MARLOWE, Christopher

(1564-1593)
The brightest star among the Elizabethan dramatists before William Shake­speare,* Christopher Marlowe was also a gifted lyric poet, an adventurer, and a secret agent whose services were appreciated by the queen herself. His quick temper was matched by an intellectual curiosity and originality that bore no respect for orthodoxy.
Marlowe grew up in the quarrelsome and litigious family of a Canterbury shoemaker whose disposition he apparently inherited. He rose up in society thanks to a scholarship-sponsored education first at the King's School at Can­terbury and later at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he was reported to have been a "rare scholar" who excelled in Latin versifying, but whose academic discipline was far from perfect. When he supplicated for the master's degree in 1587, the academic authorities proposed to withhold the de­gree because of his prolonged absences from campus. They yielded only after Queen Elizabeth's* Privy Council testified to Marlowe's "good service" to Her Majesty during these absences.
Instead of going on to a traditional career in either the church or the academy, the new master of arts joined the lively group of the University Wits in London. These were university-educated playwrights and poets who penned exciting new works for the commercial theaters. By 1591 Marlowe's name was mentioned among the group of intellectuals and bohemians associated with Sir Walter Ra­leigh* and Thomas Walsingham. The members of this circle, nicknamed "the School of Night," devoted themselves to philosophical and scientific speculation and were reputedly intrigued by the occult.
Such was the intellectual and cultural climate in which Marlowe wrote his works. From Cambridge, he brought to town his classical translations of Ovid's Amores (1585) and the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia (1585) and two plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage (1586), and the first part of Tamburlaine the Great (1586). Tamburlaine's instant popularity encouraged Marlowe to write a sequel. The Tamburlaine plays (published in 1590), whose central "atheist" character drew the wrath of Robert Greene,* already demonstrated the signature qualities of Marlowe s innovative drama. Like his other plays, The Jew of Malta (1589), Edward II (1592), Doctor Faustus (1592), and The Massacre at Paris (1593), Tamburlaine displayed the dramatist s fascination with violence, sensuousness, and power. The central character of this double feature was the first in a series of diabolical rebels. Tamburlaine s philosophical idiom and its blank-verse form also set the mode for dramatic speech in English Renaissance drama.
Marlowe s life in London was almost as action packed and violent as his plays. In 1589 he fought a duel with one William Bradley. Bradley s quarrel seems to have been with the poet Thomas Watson, who, like Marlowe, was under the patronage of Thomas Walsingham. Watson stabbed Bradley fatally, and the two friends were arrested and imprisoned in Newgate until they even­tually succeeded in pleading self-defense. Marlowe spent only two weeks in prison, Watson several months.
More troubles with the authorities followed. Early in 1592 Marlowe was ac­cused of money counterfeiting and treason by one Richard Baines, a Cambridge graduate and, like Marlowe, a secret-service agent. Nothing came of this accu­sation, but later in the year he was reported to have threatened the safety of two constables of Shoreditch and to have fought a Canterbury tailor in the street "with staff and dagger." Yet all of these misdemeanors paled in comparison to the accusation leveled against Marlowe by his chamber fellow, the playwright Thomas Kyd.* In May 1593 Kyd had been arrested, and the search of his room yielded a heretical manuscript. On the rack, he asserted that the manuscript belonged to Marlowe. Marlowe was apprehended at the home of his patron Thomas Walsingham at Scadbury. Unlike Kyd, he was released immediately with the understanding that he was to report daily to the authorities until further notice. The case was never resolved in court, however, for on 30 May Marlowe was stabbed to death in a brawl at Eleanor Bull s tavern in Deptford, following a dinner with associates from the Walsingham circle. The circumstances and interests served by his death remain open to speculation and controversy.
Like his violent death, Marlowe's critical heritage poses significant problems. His brilliant narrative poem Hero and Leander (1593) was left unfinished. We are not sure of the order in which his plays appeared. Only two of his plays were published in his lifetime, and the texts of all are badly corrupted. Yet their synthesis of intellectual significance, expressive spectacle, breathtaking action, and psychologically complex characters of unforgettable stature marked the be­ginning of the greatest age of the English theater.
Bibliography
D. Cole, Christoper Marlowe and the Renaissance ofTragedy, 1995.
R. Sales, Christopher Marlowe, 1991.
Kirilka Stavreva

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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