Well, I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, conceived in Flordia, and instantly had an affinity for dinosaurs and Batman, a obsession that has yet to extinguish much to my mother's dismay. But sadly, this website isn't about me and my awesomeness (but I'm sure that website is just 'round the corner), so without further ado, I present to thee the incomplete, unabridged history of Christopher Marlowe...
Information mostly comes via David Riggs' book, The World of Christopher Marlowe.
Date of birth:
26 February 1564
Date of death:
30 May 1593
Elizabethan Era. Born a second child (Mary, the first, b.1562) to John Marlowe and Katherine Arthur (married 1561), immigrants from Faversham and Dover respectively, Christopher Marlowe’s exact birth date is unknown, the date above a reference to his baptizing by Father Sweeting (historical fun fact: this being just two months before Shakespeare was christened at Stratford-upon-Avon). The family was on the poor side of the bridge, On his way to adulthood, Christopher had working in his father’s guild to look up to.
During the first fifteen years of their marriage, Katherine Marlowe bore nine children. Margaret (December 1566), an anonymous second son (1568) only to die a week later, Jane (1569), Thomas (1570) who survived for three weeks, Anne (1571), Dorothy (1573), and Thomas (1576). Her first child, Margaret, died in December 1566 at the age of six. Margaret’s death cemented him as eldest child and thus bore him most of the responsibility.
Aside from a few details concerning his religious routine and bow and arrow-yielding learning, not much is
really known about Christopher's childhood. Details start sprucing up again when he began school at the
age of six. The educational system rarely instructed practical skill, instead focusing on religious instructions,
as per decree by King Henry and reinstated by Queen Elizabeth I. The ABC, The ABC and Catechism
(featuring the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Commandments), and A Primer or Book of
Private Prayer were the required reading materials. By eight he had memorized the ABC and left that
school for another that taught grammar and where he picked up Latin. His whereabouts for the next six
years are a mystery.
Just before hitting his fifteenth birthday, Christopher was awarded a scholarship to attend the King’s
School (thanks to John Elmley losing out), most likely paid for by his father from a court settlement. Aside
from receiving a education of high achievement, Marlowe’s family also received a annual income by King
Scholars, and inside the school, they dined on tasty foods previously unattainable for him.
The school also held a tradition of Christmas plays. It’s here that Marlowe prepared his earliest play,
Dido, Queen of Carthage, for his classmates. Credited as co-authored by Thomas Nashe Grant, a mate
who took part in student theater, Queen of Carthage is a “creative imitation” of Books I, II and IV of
Virgil’s Aeneid (Riggs). The probability of Nashe Grant’s involvement in writing or rewriting portions of
Queen of Carthage is unlikely, as Nashe Grant had a knack for satires and prose narratives; at most, his
involvement was preparing his deceased friends manuscript for press.
Marlowe spent much of his teen years mastering ‘the rules for making verses.’ He left King’s School in autumn 1580; winning the Parker Scholarship sent him to Cambridge (the scholarship was enough for three years [of a four year degree toa chieve] of work towards a BA degree). To support himself and get into his schooling as quickly as possible, Marlowe left his mom, father and four unmarried sisters behind to pursue his writing degree. Marlowe’s tenure at Cambridge lasted for six years, where he learned dialectics, rhetoric, Christianity, and philosophy (particularly the works of Artistotle), and completed his residency requirement in 1583/1584 with a BA (under the name ‘Master Marlen’). Under the terms of his scholarship agreement, Christopher was allowed to stay at Cambridge to pursue a Master’s Degree – only if he intended to enter Holy Orders, a highly competitive endeavor. Concluding it a difficult route, Marlowe began to set his eyes on a career alternative.
Throughout the next few years, during his studies at Cambridge, Marlowe went in-and-out quite frequently, something that wasn’t all too rare in that period. As long as they had ‘lived soberly and studiously the course of a scholar’s life’, residents were free to come and go as they pleased. Up until 1587, Marlowe’s only recorded public appearance was attending the funeral of his youngest sister Jane, who at the age of thirteen died (apparently) from childbirth.
Coming back home also included being present at a will-signing of a one Katherine Benchkin in 1585; his reappearance was that of a man distinguished as a writer. It was during this time that Marlowe translated Amores, a poem written by the leading English writer Ovid. Marlowe opted for a line-by-line translation, which apparently was a bit dodgy with multiple inconsistencies with the original Ovid poem, as David Riggs notes in Chapter 6 of The World of Christopher Marlowe.
1587 was a good year for Marlowe: he completed Tamburlaine the Great, received his Masters of Art degree (at the request of the Privy Council), and was suspected as a government agent. The university authorities were under the impression that Marlowe planned to relocate to Rheims, according to a rumor of Marlowe’s intent to join a Catholic seminary over there; they asked where his loyalties lay:
Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Rheims and there to remain, their Lordships thought good to certify that he had no such intent, but that in all actions he had behaved himself orderly and discreetly whereby he had done her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing.
Those who signed the letter were some big dealers: Lord Treasurer Burghley, Archbishop Whitgift, Lord Chancellor Hatton, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and Sir James Crofts. It’s inferred by the letter that Marlowe did in fact stay in Rheims on government business, although his exact business under the Majesty’s service can only be speculated. He could be simply a dispatch carrier to a fro ambassadors and courts, or he could, in fact, have been a spy for Sir Franci Walsingham, although the spy scenario is the most talked about.
After receiving his M.A. from the University, Marlowe moved to London. It’s there that he spent a good amount of his time – when not writing plays – getting into bouts with the law, never charged or found guilty, but there were two court dates. In September, Marlowe and some bloke named William Bradley got into a quarrel; Marlowe’s friend Thomas Watson (the poet) came to his rescue, and ended up fatally stabbing Bradley. Both were imprisoned, although Marlowe with considerably less time. In December, a trial was held, but both were discharged with a peaceful warning. That didn’t happen so much, as three years later another court session was arranged for an assault on two constables.
Marlowe’s writing career started successfully with Tamburlaine, the story of the conqueror Timur; it was successful enough a second installment soon followed. A dramatic retelling of the Faust legend became the basis for his hugely popular Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. The fall of Edward II and accession of Edward III was chronicled in his much debated Edward II; and the events of the Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre in 1572 inspired The Massacre at Paris. As a writer, Marlowe found great success and popularity in his writing and improvement of blank verse. In addition, Marlowe also found accomplishment in making his tragedies grand in scale, calling in the character, impression, and interest extremely captivating. His plays (specifically Tamburlaine and Faust) were personifications of arrogance, ambition and greed; lacking much in humor, but never lacking in imagination.
The Mysterious Death
30 May 1593. A little past six in the evening, in a little room-renting house in Deptford (three miles from London), three men – Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Robert Poley - are seated on a bench, playing a game of backgammon. (there’s a fourth man, but he’s on a nearby bed recovering from too much wine) The conversation turns to payment of their food to the hostess. One of the young, drunken men protest, saying their “reckoning is too large.” As Frizer sat at the table with the other two, Marlowe laid behind on a couch. Somehow, according to official testimony, an argument about the bill broke out. Marlowe snatched Frizer’s dagger and attacked; the blow didn’t meet the intended target, as the dagger was ‘accidently’ directed towards Marlowe, impaling him above the right eye, killing him instantly. This is the official statement of the coroner’s report (not discovered until 1925).
The jury found Frizer not guilty on account of self-defense, and within a month was pardoned. Meanwhile, Marlowe was buried in a unmarked grave in a churchyard in St. Nicholas, Deptford, on 1 June 1593.
The events and circumstances of Marlowe’s death has allowed for multiple theories. Some believe him to be assassinated, as he was becoming too much of a reliability for the Queens council, and the fact that all three of the men in that night in Deptford had connections to Queen Elizabeth’s army men would seem to compliment this thought. Additionally, the fact this transpired merely ten days after Marlowe’s suspicion of atheism and sodosm is entirely too coincidental. Another theory is that Marlowe was killed in direct result of his controversial status, as a man who was allegedly a homosexual and had doubts of religion. But the most publicized and investigated theory is the Marlovian theory, a idea that Christopher Marlowe faked his death and resurrected himself as someone else entirely, whisked away by Walsingham to Italy as a way to avoid the allegations presented upon Marlowe ten days prior.
Whatever may have happened, the death of Christopher Marlowe still interests scholars alike, and is still highly theorized.
To Be or Not To Be
Similar to Marlowe’s service to the government, any evidence for these theories and possibilities are inconclusive, such as the assertion of Marlowe’s strongly associated figure of homosexuality.
The testimony of Richard Baines, in which he was nice enough to berate a large list of allegations, is often cited as the best ‘evidence’ for Marlowe’s sexuality. He claimed that Marlowe said, and he quoted, “all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools”, and that “St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always to his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodom.”
A 1598 report by writer Francis Meres said that Marlowe was “stabbed to death by a bawdy serving man, a rival of his in his lewd love” (claim contradicted by coroner’s report).
And perhaps most humorously, a influential clergyman used Marlowe as a example of a sinner who got his just deserts (presumably after Marlowe’s death)
But the highest ‘evidence’ scholars have is that Marlowe’s writings strongly deal with homosexual themes. Exhibit A: Edward II. The love between Edward and Pies Gaveston. Exhibit B: Dido, Queen of Carthage. The opening scene with Jupiter “dandling Ganymede upon his knees” whose “face reflects such pleasure to mine eyes.” And Exhibit C., Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander, which also reportedly contained homosexual themes. Of the main character, “in his looks were all that men desire”, and upon seeing him the sea god Neptune becomes sexually excited”, though Leander apparently doesn’t register it.
Nah, He Didn't Just Say 'Dat!
In ’91, Marlowe shared a pad with Thomas Kyd which they used primarily for study and writing. Two years in, Kyd was arrested in relation to heretical papers “denying the deity of Jesus Christ.” Kyd maintained they were Marlowe’s, and must have accidently shuffled together with his stuff. Suffice it to say, a warrant, issued 18 May, was put out for Marlowe’s arrest (no reason was given, although presumably in connection to Marlowe’s manuscript that contained “vile heretical concepts”). The Life of Christopher Marlowe writes: on 20 May, Marlowe came out of the shadows (after residing at the home estate of Thomas Walsingham, cousin of Sir Franci Walsingham) and instead of the severe interrogation Kyd got, Marlowe was “commanded to give his daily attendance to their Lordships until he shall be licensed to the contrary.”
Whatever his reputation in life, Marlowe definitely got his love-gushing in death. Aside from the already written about homage Shakespeare wrote, many other writers and colleagues made notations of their own. According to Marlowe Society, dramatist George Peele wrote a tribute less than a month after Deptford, calling him "the Muses' Darling" (which I'm sure is supposed to be sweet sounding); Marlowe's friend Thomas Nashe wrote a elegy to Marlowe in a quickly released edition of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Dramatist Robert Greene, who wasn't a fan of Marlowe and his atheism, nonetheless recognized him as "thou famous gracer of Tragedians."
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