English playwright Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare with a short but potent body of work to his name. Learn all about his plays – and his fascinating character – from our video lesson!
Christopher Marlowe is kind of the other Elizabethan playwright (it’s like pork – the other white meat). He precedes Shakespeare a little bit – chronologically and in reputation – just by a few years. They knew each other. They’re contemporaneous, roughly.
He was kind of the go-to guy for tragedies for a long time in London. He was also a crazy fascinating person. His biographical details are muddied, which is just perfect because it makes people able to fight about him ad nauseam today.
What kind of things do they argue about? There’s tons of accusations and illicit information about Marlowe. Some of it is confirmed; some of it is not at all confirmed.
People say that he was a spy for England, that he was a traitor, that he was an atheist, that he was a homosexual…
(Can you imagine such things?!) A few people even think that Marlowe was Shakespeare, or that Shakespeare was Marlowe. They claim that Marlowe faked his own death and then continued to write as Shakespeare, or that Shakespeare found fame under the assumed name before he used his own. There’s all sorts of crazy accusations about that.
Those are probably not true, but he and Shakespeare are enigmatic enough figures that you can say stuff like this and no one can really say that you’re wrong. That’s why rumors like that keep being perpetuated.Here’s what we do know: Marlowe was baptized in Canterbury in 1564, so he was born sometime around then. He got a Bachelor of Arts degree, and then a master’s, from Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.
When he was there, we know that he served the English government in some secret capacity because there’s a letter from Elizabeth’s administration that was written to the school about his master’s degree. What he actually did, we don’t know, but lots of people think he was a spy, kind of a prototype James Bond without the gadgets and with a codpiece.Regardless of his other employments, he was an incredibly popular and influential playwright. He wrote in blank verse, which is just unrhymed iambic pentameter – like Shakespeare – and was one of the first ones to do it. Only two of his works were actually published during his lifetime (they were all performed and continue to be performed); everything else was published posthumously. In addition to plays, he wrote some poems and translations of Latin works.
His drama is what we’re most interested in, but we’ll mention a couple of his poems near the end of our little lesson here.
Since Marlowe didn’t actually have too many plays to his name because his life was cut tragically short, as we’ll soon discuss, it’s actually possible to talk about everything that he wrote. So, we’re going to do it!
Dido, Queen of Carthage (1587)
This is believed to be Marlowe’s first performed play, although record-keeping was not so hot back then, so we can never be sure.
It’s based on three early books of the Roman poet Virgil’s epic The Aeneid. It’s about a crazy queen who falls in love with Virgil’s hero, Aeneas, and, when he spurns her to continue on his mission, she commits suicide. We can already see that Marlowe didn’t really shy away from racy and offensive themes – he just dove right in. This was first performed by a company of young boy actors sometime between 1587-1593.
Tamburlaine the Great (1587)
This is Marlowe’s first proper London production, probably in 1587. This again takes on classical source material; Tamburlaine is about an Asian emperor Timur the Lame (which sounds a lot like Tamburlaine). He kind of clawed his way up from being a shepherd to being a ruler. Scholars celebrate this play as a turning point in Elizabethan drama because it introduces rich language, complex plotting, and complex themes – things that hadn’t really been seen before on the London stage.
It was so successful that it was followed by a sequel, and these two plays were the only ones that were actually published during his lifetime.
The Jew of Malta (1592)
Not an awesome name by today’s standards; this was first performed in 1592. It tells the tale of a merchant, the titular Jew named Barabas, who basically plots revenge against Malta, which is the country where he lives, because they made him penniless. They stole all of his stuff. It’s got these political and ethical complications that make one of Marlowe’s favorite themes – ambiguous protagonists – super relevant to this play.
His good guys aren’t always good – they don’t always seem to be perfectly good – but we kind of sympathize with them anyway, even if they’re (gasp) Jewish. This one’s one of those ones that’s hard to read – we’re not sure what audiences would have made of it then or what Marlowe intentions really were with this character. What we do know is that it definitely influenced Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, which is also about a Jewish merchant getting his revenge.
Edward II (1592)
One of the first English historical dramas, it’s about the reign, the deposition, and the eventual execution of Edward II, who was a king of England.
Lots of modern scholars like to tease out the potential homosexual relationship between Edward II and his companion named Gaveston. Modern performances pretty much make this explicit – they just make them gay. That’s again one of the things that we’re not sure about Marlowe – what his sexuality was. This play, maybe, provides evidence one way or the other… who knows.
The Massacre at Paris (1593)
Another great title – his titles really let you know what they’re going to be about. This one’s about the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572. Given its violent political topics, the play was actually thought to be dangerous, so there aren’t actually any complete editions of the work that were published or reproduced. People thought it was a little too political. Segments drawn from memory is all the evidence that we have of it.
Doctor Faustus (1592)
The story itself is made more famous by the German writer Goethe, but Marlowe is the first one to actually bring it to the stage. Big surprise, this story is about a guy who sells his soul to the Devil in order to get knowledge, power, and a visitation from sexy Helen of Troy. This was another controversial Marlowe work. Some folks were uneasy with its questions about the then-popular doctrine of predestination and also about its unapologetic presentation of sin and demons and whatnot. The play also presents difficulties for modern scholars because it’s edited after Marlowe’s death, most likely. There’s two versions of the play – we don’t really know which is the right one. There’s a lot of teasing apart that they have to do to figure out what was really Marlowe’s intention behind this.
And those were all of his plays. Like I said, he didn’t really write that much. He also wrote some poems, and we’re just going to talk about those really quickly.
Hero and Leander is an unfinished poem about Hero, who is a priestess to Venus, and Leander, who’s a guy who lives on the other side of the water from her, and their romance. It was unfinished, so we don’t really know how it was supposed to end. His other famous poem is called ‘The Passionate Shepard to His Love.
‘ It contains the semi-famous lines: ‘Come live with me and be my love.’ That’s how you might recognize that one.
Like much of his life, the death of Christopher Marlowe is a huge mystery wrapped in an enigma. We know he was stabbed to death in 1593; that’s what the coroner said. But the whys and wherefores of this are pretty questionable. The death came at the hands of a known government spy and con-man just a couple days after Marlowe was arrested for heresy.He was never actually found guilty of heretical acts, but this might have been a way for the government to exact their punishment anyway.
Or it might have been a bar fight that escalated – that was the official report. Or maybe Marlowe wasn’t dead at all and faked it to get the government off his back. Or maybe he’s still not dead. Or maybe he was Shakespeare!You can see where this is going.
Nobody really knows. We can never really pin it down because we have all the information, probably, that we’re ever going to get about it. But this mystery enhances his reputation even more than if he’d died under normal circumstances, probably. The fact that he’s this talent cut short makes him even more poignant. We can see that his life and his plays were the result of a brilliant, conflicted, influential guy struggling with some of life’s biggest questions.
We saw that a lot in Faust – should I sell my soul to get good stuff? Did he physically live on in the persona of Shakespeare after his ‘death?’ Probably not. But he did live on in spirit in the Western literary canon and was influential on poets and other writers after him.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Discuss some of the unsolved mysteries about Christopher Marlowe’s life, identity, and death
- Summarize the known facts about Marlowe
- Identify and briefly describe Marlowe’s plays