An anonymous portrait, often believed to show Christopher Marlowe
Christopher ("Kit") Marlowe (baptised February 26, 1564–May 30, 1593) was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. He is known for his magnificent blank verse and overreaching protagonists.
Born in Canterbury the son of a shoemaker, he attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on a scholarship and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1584. In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his master's degree because of a rumor that he had converted to Catholicism and gone to the English college at Rheims to prepare for the priesthood. However, his degree was awarded on schedule when the Privy Council intervened on his behalf, commending him for his "faithful dealing" and "good service" to the queen. The nature of Marlowe's service was not specified by the Council, but their letter to the Cambridge authorities has provoked much sensational speculation, notably the theory that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham's intelligence service. No direct evidence supports this theory, although Marlowe obviously did serve the queen in some capacity.
The brief Dido, Queen of Carthage seems to be Marlowe's first extant dramatic work, possibly written at Cambridge with Thomas Nashe.
Marlowe's first known play to be performed on the London stage was 1587's Tamburlaine, the story of the conqueror Timur. The first English play to make effective dramatic use of blank verse, it marks the beginning of the mature phase of Elizabethan Theatre. It was a smash success, and Tamburlaine Part II soon followed. The sequence of his remaining plays is unknown. All were written on controversial themes. Doctor Faustus, based on the recently published German Faustbuch , was the first dramatic version of the Faust legend of a scholar's dealing with the devil. The Jew of Malta, depicting a Maltese Jew's barbarous revenge against the city authorities, featured a prologue delivered by Machiavelli himself. Edward the Second, which may have been inspired by Shakespeare's earliest history plays, was an English history play about the dethronement of Edward II by his dissatisfied barons and his French queen (the possibility that Elizabeth I might be dethroned by pro-Catholic forces was very real at the time). The Massacre at Paris was a short, sketchy play portraying the events surrounding the Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre in 1572, an event that English Protestants frequently invoked as the blackest example of Catholic treachery.
His other works include the first book of the minor epic Hero and Leander (published with a continuation by George Chapman in 1598), the popular lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, and translations of Ovid's Amores and the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia.
The two parts of Tamburlaine were published in 1590; all his other works were published posthumously. In 1599 his translation of Ovid was banned and copies publicly burned as part of Archbishop Whitgift's crackdown on offensive material.
Marlowe's plays were enormously successful, thanks in part, no doubt, to the imposing stage presence of Edward Alleyn. He was unusually tall for the time, and the haughty roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas were probably 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 is often described as homosexual, although direct evidence for this is non-existent. The first reason is that Richard Baines , an informer who made allegations against Marlowe (after the latter's arrest - see below) of atheism and other crimes, claimed that Marlowe once said "all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools", and joked that Jesus and John the Evangelist were bedfellows. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen describe Baines's evidence as "unreliable testimony" and make the comment: "These and other testimonials need to be discounted for their exaggeration and for their having been produced under legal circumstances we would regard as a witch-hunt" (Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, pp. viii - ix).
The second reason is that Marlowe's play Edward II (c.1592) is one of the very few English Renaissance plays to be overtly concerned with homosexual characters. The portrayal of Edward and Piers Gaveston is quite unflattering, but so too is the portrayal of the barons who usurp him, and the play's numerous modern revivals have demonstrated that Edward's tragic decline and death can elicit sympathetic responses, and it is conceivable that some contemporary audience members might have responded similarly.
Apart from begging the question, some claim that the problem with citing Edward II as evidence of Marlowe's homosexuality is that all his other plays and poetry are concerned with heterosexuality. A recurring theme in the plays is the man inspired to great deeds by his love for a woman; for instance, Tamburlaine and Zenocrate (Tamburlaine Part I: I, ii, 82. etc.) In Doctor Faustus, Faustus conjures Alexander the Great for the emperor; in a dumb show, Alexander defeats Darius and takes his crown, Alexander is then greeted by his paramour and places the crown on her head (B-text, IV, i). This is echoed later when Faustus conjures Helen of Troy:
- Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
- And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
- Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
- Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!
- Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
- Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
- And all is dross that is not Helena.
In the case of Edward II, Edward's love for Gaveston causes him to lose his kingdom, while Mortimer Junior's love for Queen Isabella drives his ambition, although both relationships are ultimately self-destructive.
This claim however presumes that a playwright with a passion for males would have written plays exclusively focused on that love, a political and artistic impossibility in the moral climate of the times. Thus the mere inclusion of same-sex love themes, often in very tender terms, in Marlowe's works can be seen as significant, and as an act of artistic courage.
In Elizabethan times, as today, an interest in women did not preclude an interest in boys, and the question of whether an Elizabethan was 'gay' in a modern sense is anachronistic, as the concept of homosexuality did not emerge until the nineteenth century; while sodomy was a crime in the period there was no word for an exclusively homosexual identity (see History of homosexuality).
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 blank verse, contained allusions to several of Marlowe's plays and was signed "Tamburlaine." On May 11 the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels. The next day, Marlowe's colleague Thomas Kyd was arrested. Kyd's lodgings were searched and a fragment of a heretical tract was found. Kyd asserted, possibly under torture, that it had belonged to Marlowe. Two years earlier they had both been working for an aristocratic patron, probably Ferdinando Stanley , Lord Strange, and Kyd assumed that at this time, when they were sharing a workroom, the document had found its way among his papers. Marlowe's arrest was ordered on May 18. Marlowe was not in London, but was staying with Thomas Walsingham, the cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham. However, he duly appeared before the Privy Council on May 20 and was instructed to "give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary." On May 30, Marlowe was murdered.
Various versions of what happened were current at the time. Francis Meres says Marlowe was "stabbed to death by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love" as punishment for his "epicurism and atheism". In 1917, in the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Sidney Lee wrote that Marlowe was killed in a drunken fight, and this is still often stated as fact today.
The facts only came to light in 1925 when the scholar Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner's report on Marlowe's death in the Public Record Office . Marlowe had spent all day in a house (not a tavern) in Deptford, owned by the widow Eleanor Bull, along with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. All three had been employed by the Walsinghams. Skeres and Poley had helped snare the conspirators in the Babington plot. Frizer was a servant of Thomas Walsingham. Witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had earlier argued over the bill, exchanging "divers malicious words." Later, 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 began attacking him. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner's report, Marlowe was accidentally stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly. The coroner concluded that Frizer acted in self-defense, and he was promptly pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Deptford, on June 1, 1593.
A number of fanciful scenarios have been proposed by those who question the coroner's report: they speculate that Marlowe's death was faked by his powerful friends to save him from prosecution for heresy, or that he was the victim of a "hit" to silence him because he knew something about someone. These theories are not supported by any direct or compelling evidence. No one in the Renaissance considered Marlowe's death suspicious, although they were quick to believe rumors about other sudden deaths, or to circulate other kinds of rumors about Marlowe's death. Speculative theories about Marlowe's death are strictly a twentieth-century phenomenon.
The dates of composition are approximate.
- David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, OUP, 1998; ISBN 0192834452
- Constance Kuriyama,Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life. Cornell University Press, 2002. ISBN 0801439787
- Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, Vintage, 2002 (revised edition) ISBN 0099437473
Last updated: 05-13-2005 20:44:42