Christopher Marlowe – a summary

Despite a writing career which lasted only six years, Christopher Marlowe was an early leading light in Elizabethan literary culture.  Ambitious and daring in both his life and his work, he is often regarded as the enfant terrible of the English Renaissance period.  Unafraid to experiment with literary form, his works, which include The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and Dido, Queen of Carthage, influenced many playwrights who came after him, including William Shakespeare.

Christopher MarloweAccording to the baptismal records of St George the Martyr Church in Canterbury, Christopher Marlowe, known as Kit, was christened on 26 February 1564.  Kit was the second child and eldest son of John Marlowe, a cobbler, and his wife, Katherine. 

Despite being born in the same year and into the same social class as his more famous contemporary, Marlowe received a better education than Shakespeare.  While nothing is known of his early education, parish records show that, in January 1579, Kit won a scholarship to the prestigious choir school, King’s School, in Canterbury.  Just over a year later, at the age of 16, he was the recipient of another scholarship, this time to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.  By 1584, he had gained a Bachelor of Arts, and in 1587, after six-and-a-half-years study, he earned his Master of Arts degree.

From Spy to Playwright

Although there is no hard evidence, it is now widely supposed that during his time at Cambridge, Marlowe was recruited into Sir Francis Walsingham’s wide network of spies. Unexplained and lengthy absences from University and trips to Catholic cities in France circumstantially suggest this, as does the fact that when the University threatened to withhold Marlowe’s degree, the queen’s Privy Council (of which Walsingham was a member) intervened on his behalf.  However, upon leaving university, Christopher Marlowe moved to London, where he took up writing for the theatre.

The first of his plays to be staged was the two-part Tamberlaine the Great, although it is believed Dido, Queen of Carthage was the first to be written, possibly during his university years.  Then followed The Jew of Malta, Edward the Second, The Massacre of Paris and The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus ­– though there is no consensus as to the order in which these were written.  He was also a prolific poet.

Despite achieving almost instant popularity with his plays, Marlowe’s career was, from the outset, dogged with accusations of atheism.  This was a serious charge, given non-belief in the established religious dogma was generally viewed by Elizabethan authorities with suspicion, who often considered heresy to reveal a possibly seditious bent.  These accusations intensified with the production of the controversial Doctor Faustus in 1594, which featured the protagonist summoning the devil on stage by means of occult magic.

Things came to a head on 20 May 1593 when Marlowe was arrested.  However, unlike his fellow playwright, Thomas Kyd, who had also recently been charged with atheism, Marlowe was neither tortured nor confined to prison.  He was instead released on bail, with instructions to present himself daily to an officer of the court.

A Mysterious End

Ten days later, he was dead. Christopher Marlowe met his violent end on 30 May 1593, having been stabbed to death by one Ingram Frizer at a lodging house in Deptford Strand after an argument about the payment of a bill.  However, Frizer was, curiously enough, a known associate of Sir Francis Walsingham, which has led some to suggest that Marlowe’s death was orchestrated by Elizabeth I’s spymaster himself.  Again, no evidence has ever been discovered to support this theory, and the mystery endures.

Shakespeare IAHSinead Fitzgibbon

William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father, and Richard Burbage, pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era.