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Second only to Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe is unquestionably the most influential (and controversial) playwright of the Elizabethan era. His singular work, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, as well as other works such as The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine, continue to be performed and studied to a great extent, and are synonymous with Renaissance themes and values. However, Marlowe’s legacy goes further than his written work. As a noted atheist, homosexual, and a double agent, Marlowe embodies the subversive side of the Renaissance movement, constantly challenging the status quo.
In this paper, I will take an intimate look into the author’s life and work, that will give the reader a better sense why his work is considered top tier as far as Renaissance plays go.
Christopher Marlowe was born in February 1564 in the St. George parish Canterbury, to John and Katherine Marlowe. The exact date of Marlowe’s birth is not known, but we know he was baptized “at the parish church on 26 February 1564, just two months before Shakespeare was christened at Stratford-upon-Avon” (Riggs 14).
Marlowe’s upbringing was thoroughly middle class. His father and his mother were both immigrants to Canterbury; when Christopher was born, John was an apprentice to a master shoemaker, but when the master died of the bubonic plague, John was able to open a shop of his own (Riggs 12, 17). From an early age, Christopher Marlowe had a profound knowledge of death and the morbid side of life. St. George was a neighborhood full of slaughterhouses, and it was not uncommon to see “carts bearing tubs of blood and offal trundled along St.
George’s Street” (Riggs 12). To boot, in Marlowe’s time, the death penalty was still a widely accepted form of criminal punishment, and “in adolescence, he [Marlowe) grew accustomed to the sight of condemned men being carted past his home to the gallows on Oaten Hill” (Riggs 14). This sort of exposure to death and cruelty would certainly have a strong impact on the plays Marlowe would go on to write.
Even though Canterbury had its sketchy areas, it was also a hub for culture, religion, and politics. “As Marlowe entered adolescence, the outbreak of religious warfare in northern Europe drove a growing population of Protestant refugees into the city. Many of the migrants brought blood-curdling tales of persecution and atrocity” (Riggs 31). From a young age, Marlowe gathered stories (the stranger or more grotesque, the better!), and seemed well aware of the weight language could have. In grammar school, Marlowe was a steadfast student, and won a scholarship to the strict King’s School. A school designated for “poor boys,” it was here that Marlowe wrote his first play, Dido Queen of Carthage in 1584 or 1585. “Whenever Marlowe first conceived of it, Dido falls within the festive tradition of inversion and misrule. It affords a precious glimpse of the desires that grammar school tried to repress” (Riggs 49). As he gained perspective, Marlowe seemed to also gain a distrust of major institutions, such as public education, and Christianity.
In school, Marlowe continued writing and studied hard enough to receive a Parker scholarship to the significantly more prestigious Cambridge University. It must be noted the move was something of a culture shock for him. After leaving Canterbury, “Marlowe’s six years at Cambridge sharpened his awareness of social inequality. At the King’s School, everyone was, or wanted to be a Scholar. At Cambridge, the Scholars occupied a position in the academic hierarchy, but were also subject to regulations that publicized their inferior social status” (Riggs 70). It was at Cambridge where Marlowe began to deeply examine hypocrisy and issues of class through his own writing.
During this time, Marlowe began not only to mature as a writer, but also as an individual. Over the centuries, there has been speculation on whether or not Marlowe was a homosexual. David Riggs, in his biography The World of Christopher Marlowe, remarks on the subject, “By the time Marlowe began to write, he had spent the better part of his adolescent and adult life at school and university, where, as was commonly the case, he probably shared his bed with other boys and men…” (Riggs 77). Of course, this sole fact doesn’t make Marlowe a homosexual. However, there are a few hints in his plays that Marlowe possibly included to allude to his sexuality, such as “the opening scene in Dido, Queen of Carthage… [which] portrays a pederastic Jupiter wooing his lover-boy Ganymede in phrases that resonate…: ‘Come live with me and be my love” (Riggs 76). If Marlowe was like most writers, he put a bit of himself into each character he wrote, consciously or not. Again, this scene is one of a few examples of homoeroticism throughout Marlowe’s work that not only raises eyebrows, but questions, too.
In 1587, not only did Marlowe graduate from Cambridge with his M.A., he then moved to London and his play Tamburlaine Parts I and II was “performed by Lord Admiral’s Men, with Edward Alleyn in the title role” (Bloom 229). It was the only significant play of Marlowe’s that Marlowe saw performed and published in his lifetime, the rest being published posthumously. Even so, Tamburlaine is still subversive and groundbreaking in its own right. “Tamburlaine was the first public exhibition of an unrhymed English line that merited comparison with the classical hexameters devised by the classical poets” (Riggs 207). Although it received lukewarm response at the time, this unique play sets the stage for the works that would be published after Marlowe’s death, grand works that would continue to explore morality and have the courage to question the validity and merit of social and religious institutions. In his essay “Marlowe The Elizabethan,” Stevie Simkin says “Tamburlaine can also be read as a meditation on the relations between God, ‘fate’ and the human” (Simkin 240).
Another area of interest in Marlowe’s life was his spying, which many scholars say began during his M.A. days at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University (Simkin 221). The main ambiguity of Marlowe’s career in espionage was whether he defected to Rheims. Although he was accounted for via a letter by the Privy Council, there are large gaps in his attendance during his last year at Cambridge that raise suspicion. Riggs remarks: “The Council frequently employed poets in this capacity… Marlowe’s case stands out because of the rumour about his switching sides… Bear in mind, finally, that Marlowe always appears in the government documents as an object of surveillance” (Riggs 183). There is much documentation (and also lack of documentation) that raises suspicion to suggest that Marlowe was indeed a spy. Exactly what his work as a spy entailed is a harder question to answer.
Ultimately, the Privy Council issued a warrant for his arrest on “May 18, six days after Marlowe’s friend Thomas Kyd had been arrested on suspicion of treason and had, under torture, accused Marlowe of atheism [and] treason” (Bloom 229). Marlowe’s untimely death occurred less than two weeks later on May 30, 1593, when, after a meal, Marlowe and Ingram Frizer (an acquaintance) got into a fight about the check. Without much prolonging, Frizer stabbed
Marlowe in the “right eye. The blade entered Marlowe’s brain, killing him instantly. Frizer pleaded guilty” (Riggs 333). Remember, at the time Marlowe had freshly been accused of treason and atheism, which made him somewhat of an unsavory character, an enemy of the state, if you will. Could there been a political motive for killing Marlowe? It’s certainly possible. In the years following his death, the complete plays of Marlowe were published and performed, to continued success and canonization, including the seminal (and most studied) Doctor Faustus (1604), a play “marked by a profound commitment to a nationalist and militant protestantism; a commitment to at once anticatholic, antispanish, and antipapal” (Zunder 62). Among Marlowe’s other plays are Edward II (1594), Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594), and The Jew of Malta (1633). They are interesting and complex works, just like the author’s life was. As for the secret to his endurance, Harold Bloom probably said it best: “What the common reader finds in Marlowe is precisely what his contemporaries found: impiety, audacity, worship of power…defiance of moral order, and above all else a sheer exaltation of the possibilities of rhetoric, of the persuasive force of heroic poetry” (Bloom 1).
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