Christopher Marlowe Biography

CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE (1564–1593), English dramatist, the father of English tragedy, and [the establisher] of dramatic blank verse, the eldest son of a shoemaker at Canterbury, was born in that city on the 6th of February 1564.

Family Origins

He was christened at St George’s Church, Canterbury, on the 26th of February, 1563/4, some two months before Shakespeare’s baptism at Stratford-on-Avon. His father, John Marlowe, is said to have been the grandson of John Morley or Marlowe, a substantial tanner of Canterbury. The father, who survived by a dozen years or so his illustrious son, married on the 22nd of May 1561 Catherine, daughter of Christopher Arthur, at one time rector of St Peter’s, Canterbury, who had been ejected by Queen Mary as a married minister.


The dramatist received the rudiments of his education at the King’s School, Canterbury, which he entered at Michaelmas 1578, and where he had as his fellow-pupils Richard Boyle, afterwards known as the great earl of Cork, and Will Lyly, the brother of the dramatist. Stephen Gosson entered the same school a little before, and William Harvey, the famous physician, a little after Marlowe.

He went to Cambridge as one of Archbishop Parker’s scholars from the King’s School, and matriculated at Benet (Corpus Christi) College, on the 17th of March 1571, taking his B.A. degree in 1584, and that of M.A. three or four years later. Francis Kett, the mystic, burnt in 1589 for heresy, was a fellow and tutor of his college, and may have had some share in developing Marlowe’s opinions in religious matters.

Marlowe’s classical acquirements were of a kind which was then extremely common, being based for the most part upon a minute acquaintance with Roman mythology, as revealed in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His spirited translation of Ovid’s Amores (printed 1596), which was at any rate commenced at Cambridge, does not seem to point to any very intimate acquaintance with the grammar and syntax of the Latin tongue.

Marlowe’s Career in London

Before 1587 he seems to have quitted Cambridge for London, where he attached himself to the Lord Admiral’s Company of Players, under the leadership of the famed actor Edward Alleyn, and almost at once began writing for the stage. Of Marlowe’s career in London, apart from his four great theatrical successes, we know hardly anything; but he evidently knew Thomas Kyd, who shared his unorthodox opinions.

Nash criticized his verse, Greene affected to shudder at his atheism; Gabriel Harvey maligned his memory. On the other hand Marlowe was intimate with the Walsinghams of Scadbury, Chiselhurst, kinsmen of Sir Francis Walsingham: he was also the personal friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps of the poetical earl of Oxford, with both of whom, and with such men as Walter Warner and Robert Hughes the mathematicians, Thomas Harriott the notable astronomer, and Matthew Royden, the dramatist is said to have met in free converse.

Either this free converse or the licentious character of some of the young dramatist’s tirades seems to have sown a suspicion among the strait-laced that his morals left everything to be desired. It is probable enough that this attitude of reprobation drove a man of so exalted a disposition as Marlowe into a more insurgent attitude than he would have otherwise adopted.

He seems at any rate to have been associated with what was denounced as Sir Walter Raleigh’s school of atheism, and to have dallied with opinions which were then regarded as putting a man outside the pale of civilized humanity. As the result of some depositions made by Thomas Kyd under the influence of torture, the Privy Council were upon the eve of investigating some serious charges against Marlowe when his career was abruptly and somewhat scandalously terminated.

The Dramatist’s Passing

The order had already been issued for his arrest, when he was slain in a quarrel by a man variously named (Archer and Ingram) at Deptford, at the end of May 1593, and he was buried on the 1st of June in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Deptford. The following September Gabriel Harvey referred to him as “dead of the plague.”

The disgraceful particulars attached to the tragedy of Marlowe in the popular mind would not seem to have appeared until four years later (1597) when Thomas Beard, the Puritan author of The Theatre of God’s Judgements, used the death of this playmaker and atheist as one of his warning examples of the vengeance of God. Upon the embellishments of this story, such as that of Francis Meres the critic, in 1598, that Marlowe came to be “stabbed to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival of his in his lewde love,” or that of William Vaughan in the Golden Grove of 1600, in which the unfortunate poet’s dagger is thrust into his own eye in prevention of his felonious assault upon an innocent man, his guest, it is impossible now to pronounce.

We really do not know the circumstances of Marlowe’s death. The probability is he was killed in a brawl, and his atheism must be interpreted not according to the ex parte accusation of one Richard Baines, a professional informer (among the Privy Council records), but as a species of rationalistic antinomianism, dialectic in character, and closely related to the deflection from conventional orthodoxy for which Kett was burnt at Norwich in 1589. A few months before the end of his life there is reason to believe that he transferred his services from the Lord Admiral’s to Lord Strange’s Company, and may have thus been brought into communication with Shakespeare, who in such plays as Richard II. and Richard III. owed not a little to the influence of his romantic predecessor.

Marlowe’s 4 Great Plays

Marlowe’s career as a dramatist lies between the years 1587 and 1593, and the four great plays to which reference has been made were Tamburlaine the Great, an heroic epic in dramatic form divided into two parts of five acts each (1587, printed in 1590); Dr. Faustus (1588, entered at Stationers’ Hall 1601); The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta (dating perhaps from 1589, acted in 1592, printed in 1633); and Edward the Second (printed 1594). The very first words of Tamburlaine sound the trumpet note of attack in the older order of things dramatic:—

“From jigging veins of riming mother wits
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.”

It leapt with a bound to a place beside Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, and few plays have been more imitated by rivals (Greene’s Alphonsus of Aragon, Peek’s Battle of Alcazar, Selimus, Scanderbeg) or more keenly satirized by the jealousy and prejudice of out-distanced competitors. (T. Se.) 


Marlowe’s Poetic Leadership

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William Shakespeare, date and artist unknown

The place and the value of Christopher Marlowe as a leader among English poets it would be almost impossible for historical criticism to over-estimate. To none of them all, perhaps, have so many of the greatest among them been so deeply and so directly indebted. Nor was ever any great writer’s influence upon his fellows more utterly and unmixedly an influence for good. He first, and he alone, guided Shakespeare into the right way of work; his music, in which there is no echo of any man’s before him, found its own echo in the more prolonged but hardly more exalted harmony of Milton’s. He is the greatest discoverer, the most daring and inspired pioneer, in all our poetic literature. Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared, the paths were made straight, for Shakespeare. (A. C. S.) 


[From the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. Adapted by EIL editor.]
Learn more on our site: Dr. Steven Kreis offers a broader overview of Marlowe’s era and his place in it.