Christopher Marlowe - Prodigal son of British Theatre

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Christopher Marlowe - Life and Work

There is something very attractive about rebellion and wildness in men. The James Dean appeal is hard to resist; men who live fast and die young leave not only beautiful corpses but also make themselves into icons whose romantic reputations overshadow the achievements of their lives. Christopher Marlowe was just such a man. A Renaissance rebel who lived like a protagonist in one of his own plays, he was Oliver Reed playing James Bond. And he just happened to be one of the truly great writers in history.

In 1993, on the 400th Anniversary of Marlowe's death, the Royal Shakespeare Company commemorated his life and work by commissioning a play about his death


It made for a better story. By comparison, plays about William Shakespeare (such as The Herbal Bed, or the Tom Stoppard film Shakespeare in Love) focus on fictionalised events of his youth. Shakespeare, from what we know, had none of Marlowe's romantic wildness; and in old age he became a prosperous and respectable member of the establishment, living a life that seems almost at odds with the social challenges inherent in his work. Contrastingly, Marlowe’s short but eventful life was entirely in keeping with the world view expressed in his plays. Like Tamburlaine, he rose above his humble origins to conquer the world. Like Faustus, he eschewed religion to pursue the study of forbidden sciences. Like Barabas , he practised deceit and treachery, and was deceived and betrayed in turn - perhaps even to his death.

The Upstart Crow

The lives and works of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare have become intertwined to the extent that now no discussion of Marlowe can avoid mention of Shakespeare. They were born in the same year, 1564 (a year that also saw the birth of another 'Renaissance Man' - the scientist-philosopher Galileo); exact contemporaries who had an immeasurable impact on the British stage and world literature as a whole. But it was Marlowe who emerged first, establishing himself with his university cronies as one of the leading lights of the developing theatrical world while Shakespeare was still little more than an apprentice.

It has been said that without Marlowe’s pioneering contribution to the emergent art of play-writing, there could have been no Shakespeare. Debatable as this is, it is certainly true to say that it was Marlowe who forged the medium that both were to exploit to such long-lasting effect. But while Shakespeare had a lifetime to develop his craft and career, Marlowe had just six short years.

Schoolboy, Scholar and Spy

Kit Marlowe was the son of a cobbler, and the grandson (on his mother’s side) of a clergyman. He was born in Canterbury, the religious epicentre of England, into a modestly prosperous family with ties to both the medieval guild of shoemakers, and to the church. In an unprecedented piece of miscasting, it was the Church that Marlowe was intended for, and to this end he was awarded a scholarship to King’s School, Canterbury. Yet preparation for either of these eminently respectable professions was also preparation for entry into the burgeoning world of the eminently disreputable Elizabethan Theatre.

From the Profound to the Profane

The Church had provided the medieval world it’s earliest theatrical entertainment, in the form of Liturgical drama. This was a dramatisation for the Easter festival of the meeting between the three Marys and the Angel at the tomb on Easter Sunday. It was performed in Latin by Choir boys who sang the parts, and gradually more scenes were added, eventually including non-biblical characters and events. This move to the secular is reflected in the language - there is less Latin, and more of the vernacular, and it became acceptable for non-clergy-folk to perform in them. The fledgling plays moved out of the church and were eventually taken over by the Guilds. By this point, there was very little Latin left in the plays as proved to be less of a crowd-pleaser when it came to creating popular drama. The Church used Latin at least partly to make the ‘divine message’ unintelligible without the aid of Latin-speaking priestly translators (so ensuring the continued existence of the clergy), but in these new, Guild-led dramas, closeness with the audience was exactly what they wanted to achieve.

Mystery and Morality

Different guilds were given responsibility for the presentation of different episodes in these Mystery Plays (as they came to be called), often with deliberate appropriateness; the carpenters presenting Noah's Ark, for instance, or the fishmongers presenting Jonah and the Whale. Eventually the Mystery plays evolved into Morality Plays - allegorical dramas that dramatise the battle between Good and Evil (or, in effect, God and the Devil). Characters are personifications of virtues and vices who fight for the soul of Everyman, with names like Fellowship and the Flesh (clearly a force for evil), the Seven Deadly Sins, Death and Knowledge. Naturally enough, the Devil got all the best lines and provided a necessary dose of humour to sweeten the pill of an otherwise overly didactic tone. The Devil, or Old Vice, was such a popular creation that he was incorporated into the dramas of later eras - he can be seen in characters such as Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Richard III. Modern scene-stealing descendants include Gordan Gekko in Wall Street, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and practically every character Al Pacino has ever played.

From Liturgical drama in the 12th Century, to the Morality plays of the 15th Century, the foundations of Elizabethan theatre were created. By Marlowe’s time the first theatres had been built and professional acting troupes established. With its roots thus firmly entrenched in Church and Guild, it is not surprising that the theatre held an irresistible lure for so many young men earmarked for careers in more reputable establishments.

A Renaissance Rogue

After King’s School, Marlowe went to Cambridge University in 1580 on another scholarship. Aged 17, Kit was a little older than the usual fresher - in those days 14 was considered a good age at which to be sent away from home


His time at university was, like most students, spent at least partly in study. He was taught rhetoric and the classics; sharpening his mastery of the art of crafting language, image and metre, and developing his taste for ancient Greek and Roman literature that was to be expressed so lyrically in his plays and poetry. There is evidence to support the claim that he started off, at least, with good intentions - his later work shows a great deal of familiarity with the classical and theological texts he would have studied, and he is known to have produced a number of translations from the Latin of texts such as Ovid’s Amores.

Yet Marlowe, not born into the gentry or the privileged classes, was, in true renaissance fashion, very much the self-made man - taking charge of his destiny and making of it a life he chose for himself. In both his life and plays, Marlowe challenged the established order by proving that the connection between birth and excellence was false; a man can make of himself what he will, defying social status and hereditary class. It was not long before Marlowe had discovered an alternative path that would lead him to fame, fortune, intrigue and tragedy - a long way, indeed, from his intended role as Clergyman.

It was at University that Marlowe learnt the craft of playwright and poet that brought him fame and fortune; and it was also at University that he learnt the craft that was ultimately brought him to tragedy. For it was in his final years at Cambridge that he was recruited into the Elizabethan secret service by spy-master Sir Francis Walsingham.

(The Original) International Man of Mystery

The spy-industry being what it is, not much is known for certain about Marlowe’s alternate career. It is known that in Marlowe’s last few years at Cambridge, his attendance grew steadily worse, and it is likely that he was one of a number of college students recruited by Walsingham to infiltrate the underground Catholic movement. Young men were rebelling against the dominant Protestant authority and travelling abroad furtively in order to convert to Catholicism; high treason in a time when Mary Queen of Scots still lived to offer from her prison an alternative to the Protestant Virgin Queen. The college authorities evidently believed that Marlowe had been out of the country, possibly travelling to Rheims for this very purpose. Yet clearly some higher authority had reason not to doubt Marlowe’s continued loyalty to Church and State, for an investigation by the college into the 23-year-old Marlowe’s activities was silenced by a letter from the Privy Council stating uncompromisingly that

in all his actions he [Marlowe] had behaved himself orderly and discreetly, whereby he had done her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing3.

The Council further warned that such negative rumours about Marlowe

should be allayed by all possible means, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take this next Commencement; because it was not her Majesty’s pleasure that any one employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those that are ignorant in the affairs he went about4.

Not a bad reference, for a provincial cobbler’s son. And so Marlowe, with the help of his influential fairy-godfather, was allowed to finish his degree.

London Calling

At University Marlowe had produced translations of classical poetry and possibly written one of his seven plays - Dido, Queen of Carthage5.

This may have been performed by a provincial theatre troupe in Ipswich, giving Marlowe an early taste of theatrical success. In any event, it was 1587 that Marlowe burst onto the London stage with the triumphant premier of his most dynamic play - the first part of Tamburlaine the Great. This bloody spectacular was a huge success with the London audience, and Marlowe followed it up within the year with the sequel (imaginatively titled Tamburlaine the Great Part 2).

The Bawdy Bard

Life in London suited Marlowe. Like his fellow ‘University Wits’ - playwrights and writers such as Robert Greene, George Peele, John Lyle, and Thomas Nashe6

he lived in an extravagant and flamboyant style. ‘Roaring Boys’, they drank and dressed to excess, fighting duels, talking loudly (a dangerous fault in those days) and getting involved in the shadier side of London society.

This is demonstrated by one of the few things known for certain about Marlowe. Court documents show that in September 1589, Marlowe was apparently challenged to a duel while walking down Hogs Lane near Finsbury Park


William Bradley was looking for a fight with Marlowe’s friend and fellow poet, Thomas Watson, but settled on Marlowe in his place. When Watson turned up, Bradley turned on him instead, and was stabbed to death in the course of the fight. Marlowe and Watson were arrested and brought up before the Constable of the Tower. Entering pleas of self-defence, they were both sent to Newgate gaol, where Marlowe remained until being released on bail on the 1st October. Watson was less fortunate - it was another six months before he was pardoned and set free.

This was not the last time that Marlowe came foul of the law; in 1591 the Elizabethan equivalent of a restraining order was brought against Marlowe by two officers of the law in Shoreditch8,

and in January 1592 Marlowe was deported from Holland on charges of counterfeiting that seem to be connected to his continuing activities as a spy. It appears that he was undercover with another agent, Richard Baines, in order to entrap a goldsmith named Gifford Gilbert who was suspected of involvement in counterfeiting. The two agents had fallen out over Baines’ apparent belief that Marlowe was more interested in committing the crime than catching the criminals. Baines took his accusation to the Governor, Sir Robert Sidney, who wrote that the two men

do one accuse another to have been the inducers of him[Gilbert], and to have intended to practice it [counterfeiting] hereafter…

There was clearly no love lost between Marlowe and Baines, as the Governor goes on to say that they

do also accuse one another of intent to go to the Enemy or to Rome, both as they say of malice one to another

Quoted in R.B. Wernham ‘Christopher Marlowe at Flushing in 1592’,
English Historical Review, Vol. 91, 1976, pp. 344-5

In the event, the squabbling agents suffered no further punishment, and on return to England both were released.

The Elizabethan literary community was a dangerously rowdy place to be - with swords being brandished as often as pens. Marlowe and Watson were unquestionably not the only hot-blooded and quick-tempered poets to reside in the Liberties


- John Day was reputed to have killed his fellow playwright Henry Porter in 1599, and Ben Jonson, one of the era’s most successful dramatists, killed an actor named Gabriel Spencer in a duel.

The liberties were home to the theatres and the taverns - allowing

vagrant persons, masterless men, thieves, horse stealers, whoremasters, cozeners, conycatchers, contrivers of treason and other idle and dangerous persons to meet together and make their matches, to the great displeasure of Almighty God and the hurt and annoyance of Her Majesty’s people.

Quoted in E.K Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage

Marlowe was certainly one of those involved with more than just rowdiness in the Liberties - it is suspected that he became involved in an intellectual secret society, headed by the Queen’s then favourite, Sir Walter Ralegh, known as The School of Night. They are believed to have formed in order to engage in exploration and debate of unorthodox (and therefore highly dangerous) religious, scientific and philosophic questions; taught, according to the later accusations of Marlowe’s nemesis, Baines, to smoke tobacco, scoff at the bible, and spell the name of God backwards. They were rumoured to have consisted of high-profile figures from the Elizabethan court - men who would have had a lot to loose if their participation in such a circle became known.

The Muses’ Darling

In the six years from 1587 to 1593, Marlowe established himself as a favourite of theatre audiences writing four more plays -
The Massace at Paris,
Edward II,
The Jew of Malta and
Doctor Faustus.

All of these plays, though very different in their subject manner, shared a common theme in their exultation of the individual - the central characters are all Marlovian antiheroes who strive to exert themselves against the established order. These dynamic and irrepressible characters are all essentially overreachers, defying fate and the gods in order to fulfil their own very different desires


Marlowe’s characters often appear deeply irreligious and immoral, and yet they share a mesmeric appeal that leaves their audiences all too often rooting for the villain. Revolutionary in their use of the Blank Verse, these plays presented to audiences for the first time characters who consciously refuse to simply follow through the patterns of the Medieval Morality Plays that had defined theatre up until this point. Characters who speak mighty lines in fiercely natural language (laced with the extravagant imagery and hyperbole so beloved of the Elizabethans) and take charge of their own destinies by forging their own identities against the patterns proscribed by their birth and position. Heady stuff in the climate of religious, political and social oppression that characterised the average Elizabethan’s experience of life, where even the style of clothes they wore was proscribed by Church and state.

Death of a Spy

Marlowe’s plays, though undoubtedly controversial, were incredibly popular with the audiences, and in 1593, the year of his death, he was the most successful playwright in Britain. In these six short years he had also written many poems,the greatest of which were The Passionate Shepherd to his Love and the unfinished epic Hero and Leander. He had made a great many influential friends during his meteoric rise to the top, but his controversial choice of themes in his writing, and reputedly equally unrestrained opinions in the taverns, had found him important enemies too.

On the 12 of May 1593, the lodgings of the playwright Thomas Kyd were searched following a rumour that he had been involved in inciting recent political unrest in the capital. When a manuscript was found there that demonstrated unorthodox and atheistic arguments (even though it was a copy of a published theological treatise), Kyd was taken to Bridewell for questioning. It is not known what he suffered there, but he emerged a physically and psychologically broken man and died the following year. Kyd had claimed that the treatise belonged to his former roommate, Kit Marlowe, and levelled all manner of dangerous slander against him.

Accused of atheism, treason, sedition, homosexuality, sadism, and blasphemy, on the 20 May 1593 Marlowe was summoned before the Star Chamber. Somewhat surprisingly, given the seriousness of the claims against him, Marlowe was not placed under arrest but instead ordered to give his daily attendance on their Lordships until he shall be licensed to the contrary11.

The Twelve-penny Dagger

That this request was not taken too literally is demonstrated by the fact that Marlowe did not ‘attend’ their Lordships on the 30th May. Just ten days later, (in typical Marlowe style) he spent the day in Deptford at the public house of the widow, Eleanor Bull. His companions were not exactly the cream of Renaissance society, and we can be pretty certain that the four men had not met to discuss the intricacies of iambic pentameter. Ingram Frizer was a money-lender and con artist in the employ of Marlowe’s university crony, literary patron and fellow agent, Thomas Walsingham


Frizer’s occasional accomplice, Nicholas Skeres made his living as a fence; and Robert Poley, like Marlowe, was a spy.

From the carefully documented eyewitness accounts, it seemed that everything was going along peacefully enough until, later that afternoon in an apparent dispute over the bill with Frizer, Marlowe was fatally stabbed by a dagger driven two inches into his right eye. Two days later, Marlowe had been buried in an unmarked grave at St Nicholas’ Church, Deptford. Frizer, who pleaded self-defence, was pardoned within a month.

The manner of Marlowe’s death was so dramatic, so like a plot from one of his plays, it is not really surprising that it sparked a whole host of conspiracy theories and alternate explanations that endure to this day. It was a death entirely suited to his life and work, and yet robbed the world of a talent that was still largely untested. What would Marlowe have been capable of if he had lived to old age? Could the era have borne another Shakespeare?

A portrait, apparently of Marlowe, still hangs within the precincts of his old college - Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The portrait is inscribed with the motto Quod me nutrit, me destruit - ‘That which nourishes me, destroys me’. This seems the perfect epitaph for a man whose insatiable appetite for experience was to eventually consume him. His death left a void in the Elizabethan literary world that only one other could come close to filling - And so where the 29-year-old Christopher Marlowe left off, William Shakespeare began.

Christopher Marlowe: Life and Death, Poetry and Plays

Take a look at some other entries about Christopher Marlowe's life and work:

or go to
Marlowe: The Complete Texts
for online editions of Marlowe's plays and poems.
1The School of Night by Peter Whelan.214 year-olds have obviously not changed much over the centuries.3Quoted in The Death of Christopher Marlowe by J.L Hotson (London, 1925), pp. 58-594Ibid5The exact chronology of Marlowe’s work is unknown, and there are many disagreements on the order in which they should be placed. Some critics believe that Dido is in fact a much later play.6It is not known if having an ‘e’ on the end of your name was compulsory for membership into this group.7A notorious spot for duels - a fact commemorated today by the decorative leitmotif of duelling pistols at the Finsbury Park Victoria line tube-station.8See M Eccles, Christopher Marlowe in London, 19349The areas just outside the City of London were known as the Liberties, because they were beyond the jurisdiction and watchful eye of the puritanical city authorities.10See Christopher Marlowe, The Overreacher by Harry Levin, or Renaissance Self-fashioning by Stephen Greenblatt for more on this interpretation of Marlowe’s protagonists. 11Roger Sales, op. cit.12Sir Francis Walsingham’s cousin

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