The English dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was the first English playwright to reveal the full potential of dramatic blank verse and the first to exploit the tragic implications of Renaissance humanism.
Although a number of English dramatists before Christopher Marlowe had achieved some notable successes in the field of comedy, none had produced a first-rate tragedy. It was Marlowe who made the first significant advances in tragedy. In each of his major plays he focuses on a single character who dominates the action by virtue of his extraordinary strength of will. Marlowe's thundering blank verse, although for the most part lacking the subtlety of Shakespeare's mature poetry, proved a remarkably effective medium for this kind of drama.
Marlowe was born in February 1564, about 2 months before Shakespeare. His father was a prosperous middle-class merchant of Canterbury. Christopher received his early education at King's School in Canterbury and at the age of 17 went to Cambridge, where he held a scholarship requiring him to study for the ministry. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1584 and a master of arts degree in 1587. Toward the end of his stay at Cambridge he evidently aroused the suspicions of the university authorities, who threatened to withhold his degree. The Queen's Privy Council intervened, however, and assured the authorities that Marlowe "had done Her Majesty good service." The nature of this service is still a mystery, but it is likely that Marlowe was involved in a secret espionage mission abroad.
Shortly after receiving his master's degree, Marlowe went to London. He soon became known for his wild, bohemian ways and his unorthodox thinking. In 1589, for example, he was imprisoned for a time in connection with the death of a certain William Bradley, who had been killed in a violent quarrel in which Marlowe played an important part. He was several times accused of being an "atheist" and a "blasphemer," most notably by his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. These charges led to Marlowe's arrest in 1593, but he died before his case was decided.
Marlowe's career as a poet and dramatist spanned a mere 6 years. Between his graduation from Cambridge in 1587 and his death in 1593 he wrote only one major poem (Hero and Leander, unfinished at his death) and six or seven plays (one play, Dido Queen of Carthage, may have been written while he was still a student). Since the dating of several plays is uncertain, it is impossible to construct a reliable history of Marlowe's intellectual and artistic development.
Tamburlaine the Great, a two-part play, was first printed in 1590 but was probably composed several years earlier. The famous prologue to the first part announces a new poetic and dramatic style: "From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,/ And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay/ We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,/ Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine/Threat'ning the world with high astounding terms/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword./ View but his picture in this tragic glass,/ And then applaud his fortunes as you please." The play itself is a bold demonstration of Tamburlaine's rise to power and his singleminded, often inhumanly cruel exercise of that power. The hero provokes awe and wonder but little sympathy.
Although written sometime between 1588 and 1592, The Jew of Malta was not printed until 1633. The chief figure, the phenomenally wealthy merchant-prince Barabas, is one of the most powerful Machiavellian figures of the Elizabethan drama. Unlike Tamburlaine, who asserts his will openly and without guile, Barabas is shrewd, devious, and secretive.
Doctor Faustus, which is generally considered Marlowe's greatest work, was probably also his last. Its central figure, a scholar who feels he has exhausted all the conventional areas of human learning, attempts to gain the ultimate in knowledge and power by selling his soul to the devil. The high point comes in the portrayal of the hero's final moments, as he awaits the powers of darkness who demand his soul.
The circumstances of Marlowe's death first came to light in the 20th century. On May 30, 1593, Marlowe dined at Deptford with a certain Ingram Frizer and two others. In the course of an argument over the tavern bill, Marlowe wounded Frizer with a dagger, whereupon Frizer seized the same dagger and stabbed Marlowe over the right eye. According to the coroner's inquest, from which this information is drawn, Marlowe died instantly.
Despite the unusual wealth of detail surrounding this fatal episode, there has been much speculation about the affair. It has been suggested, for example, that the deed was politically motivated and that Frizer (who was subsequently judged to have acted in self-defense) was simply acting as an agent for a more prominent person. In any case, within 3 or 4 years of his death, Marlowe's career was being cited by contemporary moralists as a classic illustration of the workings of divine retribution against a blasphemous atheist. But he was also recognized as a remarkable dramatic genius who, if he had lived longer, would certainly have rivaled Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Further Reading on Christopher Marlowe
Among the best of the many full-length studies of Marlowe's life are Frederick S. Boas, Christopher Marlowe: A Biographical and Critical Study (1940); John E. Bakeless, The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe (2 vols., 1942); and Paul H. Kocher, Christopher Marlowe: A Study of His Thought, Learning, and Character (1946). The facts of Marlowe's death were discovered by Leslie Hotson and set forth in his The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925; repr. 1967).
Among the critical studies that take in all of Marlowe's works are Harry Levin, The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe (1952), and J. B. Steane, Marlowe: A Critical Study (1964). An important critical study is Roy W. Battenhouse, Marlowe's Tamburlaine: A Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy (1941). For an interesting aspect of Renaissance drama see Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden (1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Bakeless, John Edwin, Christopher Marlowe, New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1975.
Henderson, Philip, Christopher Marlowe, New York: Barnes &Noble Books, 1974.
Hilton, Della, Christopher Marlowe and the new London theatre, Edinburgh: Pentland Press, 1993.
Hilton, Della, Who was Kit Marlowe?: The story of the poet and playwright, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.
Ingram, John Henry, Marlowe & his poetry, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Lewis, J. G., Christopher Marlowe: outlines of his life and works, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Pinciss, G. M., Christopher Marlowe, New York: Ungar, 1975.
Urry, William, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury, London; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1988.