The personality of Christopher Marlowe is highly controversial due, chiefly, to the nature of his plays, poor record-keeping of his time, and above all, the type of life this brilliant and highly influential playwright appear to have lived. This unit examines the life and themes of the plays of this great poet and man of the theatre.
The Life of Christopher Marlowe
In “A Brief Life of Christopher Marlowe”, Kelvin L. Nenstiel states that:
Uncovering the truth in the life of playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe is no small feat. Besides the poor record keeping of his era and low esteem in which playwrights were held, the murkiness of his life is further compounded by slanders and disinformation advertised in the wave of his passing by Puritan detractors, rivals, and ideological opponents.
The implication of the above is that Christopher Marlowe was an enigmatic character, and that much of what critics said about his personality depended on speculative and subjective interpretation of his plays and what detractors concocted.
Marlowe’s early life is not properly documented. There is, for example, no record showing his actual date of birth. What is on record is that Christopher Marlowe (Cristofer Marleu in his autograph) was born in Canterbury, the son of a shoemaker, and was baptised on February 6, 1564. Marlowe attended the King’s College and later proceeded to Corpus Christ College, Cambridge where he “studied the Bible and Reformation theologians as well as philosophy and history”. He crowned this effort with a bachelor’s degree in 1584. This is through a scholarship awarded to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Parker.
To further his education once more, Christopher Marlowe enrolled for an M.A. degree programme in the University of Cambridge. According to history, though he had a good record of grades and attendance throughout his undergraduate days, at a certain point he “suddenly developed a habit of protracted unexplained absences while pursing his master’s degree” . This act of indiscipline put him into trouble, with the university authorities refusing to grant him his M.A. degree. The reason for Marlowe’s long absence from school was connected to his espionage activities. At Cambridge, he came into contact with Sir, Francis Willingham, a chief spymaster and later secretary to Queen Elizabeth, who got him involved in state secret service. Through Willingham’s effort, the Queen’s Privy Council intervened in Marlowe’s case with the university granting him his master’s degree in 1587.
Taking the holy orders was part of Marlowe’s scholarship package, but when he got his master’s degree, he bolted away from fulfilling this part of his scholarship scheme, and moved to London where he began to practise as a playwright- a knack he developed when he was at King’s College and consolidated at Cambridge. He was recognised as a quality and gifted playwright and soon he gained the attention of the London audience.
However, much of the money which facilitated Marlowe’s epicurean life and expensive dressing habit was obtained through espionage. He had government connection and befriended people that mattered, for example- Walter Raleigh. This coupled with his brilliance made him to be outspoken and quarrelsome. He disturbed the peace a lot and this led
him into prison many times, and in some of the brawls, lives were lost. As a spy, he got involved in many shoddy dealings and this compelled some people to see him in different bad lights as a homosexual, counterfeiter, magician, tobacco and alcohol addict, etc.
A key factor that helped to shape Marlowe’s plays and his life was his deep-seated attachment to Machiavellian ethics, a dominant ideology championed during the Renaissance by Niccolo Machiavelli. Cowan (1966) argues that Marlowe “attempts to show that the world is made up of people who actually follow this set of ethics laid down by Machiavelli”. This strong support to Machiavellian principles, led to Marlowe being seen as an atheist, and the accusation that he held “dissident views on religion in a closed society, which put him in awkward social positions”, was the reason behind his last detention before he was killed.
There is no gainsaying that Marlowe’s brief life on earth was tumultuous. His death was precipitated by an armed brawl. He was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer on Wednesday 30th May 1593, following a hot quarrel with regard to who would pay their bill. A complex story trailed Marlowe’s death and most of the stories were generated especially by people who hated his ideology.
However, Christopher Marlowe’s 29 years, with six only for his active dramatic practice, yielded fruitful dramatic dividends. Of all English playwrights, Marlowe is second only to Shakespeare in popularity. According to the Marlowe society:
Marlowe has left us from his short, but brilliant, career seven plays, and in several of them he was a pioneer in that particular genre. Of these Tamburlaine parts 1 and 2 caused the greatest excitement among his contemporaries. The heroic nature of its theme, coupled with the splendour of the blank verse and the colour and scale of its pageantry led to its constant revival, with the great actor Edward Alleyn taking the part of Tamburlaine.
The seven plays are as follows:
- Dido, Queen of Cathage (1585) (said to be written with Nashe)
- The First part of Tamburlaine the Great (1586/7)
- The Second part of Tamburlaine the Epealty (1587)
- The Jew of Malta (1589)
- Doctor Fautus (1589)
- Edward the Second (1592)
- The Massacre of Paris (1592/3)