Christopher Marlowe (February 6, 1564 - May 30, 1593) was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. He is known for his magnificent blank verse and overreaching protagonists.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Playwright career
3 Marlowe and homosexuality
4 Marlowe's death
5 Works
6 Additional Reading
7 External links


Born in Canterbury the son of a shoemaker, he attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1584. In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his master's degree because of his long absences, until the Privy Council intervened on his behalf (1). It has been suggested that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham's secret service.

Playwright career

His first success on the London stage was Tamburlaine, the story of the conqueror Timur. Tamburlaine Part II soon followed. His next play may have been Doctor Faustus, the first dramatic version of the Faust legend. His other known plays are: The Jew of Malta; Edward the Second, an English history play about the fall of Edward II and the accession of Edward III; and The Massacre at Paris, portraying the events surrounding the Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre in 1572. Dido, Queen of Carthage seems to be an early work written with Thomas Nashe.

His other works include the poems Hero and Leander (unfinished, published 1598) and The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, and translations of Ovid's Amores and the first part of Lucan's Pharsalia.

Marlowe and homosexuality

Perhaps his most famous play, Edward II, deals with homosexuality in a very frank and uncompromising way, leaving no doubts about the nature of the relationship between King Edward II and Piers Gaveston. While Shakespeare's plays are full of sexual double entendres, this was very new for the time.

Marlowe's poetry was also usually vague enough to be addressed to his same-sex love interests, the most famous example being "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", also known for its first line, "Come live with me and be my Love", a fine example of pastoral poetry. Additionally, Marlowe was the first one to compile a list of gay relationships throughout mythology and history.

Marlowe himself had a close relationship to Thomas Watson, who he met at university and planned to live with later. Watson introduced him to Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham, who headed a spy network that operated throughout Europe. It has been suggested that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent, and that he could have been killed for what he knew about the Queen and various lords' secret doings, particularly within a clandestine organisation, The School of Night. One reason offered is that Marlowe was refused permission to continue his Master of Arts degree at Cambridge, but Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council reversed that decision in a letter in which they wrote that he "Was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheims... In all his actions he had behaved himself orderly and discreetly whereby he had done Her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing." Government agents often went to Rheims to spy on the Catholic seminary there, which was busily training Englishmen for the priesthood. English agents would visit Rheims to learn the identities of the future priests so that they could be arrested on their return to England.

Marlowe's death

In early May 1593 several bills were posted about London threatening protestant refugees from France and the Netherlands who had settled in the city. One of these, the "Dutch church libel"(3), was written in blank verse, contained allusions to several of Marlowe's plays and was signed "Tamburlaine". This seems as if it was designed to frame Marlowe. On May 11 the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible. Marlowe was not in London, but was staying with Thomas Walsingham, the cousin of Sir Francis. The next day, however, it was Marlowe's colleague Thomas Kyd who was arrested. Kyd's lodgings were searched and a heretical tract was found. He asserted, possibly under torture, that it had belonged to Marlowe. Two years earlier they had both been working for an aristocratic patron, probably Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, and Kyd had assumed that it was at this time that the document had found its way among his papers. Marlowe's arrest was ordered on May 18. He appeared before the Privy Council on May 20 and was given parole, being required to "attend daily on their Lordships". On May 30, Marlowe was murdered.

Various versions of what happened were current at the time. 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 1917, in the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Sidney Lee wrote that Marlowe was killed in a drunken fight, and this is still stated as fact today.

The facts only came to light in 1925 when the scholar Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner's report into Marlowe's death in the Public Records Office (4). Marlowe had spent all day in a house in Deptford (owned by the widow, Eleanor Bull) along with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. (All three had been employed by the Walsinghams; Skeres and Poley had helped snare the conspirators in the Babington plot.) Frizer testified that he and Marlowe had earlier argued over the bill. Later while he was sitting at a table with the other two and Marlowe was lying behind him on a couch, Marlowe snatched Frizer's dagger and began attacking him. In the ensuing struggle, according to Frizer, Marlowe was accidentally stabbed in the eye. He was killed instantly. Widow Bull's premises are described as a domus, a house rather than a tavern. Frizer, Skeres and Poley were the only witnesses questioned, apparently no one else identified Marlowe's body. Frizer was eventually pardoned.

A number of scenarios have been proposed to explain what happened: Marlowe's death was faked by his powerful friends to save him from prosecution for heresy, or he was the victim of a "hit" to silence him because he knew something about someone. The latter would seem to be contradicted by the fact that the three men made no attempt to flee the scene and fully cooperated with the authorities.




Additional Reading

Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning : The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

External links