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Updated on April 22, 2014

The year the Bard was born.

Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury in 1564 the son of John Marlowe, a shoemaker, and his wife, Catherine. Although, as was not uncommon at that time, their is no record of his birth, the child was baptized on 26 February, so that he was most likely born just a few days earlier, exactly two months before the Bard, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), was baptized on 26 April at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Marlowe was educated at The King’s School, Canterbury (where a House is now named in his honor) and subsequently at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge where he studied on scholarship. He was awarded his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584 and he received his Master of Arts degree in1587. There was some trouble over the award of his Master’s degree, the University being hesitant to award the degree on account of rumors that Marlowe intended to attend the English College, Rheims, in order to prepare for ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. The degree was awarded when the Privy Council intervened on his behalf declaring that he had rendered faithful and good service to the Queen. Dramatist and Poet, Marlowe’s life was an extremely short one; when he died on 30 May 1593 he was only 29 years old, but so great are the literary accomplishments packed into such a short period that, over the centuries, many have speculated whether, if he had lived longer, he would not have surpassed the achievements of the Bard himself.

Supposed portrait of Marlowe, circa 1585.
Supposed portrait of Marlowe, circa 1585.

London Years

Following his graduation from Cambridge, Marlowe moved to London, this was about 1586, where he led what can only be described as a notorious lifestyle. He was believed to be an atheist, this at a time when atheism was a capital offense, and, very much involved in the dangerous life of London’s underworld, he got into trouble with the law. In the view of many of his contemporaries, Marlowe was not just an atheist, but also a spy, heretic, magician, duelist and counterfeiter. A warrant for his arrest was issued on 18 May 1593 and, although no reasons are stated as to why his arrest was deemed necessary, it is thought to be related to blasphemy contained in a manuscript believed to have been authored by Marlowe, which manuscript was said to contain “vile heretical conceits”. Brought before the Privy Council on 20 May, the council did not sit on that day but Marlowe was ordered to attend the Council everyday thereafter until “licensed to the contrary”. The trial never held; ten days after first being brought before the Council, Marlowe was dead, stabbed by one Ingram Frizer following a brawl at a tavern at Deptford. Till this day, the circumstances surrounding his death have been shrouded in mystery and it is not known whether the tavern brawl was in any way related to the charges which were outstanding against him. So much for his life.

The Playwright

Marlowe’s first play is believed to be Dido, Queen of Carthage, which was performed by the Children of the Chapel, a company of boy actors between 1587 and 1593 and which was first published in 1594, the authorship being attributed to Marlowe and Thomas Nashe (1567- c. 1601) the pamphlet-writer.

But the first of his plays to be performed on the regular stage in London was Tamburlaine the Great (1587), the dramatic story of the conqueror Tamburlaine, who, from being a shepherd, rises to become a king over kings. Amongst the first of English plays to be written in blank verse, Tamburlaine was a roaring success seizing on the imagination of his contemporaries and it is fairly settled that his quality as playwright was from that time freely acknowledged. Tamburlaine showed that the playwright was not ready to tamely accept the prevailing doctrines regarding the composition of dramatic pieces; rather, he seemed determined to establish a bolder and more vivid expression of the tragic than had previously been seen on the English stage. The success of the play testifies eloquently to Marlowe’s own inherent powers as well as the skill which enabled him recognize the needs in which he lived, needs that were dramatically different than those of previous ages. The success of the play led to a follow-up; Tamburlaine the Great, Part II. Both parts were first published in 1590. Together with Thomas Kyd’s (1558-1594) The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine is generally considered to mark the beginning of the mature phase of Elizabethan theater.

That Tamburlaine was not a flash-in-the-pan was soon evident. Whether Marlowe was tracing the dismal ends of scholarly ambitions as in The Tragicall History of Dr Faustus, c. 1588, or whether he was just setting out a grim and villainous record as in The Jew of Malta, c. 1589, Marlowe’s genius shone. Edward II c.1592, undoubtedly the finest of all Elizabethan history plays other than those by the Bard himself, simply confirmed Marlowe’s irrepressible genius. Whilst it is true that The Massacre of Paris c. 1593 and Dido do not rise to the heights of the other plays, they take nothing at all away from the genius of the playwright

Cover of first publication of Edward II.
Cover of first publication of Edward II.

Marlowe's Importance

Marlowe was not just a playwright; his contemporaries recognized also his abilities as a poet. His Hero and Leander won the justifiable applause of his contemporaries when it was published 5 years after his death, along with a continuation by George Chapman (1559-1634). Marlowe was also the writer of the popular lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love as well as translations of Ovid’s (43 B.C.-A.D. 18). Amores and the first book of Lucan’s (39-65) Pharsalia. Marlowe’s translation of Ovid was condemned and copies publicly burnt in 1599 as part of a crackdown against offensive material spearheaded by John Whitgift (c. 1530-1604), archbishop of Canterbury.

Whether or not his genius would have continued to flourish had he lived longer, of course remains only in the realms of speculation. Having said that, it is safe to assert that as far as English letters go, he was by far the greatest of all of the Bard’s predecessors. It was Marlowe who first revealed what harmony could be achieved by the use of blank verses and his approach to tragedy revolutionized contemporary concepts. Marlowe brought a new emphasis to bear, an emphasis that was focused more on individual worth and looked more deeply at the conflicts that are inherent in man’s relations with elemental forces rather than the old idea that defined tragedy more by external qualities, e.g. the worldly condition of a drama’s chief characters and their fall from grace to grass. This motivational, rather than situational, approach, an approach that was taken over and deepened by the Bard, was new in the context of English drama, and it was an approach that met the needs of the times.

That Marlowe’s work influenced Shakespeare is clear; what is less clear is the precise relationship that existed between the two playwrights. Certain analysis suggest that the two might have collaborated on Henry VI (1589/90; later revised) and, to a lesser extent, Titus Andronicus (1593/94) and Richard III (1592/93). Pure speculation, of course, but one thing seems certain: if Marlowe had not preceded the Bard, then Shakespeare’s accomplishment would almost certainly have been that bit less assured; that bit less polished than it is for Marlowe the bold pioneer, had created the template, a template rich in style and tragic concept that the Bard was able to refine and, having refined, given pleasure to innumerable generations of lovers of the drama.


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