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CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE

(1564-1593)

CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE was born in Canterbury to shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife Catherine. His date of birth is not known, but he was baptized on 26 February 1564, and is likely to have been born a few days before. Thus he was just two months older than his contemporary Shakespeare. Marlowe was a dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era until his mysterious early death. Marlowe greatly influenced William Shakespeare. His plays are known for the use of blank verse, and their overreaching protagonists.
Marlowe attended King’s School, Canterbury and Corpus Christi College where he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1584 and his Masters degree three years later. According to university records, Marlowe disappeared frequently during his last years at school. In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his Master of Arts degree. Marlowe is often alleged to have been a government spy. The author Charles Nicholl speculates this was the case and suggests that Marlowe’s recruitment took place when he was at Cambridge. As noted above, in 1587 the Privy Council ordered the University of Cambridge to award Marlowe his degree of Master of Arts.

Surviving college records from the period also indicate that Marlowe had had a series of unusually lengthy absences from the university, much longer than permitted by university regulations. Surviving college buttery (dining room) accounts indicate he began spending lavishly on food and drink during the periods he was in attendance, more than he could have afforded on his known scholarship income; 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 the Council’s letter evidences that Marlowe had served the government in some secret capacity. A warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest on 18 May 1593. No reason for it was given, though it was thought to be connected to allegations of blasphemy.

Marlowe has often been described as a spy, a brawler, a heretic and a homosexual, as well as a “magician”, “duelist”, “tobacco-user”, “counterfeiter” and “rakehell”. Like his contemporary William Shakespeare, Marlowe was reputed to be an atheist. The most famous tribute to Marlowe was paid by Shakespeare in As You Like It, where he quotes a line from Hero and Leander (“Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might, ‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?”). In Hamlet, after meeting with the travelling actors, Hamlet requests the Player to perform a speech about the Trojan War, which has an echo of Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. In Love’s Labour’s Lost Shakespeare brings on a character “Marcade” in conscious acknowledgement of Marlowe’s character “Mercury”, also attending the King of Navarre, in Massacre at Paris.

The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, based on the German Faustbuch, was the first dramatized version of the Faust; legend of a scholar’s dealing with the devil.

Marlowe deviates significantly by having his hero unable to “burn his books” or repent to a merciful God in order to have his contract annulled at the end of the play. Marlowe’s protagonist is instead torn apart by demons and dragged off screaming to hell. Dr Faustus is a textual problem for scholars as it was highly edited and possibly censored and rewritten after Marlowe’s death. Two versions of the play exist: the 1604 quarto, also known as the A text, and the 1616 quarto or B text. Many scholars believe that the A text is more representative of Marlowe’s original because it contains irregular character names and idiosyncratic spelling: the hallmarks of a text that used the author’s handwritten manuscript, or “foul papers”, as a major source.

Marlowe had spent all day in a house in Deptford, and together with three men: Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. The three men who were in the room with him when he died were all connected to the state secret service and to the London underworld. That house also had “links to the government’s spy network”. The witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had argued over the bill exchanging “malicious words” 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 wounded him on the head. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner’s report, Marlowe was stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly. The jury concluded that Frizer acted in self-defence, and within a month he was pardoned.

Dr Faustus is a textual problem for scholars as it was highly edited and possibly censored and rewritten after Marlowe’s death. Two versions of the play exist: the 1604 quarto, also known as the A text, and the 1616 quarto or B text.
There are various hypotheses with different degrees of probability as to what really happened and who was behind his death. One theory even being that Marlowe’s death was faked to save him from trial and execution for subversive atheism. 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 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. Gabriel Harvey referred to him as “dead of the plague.” Just 29, On Wednesday 30 May, Marlowe was killed. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Dept ford immediately after the inquest, on 1 June 1593.

Literary Works

Plays
Doctor Faustus
Tamburlaine (part I&II )
The Jew of Malta
Edward II
The Massacre at Paris

Short Stories
Dido, Queen of Carthage
Poetry    
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
Hero and Leander
Ovid’s Elegies
Lucan ‘s Pharsalia

Our swords shall play the orators for us. (Tamburlaine)
Fools that will laugh on earth, most weep in hell.
I count religion but a childish toy, and hold there is no sin but ignorance.

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