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Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe, also known as Kit Marlowe (/ˈmɑːrloʊ/; baptised 26 February 1564 – 30 May 1593), was an English playwright, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era.[a] Marlowe is among the most famous of the Elizabethan playwrights. Based upon the "many imitations" of his play Tamburlaine, modern scholars consider him to have been the foremost dramatist in London in the years just before his mysterious early death.[b] Some scholars also believe that he greatly influenced William Shakespeare, who was baptised in the same year as Marlowe and later succeeded him as the pre-eminent Elizabethan playwright.[c] Marlowe was the first to achieve critical reputation for his use of blank verse, which became the standard for the era. His plays are distinguished by their overreaching protagonists. Themes found within Marlowe's literary works have been noted as humanistic with realistic emotions, which some scholars find difficult to reconcile with Marlowe's "anti-intellectualism" and his catering to the prurient tastes of his Elizabethan audiences for generous displays of extreme physical violence, cruelty, and bloodshed.

Events in Marlowe's life were sometimes as extreme as those found in his plays. Differing sensational reports of Marlowe's death in 1593 abounded after the event and are contested by scholars today owing to a lack of good documentation. There have been many conjectures as to the nature and reason for his death, including a vicious bar-room fight, blasphemous libel against the church, homosexual intrigue, betrayal by another playwright, and espionage from the highest level: the Privy Council of Elizabeth I. An official coroner's account of Marlowe's death was revealed only in 1925, and it did little to persuade all scholars that it told the whole story, nor did it eliminate the uncertainties present in his biography.

Christopher Marlowe, the second of 9 children, and oldest child after the death of his sister Mary in 1568, was born to Canterbury shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife Katherine, daughter of William Arthur of Dover. He was baptised at St George's Church, Canterbury, on 26 February 1564 (1563 in the old style dates in use at the time, which placed the new year on 25 March). Marlowe's birth was likely to have been a few days before, making him about two months older than William Shakespeare, who was baptised on 26 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon.

By age 14, Marlowe attended The King's School, Canterbury on scholarship[e] and two years later Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he also studied on scholarship and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584. Marlowe mastered Latin during his schooling, reading and translating the works of Ovid. In 1587, the university hesitated to award his Master of Arts degree because of a rumour that he intended to go to the English seminary at Rheims in northern France, presumably to prepare for ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. If true, such an action on his part would have been a direct violation of royal edict issued by Queen Elizabeth I in 1585 criminalising any attempt by an English citizen to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.

Large-scale violence between Protestants and Catholics on the European continent has been cited by scholars as the impetus for the Protestant English Queen's defensive anti-Catholic laws issued from 1581 until her death in 1603. Despite the dire implications for Marlowe, 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 its letter to the Cambridge authorities has provoked much speculation by modern scholars, notably the theory that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent for Privy Council member Sir Francis Walsingham. The only surviving evidence of the Privy Council's correspondence is found in their minutes, the letter being lost. There is no mention of espionage in the minutes, but its summation of the lost Privy Council letter is vague in meaning, stating that "it was not Her Majesties pleasure" that persons employed as Marlowe had been "in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those who are ignorant in th'affaires he went about." Scholars agree the vague wording was typically used to protect government agents, but they continue to debate what the "matters touching the benefit of his country" actually were in Marlowe's case and how they affected the 23-year-old writer as he launched his literary career in 1587.

Adult life and legend

As with other Elizabethans, little is known about Marlowe's adult life. All available evidence, other than what can be deduced from his literary works, is found in legal records and other official documents. This has not stopped writers of fiction and non-fiction from speculating about his professional activities, private life and character. Marlowe has often been described as a spy, a brawler and a heretic, as well as a "magician", "duellist", "tobacco-user", "counterfeiter" and "rakehell". While J. A. Downie and Constance Kuriyama have argued against the more lurid speculations, it is the usually circumspect J. B. Steane who remarked, "it seems absurd to dismiss all of these Elizabethan rumours and accusations as 'the Marlowe myth'". To understand his brief adult life, from 1587 to 1593, much has been written, including speculation of: his involvement in royally sanctioned espionage; his vocal declaration as an atheist; his private, and possibly same-sex, sexual interests; and the puzzling circumstances surrounding his death.

Marlowe is alleged to have been a government spy.Park Honan and Charles Nicholl speculate that this was the case and suggest that Marlowe's recruitment took place when he was at Cambridge. In 1587, when the Privy Council ordered the University of Cambridge to award Marlowe his degree as Master of Arts, it denied rumours that he intended to go to the English Catholic college in Rheims, saying instead that he had been engaged in unspecified "affaires" on "matters touching the benefit of his country". Surviving college records from the period also indicate that, in the academic year 1584–1585, Marlowe had had a series of unusually lengthy absences from the university which violated university regulations. Surviving college buttery accounts, which record student purchases for personal provisions, show that Marlowe began spending lavishly on food and drink during the periods he was in attendance; the amount was more than he could have afforded on his known scholarship income.

It has been speculated that Marlowe was the "Morley" who was tutor to Arbella Stuart in 1589.[g] This possibility was first raised in a Times Literary Supplement letter by E. St John Brooks in 1937; in a letter to Notes and Queries, John Baker has added that only Marlowe could have been Arbella's tutor owing to the absence of any other known "Morley" from the period with an MA and not otherwise occupied. If Marlowe was Arbella's tutor, it might indicate that he was there as a spy, since Arbella, niece of Mary, Queen of Scots, and cousin of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, was at the time a strong candidate for the succession to Elizabeth's throne.Frederick S. Boas dismisses the possibility of this identification, based on surviving legal records which document Marlowe's "residence in London between September and December 1589". Marlowe had been party to a fatal quarrel involving his neighbours and the poet Thomas Watson in Norton Folgate and was held in Newgate Prison for a fortnight. In fact, the quarrel and his arrest occurred on 18 September, he was released on bail on 1 October and he had to attend court, where he was acquitted on 3 December, but there is no record of where he was for the intervening two months.

In 1592 Marlowe was arrested in the English garrison town of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands, for alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins, presumably related to the activities of seditious Catholics. He was sent to the Lord Treasurer (Burghley), but no charge or imprisonment resulted. This arrest may have disrupted another of Marlowe's spying missions, perhaps by giving the resulting coinage to the Catholic cause. He was to infiltrate the followers of the active Catholic plotter William Stanley and report back to Burghley.

Marlowe was reputed to be an atheist, which held the dangerous implication of being an enemy of God and the state, by association. With the rise of public fears concerning The School of Night, or "School of Atheism" in the late 16th century, accusations of atheism were closely associated with disloyalty to the Protestant monarchy of England.

Some modern historians consider that Marlowe's professed atheism, as with his supposed Catholicism, may have been no more than a sham to further his work as a government spy. Contemporary evidence comes from Marlowe's accuser in Flushing, an informer called Richard Baines. The governor of Flushing had reported that each of the men had "of malice" accused the other of instigating the counterfeiting and of intending to go over to the Catholic "enemy"; such an action was considered atheistic by the Church of England. Following Marlowe's arrest 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 a total of eighteen items which "scoff at the pretensions of the Old and New Testament" 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", "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 implied that Marlowe had Catholic sympathies. Other passages are merely sceptical in tone: "he persuades men to atheism, willing them not to be afraid of bugbears and hobgoblins". The final paragraph of Baines's document reads:

These thinges, with many other shall by good & honest witnes be approved to be his opinions and Comon Speeches, and that this Marlowe doth not only hould them himself, but almost into every Company he Cometh he persuades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both god and his ministers as I Richard Baines will Justify & approue both by mine oth and the testimony of many honest men, and almost al men with whome he hath Conversed any time will testify the same, and as I think all men in Cristianity ought to indevor that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped, he saith likewise that he hath quoted a number of Contrarieties oute of the Scripture which he hath giuen to some great men who in Convenient time shalbe named. When these thinges shalbe Called in question the witnes shalbe produced.

Similar examples of Marlowe's statements were given by Thomas Kyd after his imprisonment and possible torture (see above); Kyd and Baines connect Marlowe with the mathematician Thomas Harriot's and Sir Walter Raleigh's circle. Another document claimed about that time that "one Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons for Atheism than any divine in England is able to give to prove divinity, and that ... he hath read the Atheist lecture to Sir Walter Raleigh and others".[h]

Some critics believe that Marlowe sought to disseminate these views in his work and that he identified with his rebellious and iconoclastic protagonists. 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 other than the Amores.

It has been claimed that Marlowe was homosexual. Some scholars argue that the identification of an Elizabethan as gay or homosexual in the modern sense is "anachronistic," claiming that for the Elizabethans the terms were more likely to have been applied to sexual acts rather than to what we currently understand to be exclusive sexual orientations and identities. Other scholars argue that the evidence is inconclusive and that the reports of Marlowe's homosexuality may be rumours produced after his death. Richard Baines reported Marlowe as saying: "all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fools". David Bevington and Eric C. Rasmussen describe Baines's evidence as "unreliable testimony" and "These and other testimonials need to be discounted for their exaggeration and for their having been produced under legal circumstances we would now regard as a witch-hunt".

J. B. Steane considered there to be "no evidence for Marlowe's homosexuality at all". Other scholars point to the frequency with which Marlowe explores homosexual themes in his writing: in Hero and Leander, Marlowe writes of the male youth Leander: "in his looks were all that men desire..."Edward the Second contains the following passage enumerating homosexual relationships:

The mightiest kings have had their minions; Great Alexander loved Hephaestion, The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept; And for Patroclus, stern Achilles drooped. And not kings only, but the wisest men: The Roman Tully loved Octavius, Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.

Marlowe wrote the only play about the life of Edward II up to his time, taking the humanist literary discussion of male sexuality much further than his contemporaries. The play was extremely bold, dealing with a star-crossed love story between Edward II and Piers Gaveston. Though it was a common practice at the time to reveal characters as gay to give audiences reason to suspect them as culprits in a crime, Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is portrayed as a sympathetic character. The decision to start the play Dido, Queen of Carthage with a homoerotic scene between Jupiter and Ganymede that bears no connection to the subsequent plot has long puzzled scholars.

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 rhymed iambic pentameter, 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, his lodgings were searched and a three-page fragment of a heretical tract was found. In a letter to Sir John Puckering, Kyd asserted that it had belonged to Marlowe, with whom he had been writing "in one chamber" some two years earlier.[i] In a second letter, Kyd described Marlowe as blasphemous, disorderly, holding treasonous opinions, being an irreligious reprobate and "intemperate & of a cruel hart". They had both been working for an aristocratic patron, probably Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. A warrant for Marlowe's arrest was issued on 18 May, when the Privy Council apparently knew that he might be found staying with Thomas Walsingham, whose father was a first cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's principal secretary in the 1580s and a man more deeply involved in state espionage than any other member of the Privy Council. Marlowe duly presented himself on 20 May but there apparently being no Privy Council meeting on that day, was instructed to "give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary". On Wednesday, 30 May, Marlowe was killed.

Various accounts of Marlowe's death were current over the next few years. In his Palladis Tamia, published in 1598, 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 official account came to light only in 1925, when the scholar Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner's report of the inquest on Marlowe's death, held two days later on Friday 1 June 1593, by the Coroner of the Queen's Household, William Danby. Marlowe had spent all day in a house in Deptford, owned by the widow Eleanor Bull and together with three men: Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. All three had been employed by one or other of the Walsinghams. Skeres and Poley had helped snare the conspirators in the Babington plot and Frizer would later describe Thomas Walsingham as his "master" at that time, although his role was probably more that of a financial or business agent, as he was for Walsingham's wife Audrey a few years later. These witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had argued over payment of the bill (now famously known as the 'Reckoning') exchanging "divers malicious words" 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 wounded him on the head. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner's report, Marlowe was stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly. The jury concluded that Frizer acted in self-defence and within a month he was pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Deptford immediately after the inquest, on 1 June 1593.

The complete text of the inquest report was published by Leslie Hotson in his book, The Death of Christopher Marlowe, in the introduction to which Prof. George Kittredge said "The mystery of Marlowe's death, heretofore involved in a cloud of contradictory gossip and irresponsible guess-work, is now cleared up for good and all on the authority of public records of complete authenticity and gratifying fullness" but this confidence proved fairly short-lived. Hotson had considered the possibility that the witnesses had "concocted a lying account of Marlowe's behaviour, to which they swore at the inquest, and with which they deceived the jury" but came down against that scenario. Others began to suspect that this was indeed the case. Writing to the TLS shortly after the book's publication, Eugénie de Kalb disputed that the struggle and outcome as described were even possible and Samuel A. Tannenbaum insisted the following year that such a wound could not have possibly resulted in instant death, as had been claimed. Even Marlowe's biographer John Bakeless acknowledged that "some scholars have been inclined to question the truthfulness of the coroner's report. There is something queer about the whole episode" and said that Hotson's discovery "raises almost as many questions as it answers". It has also been discovered more recently that the apparent absence of a local county coroner to accompany the Coroner of the Queen's Household would, if noticed, have made the inquest null and void.

One of the main reasons for doubting the truth of the inquest concerns the reliability of Marlowe's companions as witnesses. As an agent provocateur for the late Sir Francis Walsingham, Robert Poley was a consummate liar, the "very genius of the Elizabethan underworld" and is on record as saying "I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm". The other witness, Nicholas Skeres, had for many years acted as a confidence trickster, drawing young men into the clutches of people in the money-lending racket, including Marlowe's apparent killer, Ingram Frizer, with whom he was engaged in such a swindle. Despite their being referred to as "generosi" (gentlemen) in the inquest report, the witnesses were professional liars. Some biographers, such as Kuriyama and Downie, take the inquest to be a true account of what occurred but in trying to explain what really happened if the account was not true, others have come up with a variety of murder theories.

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 paper, it is unlikely that the full circumstances of Marlowe's death will ever be known.

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," as did the publisher Edward Blount in his dedication of Hero and Leander to Sir Thomas Walsingham. Among the few contemporary dramatists 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 lov'd that lov'd 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, as well as to a line in Marlowe's Jew of Malta; "Infinite riches in a little room".

Shakespeare was much influenced by Marlowe in his work, as can be seen in the use of Marlovian themes in Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II and Macbeth (Dido, Jew of Malta, Edward II and Doctor Faustus, respectively). In Hamlet, after meeting with the travelling actors, Hamlet requests the Player perform a speech about the Trojan War, which at 2.2.429–32 has an echo of Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage. In Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare brings on a character "Marcade" (three syllables) in conscious acknowledgement of Marlowe's character "Mercury", also attending the King of Navarre, in Massacre at Paris. The significance, to those of Shakespeare's audience who were familiar with Hero and Leander, was Marlowe's identification of himself with the god Mercury.

An argument has arisen about the notion that Marlowe faked his death and then continued to write under the assumed name of William Shakespeare. Academic consensus rejects alternative candidates for authorship of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, including Marlowe.

Plays

Six dramas have been attributed to the authorship of Christopher Marlowe either alone or in collaboration with other writers, with varying degrees of evidence. The writing sequence or chronology of these plays is mostly unknown and is offered here with any dates and evidence known. Among the little available information we have, Dido is believed to be the first Marlowe play performed, while it was Tamburlaine that was first to be performed on a regular commercial stage in London in 1587. Believed by many scholars to be Marlowe's greatest success, Tamburlaine was the first English play written in blank verse and, with Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, is generally considered the beginning of the mature phase of the Elizabethan theatre.

Works (The dates of composition are approximate).:

The play Lust's Dominion was attributed to Marlowe upon its initial publication in 1657, though scholars and critics have almost unanimously rejected the attribution. He may also have written or co-written Arden of Faversham.

Poetry and translations

Publication and responses to the poetry and translations credited to Marlowe primarily occurred posthumously, including:

Collaborations

Modern scholars still look for evidence of collaborations between Marlowe and other writers. In 2016, one publisher was the first to endorse the scholarly claim of a collaboration between Marlowe and the playwright William Shakespeare:

Marlowe's plays were enormously successful, possibly because of the imposing stage presence of his lead actor, Edward Alleyn. Alleyn was unusually tall for the time and the haughty roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus and Barabas were probably written for him. Marlowe's plays were the foundation of the repertoire of Alleyn's company, the Admiral's Men, throughout the 1590s. One of Marlowe's poetry translations did not fare as well. In 1599, Marlowe's translation of Ovid was banned and copies were publicly burned as part of Archbishop Whitgift's crackdown on offensive material.

Chronology of dramatic works

This is a possible chronology of composition for the dramatic works of Christopher Marlowe based upon dates previously cited. The dates of composition are approximate. There are other chronologies for Marlowe, including one based upon dates of printing, as was used in the 2004 Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe, edited by Patrick Cheney.

A Marlowe Memorial in the form of a bronze sculpture of The Muse of Poetry by Edward Onslow Ford was erected by subscription in Buttermarket, Canterbury in 1891. In July 2002, a memorial window to Marlowe, a gift of the Marlowe Society, was unveiled in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Controversially, a question mark was added to the generally accepted date of death. On 25 October 2011 a letter from Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells was published by The Times newspaper, in which they called on the Dean and Chapter to remove the question mark on the grounds that it "flew in the face of a mass of unimpugnable evidence". In 2012, they renewed this call in their e-book Shakespeare Bites Back, adding that it "denies history" and again the following year in their book Shakespeare Beyond Doubt.

The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, Kent, UK, was named after the town's "most famous" resident in 1949. Originally housed in a former 1920s cinema on St. Margaret's Street, the Marlowe Theatre later moved to a newly converted 1930's era Odeon Cinema in the city. After a 2011 reopening with a newly enhanced state-of-the-art theatre facility, the Marlowe now enjoys some of the country's finest touring companies including, Glyndebourne Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre as well as many major West End musicals.

Marlowe has been used as a character in books, theatre, film, television and radio.

Modern compendiums

There are at least two major modern scholarly editions of the collected works of Christopher Marlowe:

There are also notable scholarly collections of essays concerning the collected works of Christopher Marlowe, including:

Modern productions of the plays of Christopher Marlowe have increased in frequency throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including the following notable productions:

Sources


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