Remembering Christopher Marlowe I Oxford Open Learning
Christopher Marlowe

Remembering Christopher Marlowe

Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe was one of the most influential playwrights and poets of his time. His works continue to be studied, read and performed to this day.

Marlowe’s Elizabethan era works set the stage for perhaps his only rival, William Shakespeare, who after likely crossing paths would also go on to dabble in the themes of tragedy and morally grey protagonists. Greed, the human condition and the murkiness of religion; these were all ideas that Marlowe began to wrestle with in his plays and in blank verse poetry. Ultimately, he set a precedent for all kinds of storytelling for all time.

Born in 1564 in Canterbury to humble beginnings, Marlowe was enrolled at the King’s School, Canterbury, before a successful stint at the Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge. His trajectory differed greatly from his father’s, who was a mere cobbler. Marlowe studied a Bachelor of Arts by virtue of scholarship, and graduated in 1584. However, he faced difficulty receiving his Master of Arts by 1587, with the university refusing to bestow the award to him due to inexplicably sporadic attendance. Nevertheless, his connections in the Queen’s Privy Council, including an archbishop, a lord and a sir, saw to it that Marlowe obtained his Master’s degree. After that he was off to London to principally write for theatre.

A Rocket to Fame

By the time Marlowe’s early twenties rolled around, he was famed for his writing and a figure of public interest. It’s been reported that Marlowe produced his works at an incredibly fast rate, and between the late 1580s and the early 1590s alone he had fashioned a staggering seven plays and three poems. Many of the poets of the sixteenth century looked to Marlowe for inspiration, thinking at that time that he had perfected the art of storytelling.

It’s the play Doctor Faustus (originally titled The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus), however, that truly put Christopher Marlowe on the map. It’s a piece that’s constantly being performed, ever since the first recorded staging in 1592, seeing many different interpretations through the years. Thousands of actors and directors have put their own stamp on the classic piece of theatre, creatively reimagining themes, setting and characters with new nuances. Each iteration adds significantly to Marlowe’s legacy.

Still, much of the work of Kit Marlowe has, allegedly, slipped under the radar. After all, it was only in 2016 that the Oxford University Press credited Marlowe as a co-writer on three of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VI Parts I, II, and III. Suspicions of him having contributed to Shakespeare’s works are historically revered, but it’s only today that Marlowe has officially received his long overdue recognition in an official capacity. Even so, recognition from one source – even from a top tier university – won’t be enough to convince everyone without hard evidence.

An Author of Mystery and Danger

Marlowe’s life is a tale that’s equally as paradoxical and mysterious as the circumstances of his fiction. He often expanded his world beyond writing, becoming a streetfighter, an alleged government spy (which apparently explained his repeated absences from university), and a traveller, with a myriad of friends and acquaintances in both high and low society. He was also plagued by rumours of atheism and heresy, possibly to the extent that it eventually resulted in his murder.

Christopher Marlowe was killed in Deptford on the 30th May 1593, aged 29. As with other aspects of his life, reports vary as to the reasons for his demise, but they all align in the cause of death; a stab wound to the forehead courtesy of Ingram Frizer, a fellow agent of Sir Walsingham, who buried the knife blade centimetres above Marlowe’s right eye.

Some say this violent end was the result of a bar brawl over a bill that needed paying for drinks. Others say more sinister schemes were at work that day…

Marlowe was becoming outrageously vocal about his atheist attitudes and was also publicly accused of heresy in 1593. Rumours swirled that he went about converting others to his cause with the backing of London street gangs, openly denouncing god with confrontational quips to any who would listen. Because of the way this date aligns perfectly with his murder, many conspiracy theorists believe that Marlowe’s heresy played a part in his murder. After all, atheism was a serious crime in Elizabethan England, the punishment being burned at the stake. After a series of “mutinous libels” were found posted around London, Queen Elizabeth’s I Privy Council called for the arrest of the authors who had written them. One of them was reportedly signed ‘Tamburlaine’, an exceedingly famous two-part play of Marlowe’s.

Dangerous to Know

Allegedly tipped off by informers, fellow Elizabethan playwright and former roommate Thomas Kyd is said to have been investigated by the authorities shortly before Christopher Marlowe’s death. His accommodation was also searched. Kyd endured rigorous questioning and grievous torture after heretical tracts that defamed Christ were found in his lodging. He claimed they actually belonged to Marlowe.

As we know, Marlowe was slain soon after this, but not before he was summoned by the Queen’s Privy Council. He was killed still awaiting a verdict on his case, and Queen Elizabeth I mysteriously pardoned his murder four weeks later. It makes you wonder, was Marlowe’s death really just the result of a fiery, meaningless brawl? Or, could it have been a targeted assassination due to his atheism? No one knows for sure…

Still, one certainty remains; Christopher Marlowe is fascinating in life, death and in his works. The contested and paradoxical nature of his existence no doubt plays a role in why theatre finds a way to boomerang back to him. A master of the arts but tragically outfoxed in the end, his legacy is a highly intriguing – if at times muddled and confusing – story to become familiar with.

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