Marlowe 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 in Canterbury the son of a shoemaker, he attended The King's
School, Canterbury 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 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.
nature of Marlowe's service was not specified by the Council,
but their letter to the Cambridge authorities has provoked much
sensational 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 queen in some capacity.
The brief 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 1587's Tamburlaine, a story of the conqueror Timur.
The first English play to make effective dramatic use of blank
verse, it marks the beginning of the mature phase of Elizabethan
Theatre. It was a smash success, and Tamburlaine Part II soon
followed. The sequence of his remaining plays is unknown. All
were written on controversial themes.
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. The Jew of Malta,
depicting a Maltese Jew's barbarous revenge against the city authorities,
featured a prologue delivered by Machiavelli himself. Edward the
Second was an English history play about the dethronement of Edward
II by his dissatisfied barons and his French queen (the possibility
that Elizabeth I might be dethroned by pro-Catholic forces was
very real at the time). The Massacre at Paris was a short, sketchy
play 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.
other works include the first book of the 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.
two parts of Tamburlaine were published in 1590; all his 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.
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.
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
hasn't stopped writers of both fiction and non-fiction speculating
about his activities and character. Marlowe has often been regarded
as a spy, a brawler, a heretic, and a homosexual. The evidence
for some 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.
The only evidence that Marlowe worked for the government is the
letter of the Privy Council mentioned above. The nature of this
work is unknown. In an obscure incident in the Netherlands in
1592, Marlowe was apprehended at Flushing, then an English possession,
after being accused of involvement in counterfeiting money. Marlowe
confessed, but was not punished on his return to England. This
has suggested to some that he was working for the secret service
again, but it could be that the authorities accepted the story
he told the governor of Flushing, that he had only wanted "to
see the goldsmith's cunning".
Although the fight that resulted in his death in 1593 is the only
occasion where there is evidence of Marlowe assaulting a person,
he had a history of trouble with the law. Marlowe was arrested
in Norton Folgate near Shoreditch in September 1589 following
a brawl in which Thomas Watson killed one William Bradley. A jury
found that Marlowe had no involvement in Bradley's death and Watson
was found to have acted in self-defence. In Shoreditch in May
1592, he was required to provide a guarantee that he keep the
peace, the reason is unknown. In September 1592 in Canterbury
he was charged with damaging property. He subsequently counter-sued
the plaintiff, alleging assault. Both cases appear to have been
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, "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".
attributes to Marlowe outrageously blasphemous 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".
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
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. The question of whether an Elizabethan
was 'gay' in a modern sense is anachronistic; while sodomy was
a crime in the period there was no word for an exclusively homosexual
identity (see History of homosexuality), a concept that did not
emerge until the nineteenth century.
pieces of evidence suggest that Marlowe may have been homosexual,
though all are clearly circumstantial, or reported by people of
most graphic is the testimony of Richard Baines, an informer who
made a long list of allegations against Marlowe after his arrest
(see below). Most of these allegations concern Marlowe's atheism,
but Baines also claimed that Marlowe said "all they that
love not tobacco and boys were fools" and that "St John
the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his
bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodom".
1595, after Marlowe's death, his one-time roommate and fellow
dramatist, Thomas Kyd was tortured and imprisoned when atheistical
papers were found in his room. After claiming Marlowe's responsibility,
Kyd produced on request a shorter list of allegations, which include
the claim that Marlowe "would report St. John to be our saviour
Christ's Alexis ... that is, that Christ did love him with an
In 1598 the writer Francis Meres reported that Marlowe was "stabbed
to death by a bawdy serving man, a rival of his in his lewd love"
(a claim that contradicts the coroner's report).
Marlowe's writing is also notable for its homosexual themes.
II (c.1592) is one of the very few English Renaissance plays to
be concerned with homosexuality, since Edward II had that reputation.
The portrayal of Edward and his love, Piers Gaveston, is unflattering,
but so too is the portrayal of the barons who usurp him, and the
play's numerous modern revivals have demonstrated that Edward's
tragic decline and death can elicit sympathetic responses; it
is thus conceivable that some contemporary audience members might
have responded similarly.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, he opens with a scene of Jupiter "dandling
Ganymede upon his knee" and says "what is't, sweet wag,
I should deny thy youth?, whose face reflects such pleasure to
mine eyes." Venus complains during the play that Jupiter
is playing "with that female wanton boy."
most famous poem, Hero and Leander, also contains homosexual themes.
Marlowe writes of the male youth character, Leander, that "in
his looks were all that men desire" and that when the youth
swims to visit Hero as Sestos, the sea god Neptune becomes sexually
excited. He says that Neptune, "imagining that Ganymede,
displeas'd... the lusty god embrac'd him, call'd him love... and
steal a kiss... upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb",
while the boy naive and unaware of Greek love practices (the mindset
of the audience) said that, "You are deceiv'd, I am no woman,
I... Thereat smil'd Neptune."
mere inclusion of same-sex love themes, often in very tender terms,
in Marlowe's works is seen by some as a significant, and as an
act of artistic courage. In addition, it has been pointed out
that no accounts of marriage or female companionship have been
forthcoming whereas the only historical evidence for Marlowe's
sexuality indicates that he was homosexual.
the only other known "evidence" supporting Marlowe's
homosexuality aside from Kyd's "testimony", and in fact
quite probably the reason why the rumours persist to this day,
is found in accounts of sermons by an influential, puritanical
clergyman who used Marlowe as an example of a sinner who got his
scholars argue that the evidence is not conclusive 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" (Doctor
Faustus and Other Plays, pp. viii - ix). It has also been noted
that Kyd's evidence was given after torture, and thus may have
little connection to reality.
Marlowe's writing, it has been noted that the argument from his
plays and poems depends on a circular argument: that only someone
who was homosexual would have written them. Much of Marlowe's
work is also concerned with heterosexuality; however, it is frequently
presented highly negatively, such as when Hero commits suicide
after consummating her relationship with Leander (which is a significant
departure from the plot of the original myth), or 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.
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
years earlier they had both been working for an aristocratic patron,
probably Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, and Kyd assumed 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. 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
versions of what happened 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.
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.
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
right 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.
death is considered by some to be suspicious for the following
The three men who were in the room with him when he died all had
links to the intelligence service as well as to the London underworld.
Frizer and Skeres also had a long record as loan sharks and con-men,
as shown by court records.
2. Their story that they were on a day's pleasure outing to Deptford
is implausible. In fact, they spent the whole day closeted together,
deep in discussion. Also, Robert Poley was carrying confidential
despatches to the Queen, who was at Greenwich nearby, but instead
of delivering them, he spent the day with Marlowe and the other
3. It seems too much of a coincidence that Marlowe's death occurred
only a few days after his arrest for heresy.
4. The unusual way in which his arrest for heresy was handled
by the Privy Council. He was released in spite of prima facie
evidence, and even though the charges implicitly connected Sir
Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Northumberland with the heresy.
This strongly suggests that the Privy Council considered the heresy
charge to be a set-up, and/or that it was connected with a power
struggle within the Privy Council itself.
5. Marlowe's own record of involvement with the intelligence service,
as shown by the Privy Council minutes of 1587; by a subsequent
strange incident in which he was arrested in Holland for counterfeiting
money and appeared before the Privy Council, but was never charged;
and by the fact that his patron was Thomas Walsingham, Sir Francis'
nephew, who was actively involved in intelligence work.
these reasons and others, it seems likely that 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.
we have only written documents on which to base our conclusions,
and since it is probable that the most crucial information about
Marlowe's death was never committed to writing at all, we are
unlikely ever to know for certain the full circumstances of Marlowe's
reputation among contemporary writers
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 referred to 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.
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
most famous tribute to Marlowe was paid by Shakespeare in his
only reference to a contemporary writer, in As You Like It, where
he quotes a line from Hero and Leander:
Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
"Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?"
In November 2005, a production of Tamburlaine at the Barbican
Arts Centre in London was accused of defering to Muslim sensibilities
by amending a section of the play in which the title character
burns the Qu'ran and excoriates the prophet Muhammad; the sequence
was changed so that Tamburlaine instead defiles books representing
all religious texts.
director (in the view of many, mendaciously) 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.