Christopher ("Kit") Marlowe (baptised 26 February 1564 – 30 May 1593?) was an English dramatist, poet, and translator of the Elizabethan era. Perhaps the foremost Elizabethan tragedian before Shakespeare, he is known for his magnificent blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his own untimely death.
Born on 6th Feb. 1564 to a shoemaker in Canterbury, Marlowe attended The King's School, Canterbury (where a house is now named after him) and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on a scholarship and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1584. In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his master's degree because of a rumour that he had converted to Roman Catholicism and gone to the English college at Rheims to prepare for the priesthood. However, his degree was awarded on schedule when the Privy Council intervened on his behalf, commending him for his "faithful dealing" and "good service" to the queen. The nature of Marlowe's service was not specified by the Council, but their letter to the Cambridge authorities has provoked much speculation, 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 Marlowe obviously did serve the government in some capacity.
Dido, Queen of Carthage seems to be Marlowe's first extant dramatic work, possibly written at Cambridge with Thomas Nashe.
Marlowe's first known play to be performed on the London stage was Tamburlaine (1587), a story of the conqueror Timur, who rises from a lowly shepherd to wage war on the kings of the world. It was one of the first popular English plays to use blank verse, and, with The Spanish Tragedy, it is generally considered the beginning of the mature phase of the Elizabethan theatre. Tamburlaine was a smash success, and Tamburlaine Part II soon followed. The sequence of his remaining plays is unknown. All were written on controversial themes. The Jew of Malta, depicting a Maltese Jew's barbarous revenge against the city authorities, features a prologue delivered by a character representing Machiavelli. It is also a complex play in that the Jew, Barabas, is consistently portrayed sympathetically (whilst the Christians are shown to be highly unsympathetic) and in his constant plotting and 'script writing' Barabas is often linked to the author himself. Edward the Second is an English history play about the dethronement of the homosexual Edward II by his dissatisfied barons and French queen. The Massacre at Paris is a short, sketchy play (believed to be a memorial construction made by actors) portraying the events surrounding the Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre in 1572, an event that English Protestants frequently invoked as the blackest example of Catholic treachery. It also features a character, the silent 'English Agent', rumoured to have been portraying, and possibly even played by, Marlowe himself (see below for links of Marlowe with the Elizabethan secret service). This play, along with Faustus, is believed to have been Marlowe's last play and is regarded as his most dangerous, dealing as it does with living monarchs and politicians, (at the time a treasonable act) and indeed addressing Elizabeth 1st herself in the last scene. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, based on the recently published German Faustbuch, was the first dramatic version of the Faust legend of a scholar's dealing with the devil. Whilst versions of 'The Devil's Pact' can be traced back to the 4th centuary Marlowe deviates significantly by having his hero unable to 'burn his books' or have his contract repudiated by a meciful god 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. It seems that the A-Text is the most representitive of Marlowe's work and is believed to be taken from 'foul papers' (uncorrected and jumbled manuscript copies), thus suggesting that it was incomplete at the time of Marlowe's murder.
Marlowe's plays were enormously successful, thanks in part, no doubt, to the imposing stage presence of Edward Alleyn. He was unusually tall for the time, and the haughty roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas were probably written especially for him. Marlowe's plays were the foundation of the repertoire of Alleyn's company, the Admiral's Men, throughout the 1590s.
Marlowe also wrote poetry, including a, possibly, unfinished minor epic, Hero and Leander (published with a continuation by George Chapman in 1598), the popular lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, and translations of Ovid's Amores and the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia.
The two parts of Tamburlaine were published in 1590; all Marlowe's other works were published posthumously. In 1599, his translation of Ovid was banned and copies publicly burned as part of Archbishop Whitgift's crackdown on offensive material.
As with other writers of the period, such as Shakespeare, little is known about Marlowe. Most of the evidence is legal records and other official documents that tell us little about him. This has not stopped writers of both fiction and non-fiction from speculating about his activities and character. Marlowe has often been regarded as a spy, a brawler, a heretic, and a homosexual, as well as a "magician", "duelist", "tobacco-user", "counterfeiter", and "rakehell". The evidence for most of these claims is slight. The bare facts of Marlowe's life have been embellished by many writers into colourful, and often fanciful, narratives of the Elizabethan underworld.
Marlowe is often alleged to have been a government spy. Marlowe was killed in a private house in Deptford in an alleged dispute between him and his acquaintances (themselves linked to the secret service) over the tab. It is said that he was stabbed just above his left eye and died screaming blasphemies.
As noted above, in 1587 the Privy Council ordered Cambridge University to award Marlowe his MA, denying rumours that he had been to the English Catholic college in Rheims, saying instead that he had been engaged in unspecified "affaires" in the Queen's service.
It has sometimes been theorized that Marlowe was the "Morley" who was tutor to Arbella Stuart in 1589, described by Arbella's mother as "much damnified by leaving the University" . This possibility was first raised in a TLS letter by E. St John Brooks in 1937; in a letter to Notes and Queries, John Baker has added that only Marlowe could be Arbella's tutor due to the absence of any other known "Morley" from the period with an MA and not otherwise occupied. This possibility has not been acknowledged in any Marlowe biographies; some consider the "Morley" in question to have been a son of the musician Thomas Morley, although Thomas Morley (who was born 1558) could not have had a son old enough to attend university at this time. If Marlowe was Arbella's tutor, it might indicate that he was a spy, since Arbella was at the time a possible successor to the English throne.
In 1592, Marlowe was arrested in the Dutch town of Flushing for attempting to counterfeit coins. He appeared before the Privy Council but was not charged.
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", written in blank verse, contained allusions to several of Marlowe's plays and was signed "Tamburlaine." On 11 May the Privy Council ordered the arrest of those responsible for the libels. The next day, Marlowe's colleague Thomas Kyd was arrested. Kyd's lodgings were searched and a fragment of a heretical tract was found. Kyd 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 suggested that at this time, when they were sharing a workroom, the document had found its way among his papers. Marlowe's arrest was ordered on 18 May. Marlowe was not in London, but was staying with Thomas Walsingham, the cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, who was known as Elizibeth I's spymaster. However, he duly appeared before the Privy Council on 20 May and was instructed to "give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary." On 30 May, Marlowe was murdered.
Various versions of Marlowe's death 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 often stated as fact today.
The facts only came to light in 1925 when the scholar Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner's report on Marlowe's death in the Public Record Office . Marlowe had spent all day in a house (not a tavern) 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 was a servant of Thomas Walsingham. Witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had earlier argued over the bill, exchanging "divers malicious words." Later, 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 began attacking him. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner's report, Marlowe was accidentally stabbed above the left eye, killing him instantly. The coroner concluded that Frizer acted in self-defense, and he was promptly pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Deptford, on 1 June, 1593.
Marlowe's death is alleged by some to be an assassination for the following reasons:
For these reasons and others, some believe there was more to Marlowe's death than emerged at the inquest. However, on the basis of our current knowledge, it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions about what happened or why. There are many different theories, of varying degrees of probability, but no solid evidence. Since there are only written documents on which to base any conclusions, and since it is probable that the most crucial information about his death was never committed to writing at all, it is unlikely that the full circumstances of Marlowe's death will ever be known.
Marlowe had a reputation for atheism. The only contemporary evidence for this is from Marlowe's accuser in Flushing, an informer called Richard Baines. The governor of Flushing had reported that both men had accused one another of instigating the counterfeiting and of intention to go over to the Catholic side (considered atheism by Protestants), "both as they say of malice one to another". Following Marlowe's arrest on a charge of atheism in 1593, Baines submitted to the authorities a "note containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly concerning his damnable judgment of religion, and scorn of God's word". Baines attributes to Marlowe ideas such as, "Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest [unchaste]", "the woman of Samaria and her sister were whores and that Christ knew them dishonestly" and, "St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom" (cf. John 13:23-25) and "that he used him as the sinners of Sodom". He also claims that Marlowe had Catholic sympathies. Other passages are merely skeptical in tone: "he persuades men to atheism, willing them not to be afraid of bugbears and hobgoblins". Similar statements were made by Thomas Kyd after his imprisonment and possible torture(see below); both Kyd and Baines connect Marlowe with the mathematician Thomas Harriot and Walter Raleigh's circle. Another document claims that Marlowe had read an "atheist lecture" before Raleigh. Baines ends his "note" with the ominous statement: "I think all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped".
Some critics believe that Marlowe sought to disseminate these views in his work and that he identified with his rebellious and iconoclastic protagonists.  However, plays had to be approved by the Master of the Revels before they could be performed, and the censorship of publications was under the control of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Presumably these authorities did not consider any of Marlowe's works to be unacceptable (apart from the Amores).
Marlowe is often described today as homosexual, although the evidence for this is inconclusive.
Some believe that the question of whether an Elizabethan was 'gay' or 'homosexual' in a modern sense is anachronistic; for the Elizabethans, what is often today termed homosexual or bisexual was more likely to be recognised as simply a sexual act, rather than an exclusive sexual orientation and identity (see
Two documents suggest that Marlowe may have been homosexual, though all are clearly circumstantial, or reported by people of questionable motives.
In addition, it has been pointed out that there is no evidence of any marriage or female companionship for Marlowe.
Some scholars argue that the evidence is inconclusive and that the reports of Marlowe's homosexuality may simply be exaggerated rumours produced after his death. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen describe Baines's evidence as "unreliable testimony" and make the comment: "These and other testimonials need to be discounted for their exaggeration and for their having been produced under legal circumstances we would regard as a witch-hunt" . It has also been noted that Kyd's evidence was given after torture, and thus may have little connection to reality.
Marlowe's writing is also notable for its homosexual themes.
The mere inclusion of same-sex love themes, often in very tender terms, in Marlowe's works is seen by some as a significant fact. While heterosexual playwrights could have written the same, people tend to write about what they're interested in.
Much of Marlowe's work is also concerned with heterosexuality. However, heterosexuality is frequently presented negatively, such as when Aeneas must escape the clutches of Dido in order to fulfil his destiny. In Marlowe's work, heterosexuality is most frequently presented as a restriction of freedom, lacking the elevated nature of same-sex attraction. However, this could also be interpreted as a contrast between love and friendship; love presents difficulties not inherent in a non-erotic relationship.
For debates of a somewhat similar nature, compare Sexuality of William Shakespeare.
Whatever the particular focus of modern critics, biographers and novelists, for his contemporaries in the literary world, Marlowe was above all an admired and influential artist. Within weeks of his death, George Peele remembered him as "Marley, the Muses' darling"; Michael Drayton noted that he "Had in him those brave translunary things/That the first poets had", and Ben Jonson wrote of "Marlowe's mighty line". Thomas Nashe wrote warmly of his friend, "poor deceased Kit Marlowe". So too did the publisher Edward Blount, in the dedication of Hero and Leander to Sir Thomas Walsingham.
The only contemporary dramatist to say anything negative about Marlowe was the anonymous author of the Cambridge University play The Return From Parnassus (1598) who wrote, "Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell, Wit lent from heaven, but vices sent from hell."
The most famous tribute to Marlowe was paid by Shakespeare in As You Like It, where he not only 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?") but also gives to the clown Touchstone the words "When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room." This appears to be a reference to Marlowe's murder (which involved a fight over the 'reckoning' - the bill). Shakespeare was indeed very influenced by Marlowe in his early work as can be seen in the re-using of Marlowe themes in Anthony and Cleopatra, The Merchant Of Venice, Richard II, and Macbeth (Dido, Jew of Malta, Edward II and Dr Faustus respectively). Indeed in Hamlet, after meeting with the travelling actors, Hamlet starts discussing Dido, Queen of Carthage and quoting from it. As this was Marlowe's only play not to have been played in the public theatre we can see that Shakespeare was quite the Marlovian scholar. Indeed in Love's Labour's Lost, echoing Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris, Shakespeare brings on a character called Marcade (French for Mercury - the messenger of the Gods - a nickname Marlowe bestowed upon himself) who arrives to 'interrupt'st' the 'merriment' with news of the King's death. A fitting tribute for one who delighted in destruction in his plays.
In November 2005, a production of Tamburlaine at the Barbican Arts Centre in London was accused of deferring to Muslim sensibilities by amending a section of the play in which the title character burns the Koran and excoriates the prophet Muhammad. The sequence was changed so that Tamburlaine instead defiles books representing all religious texts. The director denied censoring the play, stating that the change was a "purely artistic" decision "to focus the play away from anti-Turkish pantomime to an existential epic". This however shifts a considerable degree of focus from a number of anti-theist (and specifically anti-Muslim) points within the play and changes, significantly, the tone and tenor of the work.  
Given the murky inconsistencies concerning the account of Marlowe's death, an ongoing conspiracy theory has arisen centred on the notion that Marlowe may have faked his death and then continued to write under the assumed name of William Shakespeare. Authors who have propounded this theory include:
The dates of composition are approximate.