An inexplicable, enigmatic man, Marlowe was truly a product of the Elizabethan era in which he lived. Controversy surrounded his life, mystery enveloped his death – or as some think, the illusion of his death. Because of how he lived (how others thought he lived) and what he believed, Marlowe’s contemporaries, both friend and foe, thought well of him and hated him. His contribution to the dramatic arts was immense, yet, even now, infrequently trumpeted.
With so interesting a life, death, and body of works, why has Marlowe become obscure? The answer is simple . . . Shakespeare. Shakespeare casts a long, dark shadow over those in his chosen field. Born in 1564, likely in mid February, Marlowe’s life began the same year as William Shakespeare. Their prospects began similarly; Marlowe is born the son of a cobbler in Canterbury England, while about 182 miles away, Shakespeare is born the son of a butcher and whittawer in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Marlowe’s education began at King’s School in Canterbury, then at 16 upon the grant of a scholarship from the foundation of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, Marlowe attended Corpus Christi College in Cambridge where he studied the Bible, history, philosophy, and Reformation theology. By the age of 20, Marlowe received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584 from Corpus Christi College.
During this era in English history, religion was a subject that could and did lead to death. Catholicism grew the enemies that threatened the throne and the peace of England. Elizabeth I turned a blind eye to much of the Catholic worship, but keep close tabs on the radicals wishing to do her reign harm, real or imagined. Reformation, the establishment of the Protestant faith as the faith of the Church of England, was the accepted religion, aught else – heresy.
We know that it was during Marlowe’s final 3 years at Corpus Christi that his attendance became scarce. Furthermore, the school administration began to reckon that Christopher had changed his religion, because reports to them telling of Christopher seen in the company of those known to be Catholic! And in the end, Marlowe refused to take the holy orders. For these three combined reasons, the absences, the refusal of holy orders, and consorting with Catholics, the university denied him his Masters degree.
Until, that is, the Queen’s privy counsel interceded on his behalf. Apparently, the state had employed Marlowe as a secret agent in some capacity, regarding a confidential matter. In part the letter to the university read: “in all his actions Cristopher Marley had behaved himself orderly and discreetly whereby, he had done her Majesty good service . . . Because it was not her Majesty’s pleasure that anyone employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit for his country should be defamed by those that are ignorant in th’ affairs he went about.” Satisfied with the word of the privy counsel, the university granted Marlowe his Master of Arts degree in 1587. From Cambridge, he went to London and began his dramatic career.
Attaching himself to such men as Kyd, Nash, Greene, and Sir Walter Raleigh he moved in influential circles. Much of his work was produced by the Admiral’s Company, an acting troupe, giving his plays some greater distinction than those whose work was done by lesser actors in lesser forums. It was Marlowe’s blank verse that expedited his fame and leaves a legacy of influence for those that followed.
Marlowe adopted as his motto: “”What nourishes me, destroys me,” and likely is the truth of the way he lived his life. Some report that he fought in the wars of the Low Country, that he continued as an agent to the Queen after university, that he had an affinity for young men, and drank and smoked to excess. Marlowe’s reported ill temper found him charged with crimes of conduct on various occasions and even jailed. Most detrimental, however, was his propensity to speak freely on matters of theology and, what he called, inconsistencies of the Bible. To this extent Marlowe’s friend, Kyd was interrogated and tortured when papers written by Marlowe of this sort were found in Kyd’s apartments. With friends like that . . . right? In addition to his free tongue, his involvement in politics exposed him to the enmity of the rival factions, namely those who thought he was working for the Catholic movement and those of the Catholic movement that knew he spied on their movements.
Even within the context of his plays and poetry, he stroked the ire of his audience. Merely being a playwright in Elizabethan England was enough to gain him controversy aplenty! The church looked poorly on the theater and the goings-on (like gambling and debauchery) in the various playhouses. The plague tended to infect the people throughout the country and many blamed the rouges and vagabonds of the acting companies that traveled the nation. In order to appease her countrymen, Elizabeth I, who enjoyed the arts, established the Elizabethan Acting Troupes, whereby each troupe had a license and had a nobleman as benefactor, and upon their word and oath, their troupes were safe. The issue of the theater did not end there however; the church did finally oust the theaters from London in 1596. So it was within the time of Marlowe that much of these issues were a hot-bed of controversy.
Six short years after leaving Corpus Christi on May 30th 1593, Marlowe spent a day in Deptford with friends and acquaintances, Ingram Frizer, Robert Foley and Nicholas Skeres of the Walsingham circle (a group of men joined by poetry and service to the Queen with Walsingham as patron) talking and dinning. It is here at Dame Eleanor Bull’s Tavern, that history records Marlowe engaging in a dispute with Ingram Frizer over the bill. Witness statements proclaim that Marlowe drew Frizer’s own dagger and accosted Frizer, then in the ensuing struggle, Frizer regained the dagger and plunged it into Marlowe’s head above the right eye. Frizer plead self-defense and received a pardon from the Queen. To this day, there remain questions over this event. Some contend that Marlowe’s death was a “hit.” Others believe that this was an orchestrated event for Marlowe to escape the politics and legal troubles around him, to flee and live under an assumed name.
The works he left for the world include such plays as, Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I & II, The Jew of Malta, King Edward II, The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. He translated from Latin to English Ovid’s Elegies, andThe First Book of Lucan’s Pharsalia. Though unfinished at his death, “Hero and Leander,” is an exalted narrative poem. He also left us with the lyric poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”
Witness the influence of Marlowe’s art of the written word, when comparing Shakespeare’s works with Marlowe’s: Some say The Merchant of Veniceechoes The Jew of Malta, or Venus and Adonis compares to Hero and Leander, Richard II compares to Edward II, Macbeth compares to Dr Faustus, Anthony and Cleopatra compares to The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Shakespeare further tributes Marlowe when he quotes from Hero and Leander in his As You Like It; “Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might, ‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?'” In Hamlet, Hamlet discusses The Dido Queen of Carthage.
Many opine the art of Marlowe and his genius: Thomas Heywood, Elizabethan dramatist, said of Marlowe, “Marlo, renown’d for his rare art and wit,” Algernon C. Swinburne, poet and critic said, “Of English blank verse, one of the few highest forms of verbal harmony, or poetic expression, Marlowe was the absolute and divine creator,” and Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “If Shakespeare is the dazzling sun of this mighty period, Marlowe is certainly the morning star.”
Could it be true that such a man of influence as Christopher Marlowe could die? Those with suspicious minds see conspiracy and formed a theory and offer “proof” that Marlowe wasn’t slain on 30 March 1593. They offer up The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, wherein they believe there are allusions to Marlowe’s difficulty and, according to the play, his escape from death. For further proof, they look to Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV, where there also seems to be allusions to the course of Marlowe’s life, ending not in a tavern but as a banished man named Falstaff.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that his works are less known than Shakespeare’s works, perhaps it is enough that Marlowe’s innovations had such a profound influence on the great we know, for without Marlowe maybe we would not know Shakespeare. . . .