Christopher Marlow: The Man and His Writing

Christopher Marlow: The Man and His Writing

            English dramatist, Christopher Marlow was the originator of English tragedy and the forerunner of William Shakespeare.  He was extremely popular during his life time for his plays and poetry, and it can only be speculated how much more he would have contributed the theater and poetry if his life had not been cut short.  One thing is certain and that is his writing is definitely influenced by his life.

            Marlow was born in Canterbury, England on February 6, 1564 to a shoemaker, John, and his wife, Catherine.  He had a fine education even though he came from a working class background.  When he was older, he went to Cambridge to attend Corpus Christi College and earned his Bachelors of Art in 1571 and his Masters in 1584.

            Marlow moved to London to pursue his theatrical career.  It is accepted that he was a spy.  One of his closest friends was Sir Francis Walsingham, a master spy for Queen Elizabeth.  When it was time for Corpus Christi College to present Marlow with his master’s degree the college did not want to grant it because they had information that he was to attend a Catholic college in a Protestant ruled England.  However, the Queen’s Privicy Council wrote to Corpus Christi College to ask that they grant the degree.  There would be no other reason for the council to get involved in this matter unless Marlow was associated with the government.

            Doctor Faustus is symbolic of this role in Marlow’s life.  In the play, Doctor Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer.  The fact that Marlow was a spy could have made him feel that he had sold his soul to the government.  To spy one would have to purposely mislead others about who he/she is.  Then he/she would have to report others’ secrets to the government.  Espionage is a necessity in the world, but it has to be based on dishonesty.   As Faustus begins to travel with his new found powers, he does magical task that intrigue, fascinate, and entertain those who watch him.  That is the role of a playwright and an actor, but at the end he/she must be able to come to terms with him/herself.  In the end, Faustus had to deal with who he was and what he had done.

            Faustus was also able to conjure the dead.  Alexander the Great was summoned for Charles V, the German emperor.  Essentially, the same can be said for Marlow.  As a playwright, he had to research his historical protagonists.  He had to think like them, feel like them, and become them in his mind.  He had to conjure them back to the world of the living so that his audience saw them as real as Charles saw Alexander the Great.

            Marlow also found that by portraying Edward II, that the reign of monarchs was always full of strife and controversy.  This was particularly true in the life of Marlow.

He evidently knew Thomas Kyd, who shared his unorthodox opinions. Nash criticized his verse, Greene affected to shudder at his atheism; Gabriel Harvey maligned his memory. On the other hand Marlowe was intimate with the Walsinghams of Scadbury, Chiselhurst, kinsmen of Sir Francis Walsingham: he was also the personal friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps of the poetical earl of Oxford, with both of whom, and with such men as Walter Warner and Robert Hughes the mathematicians, Thomas Harriott the notable astronomer, and Matthew Royden, the dramatist is said to have met in free converse. (Swinburne).

By having the friends that he did, Marlow was not a stranger to controversy.   Many times while talking as intellectuals, their conversations would turn to subjects that were not considered proper for the time.  In Edward II the protagonist is awaiting the return of his favorite friend to return from exile after his father, Edward I, return.  In a monarchy, a man can be a friend to those in power one minute and their enemy the next.  Marlow was confronted with this in his friendships.  They were praised for their brilliance and creativity, as long as they did not cross the wrong person.  So the very element that made them special also made their lives dangerous.

                Marlow’s own friends were tortured into giving up information about him.  He had given up on religion and had become an atheist, which was heresy in Protestant England.   In Edward II, Edward meets a man named Lightborn while in prison.  He is sure that Lightborn is his friend and confides in him.  Instead, Lightborn is really against Edward and kills him.  This must have been the way that Marlow felt when Thomas Kyd made accusations about him.

In May, 1593, a manuscript was discovered in Kyd’s possession which he declared to be Marlowe’s left’ with Kyd in 1591 when he was in the service of a noble lord for whose players Marlowe was writing. The document–merely a copy of part of a theological treatise already published–though unitarian in nature, was atheistic in the eyes of the orthodox. Testimony as to blasphemous conversations on Marlowe’s part was also produced. Before the privy council took definite action about the charges, Marlowe was killed. (Christopher Marlow)

Edward was also betrayed by his wife and her lover.  There is so much betrayal in the play that it is evident that Marlow had an issue with it.

            Homosexuality was another accusation tossed at Marlow.  During the Elizabethan Era, homosexuality was not discussed in the open and those who are called homosexual could have been bisexual.  If this is true, then Edward II would fit the life of Marlow further.  At the beginning of the play, Edward is awaiting the arrival of his lover and best friend, Piers Gavenston, who has been living in exile during the reign of Edward I.  He is obviously in love with Gavenston.  Doing this would have been risky for Marlow considering the religious feelings of the day.  He obviously felt that the truth as he saw it was more important than public sentiment.

            The Jew of Malta is another example of art imitating life for Marlow.  Barabas, the protagonist, is rich because he has worked hard to make himself so.  Marlow was not born into wealth.  His father was a middle class working man.  However, once Marlow was an adult, he was constantly around the titled and the royals.  He was always faced with the stigma of a common man in a culture where mobility by birth was the only one accepted in high society.  Barabas is swindled out of money by the government because of his faith.  He fights it until it has caused him to commit murder and all ends in tragedy.  The same is true for Marlow.  His demise in the end is because he will not accept the religion of the government.  This was a government that he had given so much of his himself, yet because of one element of his life, it was willing to destroy him.  He had already seen some who were close to him punished for their beliefs. Francis Kett, the mystic, burnt in 1589 for heresy, was a fellow and tutor of his college, and may have had some share in developing Marlowe’s opinions in religious matters. (Swinburne).

            Tamburlaine mirrors the life of Marlow as well.  Tamburlaine, the protagonist is a rebel bandit who achieves great things.

Evidently, in his brief, tragic, and passionate life, Marlowe was the kind of man who could not help making enemies. He seems to have lived, as he thought, dangerously. The history of Marlowe’s remaining six years of his life traces a series of violent clashes with the law. (The Life of Christopher Marlow)

It is obvious that Marlow considered himself a renegade as Tamburlaine saw himself.

            Tamburlaine and Edward III considered doing right by one’s country was more important than family loyalty.  This is evident in two elements of Marlow’s personality.  First was the allegiance that Marlow felt toward the monarchy when he decided to become a spy.  He knew that there would be loyalties that would be broken because of his position with the government and yet he made the decision to become one.  This shows that he felt that loyalty to country should be stronger.  Edward III has his mother and her lover killed for killing Edward II.  He chose the relationship because the bond between an offspring and the mother is extremely strong.  If he were to depict Edward II choosing country over mother then he would make the statement about the loyalty to country to his patrons.  He also shows this to his patrons when Tamburlaine kills his own son when he decides to cling to his mother instead of fighting for his father’s kingdom.

            Marlow was killed on May 30, 1593 at twenty-nine years of age.  As in life, his death was filled with controversy.  A warrant had been issued for his arrest days before his untimely death.  Just as his life was controversial, so was his death.  The truth of his murder, whether it had to do with the warrant for his arrest or a barroom brawl, will never be known.  Even though his short life was eventful, it was a perfect inspiration for his plays and poetry.

Baskerville, C. (1934).  Christopher Marlow.  Elizabethan and Stuart Plays.  Retrieved

May 12, 2008 from

Christopher Marlow. (20010). Classic Reader.  Retrieved May 12, 2008 from

Swinburne, A.  Christopher Marlow.  Retrieved May 12, 2008 from

The Life of Christopher Marlow. Southwest College.  Retrieved May 12, 2008 from

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