who ends up ruling Central Asia, the play starred the commandingly powerful actor Edward Alleyn as Tamburlaine, and fed an Elizabethan fascination with distant and exotic worlds. Even more than that, it announced Marlowe’s own ambition in the loudest possible terms, pouring scorn on the playwright’s elders and supposed betters:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall here the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
(Prologue, 1–6)[4]

In the theatre, the sheer force of this brawny blank verse, with its driving pentameter rhythm (‘from jig-ging vei-ns of rhy-ming moth-er wits’), must have left audiences’ ears ringing. Small wonder that many years later Ben Jonson still talked admiringly of Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.[5] Crowds seem to have been thrilled, and a sequel to Tamburlaine followed in 1590.

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio

Ben Jonson celebrated Christopher Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’ in his verse at the start of the First Folio, 1623.

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Massacres, murder and mayhem

Catapulted to fame in his early 20s, Marlowe developed a reputation as the most exciting playwright in Elizabethan London (stories about his activities as a secret agent might not have hurt). Over a period of just five years in the late 1580s and early 90s, he produced seven plays and three poems, the pace being so rapid that scholars are still unsure exactly how to date them.[6]

Marlowe's The Jew of Malta

Marlowe's The Jew of Malta

This is the first edition of The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta. It was probably first performed around 1592, but not published until 1633.

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By 1592 two of his most controversial plays were probably being performed on the stage: The Jew of Malta, a wickedly caustic satire about a Jewish moneylender, Barabas, who gets his revenge on ‘swine-eating Christians’ who defraud him; and Edward II, a historical drama on one of the most contentious monarchs in English history, notorious for failures as a ruler and his intimate relationship with a male favourite, Piers Gaveston. Though very different in tone, both plays display Marlowe’s talent for going against the grain. While Barabas does any number of dastardly deeds – poisoning wells is one favourite activity – he is not an unsympathetic figure, and is by far the most exciting thing on stage: T S Eliot talked admiringly of the play’s ‘terribly serious even savage comic humour’.[7]

Derek Jarman's Sex and Violence: Sod 'em / Edward II sketchbook

Derek Jarman's 'Sex and Violence: Sod 'em'/ 'Edward II' sketchbook

Jarman said ‘Marlowe outs the past – why don’t we out the present?’ In his 1991 film of Edward II, Jarman combined medieval images of the king and his favourites with reflections on modern life as a gay man.

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For its part, Edward II offers what has been called ‘the first great depiction of same-sex love for the stage’, portraying the doomed relationship between Edward and Gaveston in terms that must have surprised audiences expecting a far more critical portrayal:[8]

GAVESTON ‘My father is deceast, come Gaveston
And share the kingdom with thy deerest friend.’
Ah words that make me surfet with delight:
What greater blisse can hap to Gaveston,
Then live and be the favorit of a king?
Sweete prince I come; these, these thy amorous lines,
Might have enforst me to have swum from France,
And like Leander gaspt upon the sande,
So thou wouldst smile and take me in thy armes.

The tender depiction of an intimate ‘friendship’ between two men has led many to regard Edward II as an out-and-out celebration of gay love, a theme that productions from the 1960s onwards have often emphasised.[9] Whether it reflected Marlowe’s own sex life is a more tangled question: though there’s little doubt that ideas of homosexual desire fascinated him as a writer, definitions of sexuality in the Renaissance period were fluid at best.[10] A 1593 manuscript held at the British Library records Marlowe’s quip that ‘all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles’. The comment must have shocked as well as titillated his contemporaries; whether it mirrored his true feelings is – as with so much about Marlowe’s life – a tantalising mystery.[11]

Accusations against Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines and others

Accusations against Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines and others

In this famous note, the double agent Richard Baines claims that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ and sneered at anyone who didn’t love ‘Tobacco & Boies’.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

For many people, the playwright’s masterwork is Doctor Faustus, which was complete by the early 1590s. Narrating the legend of a free-thinking scholar from Wittenberg whose insatiable thirst for knowledge leads him to make a pact with the devil, it is a bold attempt to reconcile human ambition with the limits of the divine. As well as containing yet another compelling Marlovian over-reacher in the form of Faustus, the script also contains what might be some of Marlowe’s best poetry, most famously a luminous description of Helen of Troy, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships / And burned the topless towers of Ilium’, a vision of whom appears on stage (Doctor Faustus, scene 13, 90–91).

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 1631

Many see this as Marlowe’s masterwork – a play about a scholar who makes a pact with the devil in exchange for superhuman powers.

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Not long after The Jew of Malta was first performed, Marlowe seems to have been spending more and more time doing semi-criminal espionage work, perhaps as a way of paying the bills, and his long, erotic poem 'Hero and Leander', perhaps his final work, was left incomplete. In May 1593, Marlowe was arrested, partly on the evidence of the informer Richard Baines, an unsavoury character who – as well as recording that line about tobacco and boys – claimed that the playwright had poured scorn on the existence of God. A former friend and room-mate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, concurred, claiming that Marlowe was wont to ‘jest at the divine scriptures, gibe at prayers, & strive in argument to frustrate and confute what hath been spoke or writ by prophets and such holy men’.[12] The authorities promptly charged him with heresy.

Accusations against Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines and others

Accusations against Christopher Marlowe by Richard Baines and others

This manuscript records what Marlowe’s former friend Thomas Kyd said about ‘marlowes monstruous opinions’.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Whether or not he meant any of it seriously, Marlowe would never get a chance to defend himself. After spending 30 May 1593 drinking at an inn in the company of government agents Robert Poley, Nicholas Skeres and Ingram Frizer – even more unsavoury characters than Baines – a tussle broke out in which he was stabbed. According to the fastidious coroner’s report, a dagger ‘of the value of 12 pence’ wielded by Frizer gave Marlowe a ‘mortal wound above his right eye to the depth of two inches and in breadth one inch’. He collapsed at the scene. Frizer got off, pleading self-defence.[13]

Dead shepherd

The details of Marlowe’s life – and the manner of his death – are sufficiently lurid that it can sometimes be difficult to see the work in its own terms. Certainly it’s true that there seem to be parallels between the playwright’s own character and the numerous outsized anti-heroes he created, from Tamburlaine to Barabas and Faustus. If we believe Baines' and Kyd’s evidence, Marlowe the man seems to have had a personality every bit as big as the people he put on stage. It’s also true that in his plays he tackled subversive themes – same-sex desire, political intrigue, religious scheming – with a lack of regard for conventional boundaries, and that this echoed his life outside the theatre. Little wonder that one recent editor has half-jokingly called him ‘Joe Orton in doublet and hose’.[14] Even less wonder that some have speculated that his death was some kind of cover-up (a wildly implausible theory, as it happens).[15]

But to view him simply through the life he lived does this greatest of early Elizabethan playwrights a disservice. In a theatre scene still dominated by insipid, rule-bound academic drama, Marlowe wrote language of thrilling muscularity and created characters more psychologically believable than anything his contemporaries had yet seen. His plays still have a unique force and power.

Photographs of RSC production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 2016

Photographs of RSC production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, 2016

In this production, two actors shared the roles of Faustus and his demon, Mephistopheles. At the start of each performance, Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan struck a match to decide who would play which part.

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And how about that relationship with Shakespeare? Perhaps the interesting thing is how closely the two men’s lives were entwined, not only biographically, but also in their work. So many of Shakespeare’s plays seem like answers to questions first posed by Marlowe: The Merchant of Venice is a more sympathetic version of The Jew of Malta, Richard II dwells on many of the same questions about power and legitimacy as Edward II, while Hamlet could surely not have come to life without the dizzying philosophical speculations examined in Faustus. Shakespeare even includes a buried tribute to his dead colleague-cum-rival in his mid-period comedy As You Like It, spoken by the shepherdess Phoebe: ‘Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw [saying] of might: / “Who ever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight?”’ (3.5.81–82).[16] As her first audiences would have known, she is quoting 'Hero and Leander'.[17]

That is, of course, to ignore the largest and most tantalising what-if: whether, if Marlowe had lived longer and written more, he would have been even greater than Shakespeare, the greatest of them all. It seems entirely possible.


[1] The best place to examine the biographical details of Marlowe’s life – and their numerous ambiguities – is Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Honan’s Shakespeare: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), is also highly recommended.

[2] Sections of the translation were eventually published in 1599 as Certaine of Ovids Elegies, and suppressed in the so-called ‘Bishops’ Ban’, then publicly burnt. See Syrinthe Pugh, ‘Marlowe and Classical Literature’, in Emily C. Bartels and Emma Smith (eds), Christopher Marlowe in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 80–89.

[3] See Honan, Marlowe, pp. 153–55.

[4] All quotations from The Complete Plays, ed. Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey (London: Penguin, 2003).

[5] Ben Jonson, ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us’, in the preface to the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, l.30. Reprinted in Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells (eds), William Shakespeare, The Complete Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 2005), p. lxxi.

[6] For chronology and Marlowe’s reading, see Vivien Thomas and Willian Tydeman (eds), Christopher Marlowe: The Plays and their Sources (London: Routledge, 1994).

[7] T S Eliot, Selected Essays (London: Faber, 1951), p. 105.

[8] Honan, Marlowe, p. 303.

[9] Perhaps most famously Derek Jarman’s 1991 movie adaptation, which the director described as a ‘film of a gay love affair’. See Lawrence Normand, ‘Edward II, Derek Jarman, and the state of England’, in J A  Downie and J T Parnell (eds), Constructing Christopher Marlowe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 177–93.

[10] See Alan Stewart, ‘Edward II and Male Same-Sex Desire’ in Garrett A. Sullivan Jr, Patrick Cheney and Andrew Hadfield (eds), Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 82–95.

[11] BL MS Harleian 6848, ff. 185–86. Honan reprints the so-called ‘Baines note’ in full on pp. 374–75.

[12] Quoted in Honan, Marlowe, p. 246.

[13] Honan reprints a translation of the coroner’s report, originally in Latin, in full; see pp. 176–377. The original is in the National Archives/Public Record Office, MS C260/174, no. 127. The best and most vivid account of Marlowe’s final years is Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992).

[14] Romany and Lindsey, Complete Plays, p. xxxii.

[15] The sheer density of evidence about Marlowe’s death makes it vanishingly unlikely that anything else happened that day in Deptford. Even so, the memorial window unveiled in Westminster Abbey in 2002 has a question mark next to his date of death; see: http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/christopher-marlowe.

[16] As You Like It, in Taylor and Wells, Complete Works.

[17] The poem eventually reached print in 1598, and this section was extensively quoted after Marlowe’s death.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.