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Marlowe, Christopher (1564–1593) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

marlowe’s death tamburlaine recent

Christopher Marlowe is news that stays news. Both the man and his writings continue to intrigue us because Marlowe was and is a brilliant mischief-maker, a trickster, a crosser of boundaries. His was a life and is a corpus that are pertinent by being impertinent.

“Christofer the sonne of John Marlow” was baptized in Canterbury on 26 February 1564. After attending the King’s School in Canterbury, he was admitted to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He received his B.A., but excessive absence, apparently spent abroad at Rheims, delayed his M.A., and thus begins the Marlowe mystery. The degree was finally granted in 1587, after the Privy Council explained that he had been employed “in matters touching the benefitt of his Countrie.” Presumably, Marlowe was spying on recusant English Catholics and potential plotters against the Anglican queen.

During his student days he wrote translations, poems, and his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage , which was performed by a boys’ company. Tamburlaine the Great also belongs to this period and was followed shortly by Tamburlaine, Part II, The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus , and The Massacre at Paris . All except Edward II were produced by Philip Henslowe,* and Edward Alleyn played Tamburlaine, Barabas, and Faustus. The chronology is almost impossible to determine; none of Marlowe’s writings, except for the two parts of Tamburlaine , were published during his lifetime, and even they appeared anonymously. The 1657 first edition of the play Lust’s Dominion claims Marlowe as its author; more recent critics have attributed to him parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI and the whole of Arden of Feversham ; and some, given to fantasy, imagine a Marlowe who survived his official death and wrote most or all of Shakespeare.*

Marlowe spent most of his six postgraduate years in London or at the home of his patron, Sir Thomas Walsingham, to whom Hero and Leander was posthumously dedicated. Marlowe managed to get into a fair amount of trouble: he was briefly imprisoned in 1589 in connection with a killing, bound by constables to keep the peace in 1592, and deported from the Netherlands that same year. He was connected with what has been called the “School of Night,” a group of innovative thinkers—at whose center were the earl of Northumberland, Baron Cobham, and Sir Walter Ralegh—who took literally a line from Terence, “I hold nothing human alien to me,” and who dared to investigate and speculate about all matters on earth, above and below. That connection, as well as Marlowe’s plays, may have led Robert Greene* to allude to Marlowe as the “famous gracer of Tragedians” who has studied “pestilent Machiavelian pollicy” and says, “There is no God.”

A different playwright,Thomas Kyd, precipitated Marlowe’s—and perhaps his own—downfall.Kyd claimed that a religiously controversial tract found in his room belonged to Marlowe. On 20 May 1593, Marlowe was required to appear daily before the Star Chamber. Ten days later he was dead, stabbed over his right eye by Ingram Frizer with a dagger. The inquest found that Marlowe had started the fight over a tavern debt. Some contemporaries thought the fight was about a woman; others followed the lead of Thomas Beard, who saw in Marlowe’s death “a manifest signe of Gods judgement” for Marlowe’s “Atheisme & impiety.” The late twentieth century believes Marlowe’s death was a political cover-up, perhaps to protect Walsingham and members of the School of Night, perhaps in a court intrigue aimed by Essex against Ralegh. This same Ralegh mourned (or anticipated) Marlowe’s death in his “Nymph’s Reply” to Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd,” which laments how, through time, flowers fade, and the nightingale, the voice of the poet, “Philomel becometh dumb.”


After his death, Marlowe was castigated as a blasphemer and atheist but was equally praised and imitated as a poet and dramatist. The view of his contemporaries is summarized in The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus (c. 1600):

Marlowe  was happy in his buskined muse,
Alas unhappy in his life and end.
Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell,
Wit lent from heaven, but vices sent from hell.

Among the best-known tributes to Marlowe are Ralegh’s response to “The Passionate Shepherd,” one of dozens, and Chapman’s continuation of Hero and Leander . Shakespeare’s As You Like It echoes Hero ‘s “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” and 2 Henry IV mockingly refers to Tamburlaine’s king-drawn chariot.

Largely ignored in the eighteenth century, Marlowe’s texts were revived in the nineteenth, and some productions were staged, notably Edmund Kean’s Jew of Malta in 1818 and William Poel’s 1896 Doctor Faustus . Nevertheless, that period tended to see Marlowe more as a poet than a playwright and to view him much as the preceding century had looked at Shakespeare, as a native genius unrestrained by decorum and unfortunately limited by his audience. By the 1920s and 1930s, Marlowe and his works were thought to exemplify the splendors and contradictions of the Renaissance: aspiring beyond what society and its system of beliefs could permit, gloriously but dangerously overreaching the limits of what could be tolerated.

Recent critics have stopped arguing about Marlowe’s iconoclasm or orthodoxy or worrying about his seeming inconsistency; instead, they appreciate the boldness of his clashing concepts. Increasingly frequent production of his plays has created greater understanding of their theatricality and how they affect their audience. The subtleties of Marlowe’s rhetoric have received fresh study. His influence on Shakespeare and even on Jonson has been explored anew.

Marlowe’s fascination with the outsider or “other” has been fruitfully correlated with Renaissance England’s growing exploration of the non-European world. Several contemporary scholars examine Marlowe’s presentation of the human body, especially its sexual potential. In his own day, Marlowe supposedly claimed that Christ and John the Baptist were lovers and “that all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles.” These assertions, together with the number of men or gods in his works who are strongly attracted to other males, have made Marlowe a major figure in the burgeoning fields of gay and gender studies; Derek Jarman’s recent film adaptation of Edward II is one reflection of this work. The nexus of homoerotic author and characters has, in turn, generated many psychological explorations of both Marlowe and his creations. Finally, recent criticism and historical study about Marlowe’s experiences as an intriguer, spy, or double agent have opened up promising inquiries into the significance of observation and duplicity—indeed trickery—in his work.

My remarks here are merely suggestive. More detailed surveys can be found in the books by Friedenreich and by MacLure. The more one looks, the more one finds that Marlowe slyly resists definition. There can be no closure for a crosser of boundaries, no final word about a trickster.

Marrant, John(1755–1791) - Writer, minister, Chronology, Literary Influence, Antislavery Contributions [next] [back] Markham, Dewey "Pigmeat" (1904–1981)

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