Christopher (“Kit”) Marlowe (baptised 26 February 1564 – 30 May 1593) was an English dramatist, poet, and translator of the Elizabethan era. Perhaps the foremost Elizabethan tragedian before Shakespeare, he is known for his magnificent blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his own untimely death.
Born in Canterbury the son of a shoemaker, he attended The King’s School, Canterbury and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on a scholarship and received his bachelor of arts degree in 1584. In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his master’s degree because of a rumour that he had converted to Catholicism and gone to the English college at Rheims to prepare for the priesthood. However, 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 their letter to the Cambridge authorities has provoked much sensational speculation, notably the theory that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence service. No direct evidence supports this theory, although Marlowe obviously did serve the queen in some capacity.
The brief Dido, Queen of Carthage seems to be Marlowe’s first extant dramatic work, possibly written at Cambridge with Thomas Nashe.
Marlowe’s first known play to be performed on the London stage was 1587’s Tamburlaine, a story of the conqueror Timur. The first English play to make effective dramatic use of blank verse, it marks the beginning of the mature phase of Elizabethan Theatre. It was a smash success, and Tamburlaine Part II soon followed. The sequence of his remaining plays is unknown. All were written on controversial themes. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, based on the recently published German Faustbuch, was the first dramatic version of the Faust legend of a scholar’s dealing with the devil. The Jew of Malta, depicting a Maltese Jew’s barbarous revenge against the city authorities, featured a prologue delivered by Machiavelli himself. Edward the Second was an English history play about the dethronement of Edward II by his dissatisfied barons and his French queen (the possibility that Elizabeth I might be dethroned by pro-Catholic forces was very real at the time). The Massacre at Paris was a short, sketchy play portraying the events surrounding the Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre in 1572, an event that English Protestants frequently invoked as the blackest example of Catholic treachery.
His other works include the first book of the minor epic Hero and Leander (published with a continuation by George Chapman in 1598), the popular lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, and translations of Ovid’s Amores and the first book of Lucan’s Pharsalia.
The two parts of Tamburlaine were published in 1590; all his other works were published posthumously. In 1599 his translation of Ovid was banned and copies publicly burned as part of Archbishop Whitgift’s crackdown on offensive material.
Marlowe’s plays were enormously successful, thanks in part, no doubt, to the imposing stage presence of Edward Alleyn. He was unusually tall for the time, and the haughty roles of Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas were probably written especially for him. Marlowe’s plays were the foundation of the repertoire of Alleyn’s company, the Admiral’s Men, throughout the 1590s.
The Marlowe legend
As with other writers of the period, such as Shakespeare, little is known about Marlowe. Most of the evidence is legal records and other official documents that tell us little about him. This hasn’t stopped writers of both fiction and non-fiction speculating about his activities and character. Marlowe has often been regarded as a spy, a brawler, a heretic, and a homosexual. The evidence for some of these claims is slight. The bare facts of Marlowe’s life have been embellished by many writers into colourful, and often fanciful, narratives of the Elizabethan underworld.
Marlowe the spy
The only evidence that Marlowe worked for the government is the letter of the Privy Council mentioned above. The nature of this work is unknown. In an obscure incident in the Netherlands in 1592, Marlowe was apprehended at Flushing, then an English possession, after being accused of involvement in counterfeiting money. Marlowe confessed, but was not punished on his return to England. This has suggested to some that he was working for the secret service again, but it could be that the authorities accepted the story he told the governor of Flushing, that he had only wanted “to see the goldsmith’s cunning”.
Marlowe the brawler
Although the fight that resulted in his death in 1593 is the only occasion where there is evidence of Marlowe assaulting a person, he had a history of trouble with the law.
Marlowe was arrested in Norton Folgate near Shoreditch in September 1589 following a brawl in which Thomas Watson killed one William Bradley. A jury found that Marlowe had no involvement in Bradley’s death and Watson was found to have acted in self-defence. In Shoreditch in May 1592, he was required to provide a guarantee that he keep the peace, the reason is unknown. In September 1592 in Canterbury he was charged with damaging property. He subsequently counter-sued the plaintiff, alleging assault. Both cases appear to have been dropped.
Marlowe the atheist
Marlowe had a reputation for atheism. The only contemporary evidence for this is from Marlowe’s accuser in Flushing, an informer called Richard Baines. The governor of Flushing had reported that both men had accused one another of instigating the counterfeiting and of intention to go over to the Catholic side, “both as they say of malice one to another”. Following Marlowe’s arrest on a charge of atheism 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 outrageously blasphemous ideas 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” and, “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 claims that Marlowe had Catholic sympathies. Other passages are merely skeptical in tone: “he persuades men to atheism, willing them not to be afraid of bugbears and hobgoblins”. Similar statements were made by Thomas Kyd after his imprisonment and possible torture(see below); both Kyd and Baines connect Marlowe with the mathematician Thomas Harriot and Walter Raleigh’s circle. Another document claims that Marlowe had read an “atheist lecture” before Raleigh. Baines ends his “note” with the ominous statement: “I think all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped”.
Some critics believe that Marlowe sought to disseminate these views in his work and that he identified with his rebellious and iconoclastic protagonists. However, 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 (apart from the Amores).
Marlowe is often described today as homosexual, although the evidence for this is inconclusive. The question of whether an Elizabethan was ‘gay’ in a modern sense is anachronistic; while sodomy was a crime in the period there was no word for an exclusively homosexual identity, a concept that did not emerge until the nineteenth century.
Several pieces of evidence suggest that Marlowe may have been homosexual, though all are clearly circumstantial, or reported by people of questionable motives.
- The most graphic is the testimony of Richard Baines, an informer who made a long list of allegations against Marlowe after his arrest (see below). Most of these allegations concern Marlowe’s atheism, but Baines also claimed that Marlowe said “all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools” and that “St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodom”.
- In 1595, after Marlowe’s death, his one-time roommate and fellow dramatist, Thomas Kyd was tortured and imprisoned when atheistic papers were found in his room. After claiming Marlowe’s responsibility, Kyd produced on request a shorter list of allegations, which include the claim that Marlowe “would report St. John to be our saviour Christ’s Alexis … that is, that Christ did love him with an extraordinary love.”
- In 1598 the writer Francis Meres reported that Marlowe was “stabbed to death by a bawdy serving man, a rival of his in his lewd love” (a claim that contradicts the coroner’s report).
Marlowe’s writing is also notable for its homosexual themes.
- Edward II (c.1592) is one of the very few English Renaissance plays to be concerned with homosexuality, since Edward II had that reputation. The portrayal of Edward and his love, Piers Gaveston, is unflattering, but so too is the portrayal of the barons who usurp him, and the play’s numerous modern revivals have demonstrated that Edward’s tragic decline and death can elicit sympathetic responses; it is thus conceivable that some contemporary audience members might have responded similarly.
- In Dido, Queen of Carthage, he opens with a scene of Jupiter “dandling Ganymede upon his knee” and says “what is’t, sweet wag, I should deny thy youth?, whose face reflects such pleasure to mine eyes.” Venus complains during the play that Jupiter is playing “with that female wanton boy.”
- His most famous poem, Hero and Leander, also contains homosexual themes. Marlowe writes of the male youth character, Leander, that “in his looks were all that men desire” and that when the youth swims to visit Hero as Sestos, the sea god Neptune becomes sexually excited. He says that Neptune, “imagining that Ganymede, displeas’d… the lusty god embrac’d him, call’d him love… and steal a kiss… upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb”, while the boy naive and unaware of Greek love practices (the mindset of the audience) said that, “You are deceiv’d, I am no woman, I… Thereat smil’d Neptune.”
The mere inclusion of same-sex love themes, often in very tender terms, in Marlowe’s works is seen by some as a significant, and as an act of artistic courage.
In addition, it has been pointed out that no accounts of marriage or female companionship have been forthcoming whereas the only historical evidence for Marlowe’s sexuality indicates that he was homosexual.
However, the only other known “evidence” supporting Marlowe’s homosexuality aside from Kyd’s “testimony”, and in fact quite probably the reason why the rumours persist to this day, is found in accounts of sermons by an influential, puritanical clergyman who used Marlowe as an example of a sinner who got his just deserts.
Criticism of this evidence
Some scholars argue that the evidence is not conclusive and that the reports of Marlowe’s homosexuality may simply be exaggerated rumours produced after his death. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen describe Baines’s evidence as “unreliable testimony” and make the comment: “These and other testimonials need to be discounted for their exaggeration and for their having been produced under legal circumstances we would regard as a witch-hunt” (Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, pp. viii – ix). It has also been noted that Kyd’s evidence was given after torture, and thus may have little connection to reality.
On Marlowe’s writing, it has been noted that the argument from his plays and poems depends on a circular argument: that only someone who was homosexual would have written them. Much of Marlowe’s work is also concerned with heterosexuality; however, it is frequently presented highly negatively, such as when Hero commits suicide after consummating her relationship with Leander (which is a significant departure from the plot of the original myth), or when Aeneas must escape the clutches of Dido in order to fulfil his destiny. In Marlowe’s work, heterosexuality is most frequently presented as a restriction of freedom, lacking the elevated nature of same-sex attraction. However, this could also be interpreted as a contrast between love and friendship; love presents difficulties not inherent in a non-erotic relationship.
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 blank verse, 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. Kyd’s lodgings were searched and a fragment of a heretical tract was found. Kyd asserted, possibly under torture, that it had belonged to Marlowe. Two years earlier they had both been working for an aristocratic patron, probably Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, and Kyd assumed that at this time, when they were sharing a workroom, the document had found its way among his papers. Marlowe’s arrest was ordered on 18 May. Marlowe was not in London, but was staying with Thomas Walsingham, the cousin of the late Sir Francis Walsingham. However, he duly appeared before the Privy Council on 20 May and was instructed to “give his daily attendance on their Lordships, until he shall be licensed to the contrary.” On 30 May, Marlowe was murdered.
Various versions of what happened were current at the time. 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 facts only came to light in 1925 when the scholar Leslie Hotson discovered the coroner’s report on Marlowe’s death in the Public Record Office . Marlowe had spent all day in a house (not a tavern) in Deptford, owned by the widow Eleanor Bull, along with three men, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. All three had been employed by the Walsinghams. Skeres and Poley had helped snare the conspirators in the Babington plot. Frizer was a servant of Thomas Walsingham. Witnesses testified that Frizer and Marlowe had earlier argued over the bill, exchanging “divers malicious words.” Later, 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 began attacking him. In the ensuing struggle, according to the coroner’s report, Marlowe was accidentally stabbed above the right eye, killing him instantly. The coroner concluded that Frizer acted in self-defense, and he was promptly pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Deptford, on 1 June, 1593.
Marlowe’s death is considered by some to be suspicious for the following reasons:
- The three men who were in the room with him when he died all had links to the intelligence service as well as to the London underworld. Frizer and Skeres also had a long record as loan sharks and con-men, as shown by court records.
- Their story that they were on a day’s pleasure outing to Deptford is implausible. In fact, they spent the whole day closeted together, deep in discussion. Also, Robert Poley was carrying confidential despatches to the Queen, who was at Greenwich nearby, but instead of delivering them, he spent the day with Marlowe and the other two.
- It seems too much of a coincidence that Marlowe’s death occurred only a few days after his arrest for heresy.
- The unusual way in which his arrest for heresy was handled by the Privy Council. He was released in spite of prima facie evidence, and even though the charges implicitly connected Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Northumberland with the heresy. This strongly suggests that the Privy Council considered the heresy charge to be a set-up, and/or that it was connected with a power struggle within the Privy Council itself.
- Marlowe’s own record of involvement with the intelligence service, as shown by the Privy Council minutes of 1587; by a subsequent strange incident in which he was arrested in Holland for counterfeiting money and appeared before the Privy Council, but was never charged; and by the fact that his patron was Thomas Walsingham, Sir Francis’ nephew, who was actively involved in intelligence work.
For these reasons and others, it seems likely that there was more to Marlowe’s death than emerged at the inquest. However, on the basis of our current knowledge, it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions about what happened or why. There are many different theories, of varying degrees of probability, but no solid evidence.
Since we have only written documents on which to base our conclusions, and since it is probable that the most crucial information about Marlowe’s death was never committed to writing at all, we are unlikely ever to know for certain the full circumstances of Marlowe’s death.
Marlowe’s reputation among contemporary writers
Whatever the particular focus of modern critics, biographers and novelists, for his contemporaries in the literary world, Marlowe was above all an admired and influential artist. Within weeks of his death, George Peele referred to 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”. So too did the publisher Edward Blount, in the dedication of Hero and Leander to Sir Thomas Walsingham.
The only contemporary dramatist 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 his only reference to a contemporary writer, 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 loved that loved 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 is clearly a reference to the wording of the official inquest document of 1593 lost and uncovered in 1925, Shakespeare had obviously read it.
Recent Marlowe controversies
In November 2005, a production of Tamburlaine at the Barbican Arts Centre in London was accused of defering to Muslim sensibilities by amending a section of the play in which the title character burns the Qu’ran and excoriates the prophet Muhammad; the sequence was changed so that Tamburlaine instead defiles books representing all religious texts. The director (in the view of many, mendaciously) denied censoring the play, stating that the change was a “purely artistic” decision “to focus the play away from anti-Turkish pantomime to an existential epic”. This however shifts a considerable degree of focus from a number of anti-theist (and specifically anti-Muslim) points within the play and changes, significantly, the tone and tenor of the work.  
Marlowe as Shakespeare
Given the murky inconsistencies concerning the account of Marlowe’s death, an ongoing conspiracy theory has arisen centred on the notion that Marlowe may have faked his death and then continued to write under the assumed name of William Shakespeare. Authors who have propounded this theory include:
- Wilbur Gleason Zeigler It Was Marlowe(1895)
- Calvin Hoffman, The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare(1955)
- Louis Ule, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1607): A Biography
- AD Wraight, The Story that the Sonnets Tell (1994)
The dates of composition are approximate.
- Dido, Queen of Carthage (c.1583) (with Thomas Nashe)
- Tamburlaine (c.1587)
- Doctor Faustus (c.1589, revised c.1592)
- The Jew of Malta (c.1589)
- Edward II (c.1592)
- The Massacre at Paris (c.1593)
- Translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia (c.1582)
- Translation of Ovid’s Elegies (c. 1582)
- ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ (1590s)
- Hero and Leander (c. 1593, unfinished; completed by George Chapman, 1598)
Marlowe in fiction
- Marlowe features heavily in the Harry Turtledove alternate history novel Ruled Britannia (2002), about an England ruled by Catholics. He is depicted as a contemporary and friend of Shakespeare.
- Marlowe is played by Rupert Everett in the film Shakespeare in Love (1998), in which he and Shakespeare are seen comparing ideas for plays and swapping notes. After Marlowe’s murder screenwriter Tom Stoppard has Shakespeare say “I would change all my plays to come for one of his that will never come”.
- Marlowe survives his assassination in the tangentially alternate history novel Armour of Light by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett.
- In Neil Gaiman’s comic “The Sandman”, Marlowe makes a brief appearance in a pub. He and Shakespeare are discussing the content of “Faustus” while Morpheus and an immortal human have their own conversation. Marlowe is later referenced in another Shakespeare-centric Sandman comic, in which Morpheus is the one to tell Shakespeare of his friend’s assassination.
- Marlowe is a central character in Lisa Goldstein’s fantasy novel “Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon”
- Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die is a novel based on a fictitious theory about the last two weeks of Marlowe’s life.
- Brooke, C.F. Tucker. The Life of Marlowe and “The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage.” London: Methuen, 1930. (pp. 107, 114, 99, 98)
- Marlow, Christopher. Complete Works. Vol. 3: Edward II. Ed. R. Rowland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. (pp. xxii-xxiii)
- Louis Ule Christopher Marlowe (1564-1607): A Biography, Carlton Press, 1996. ISBN 0806250283
- David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, OUP, 1998; ISBN 0192834452
- J. A. Downie and J. T. Parnell, eds., Constructing Christopher Marlowe, Cambridge 2000. ISBN 052157255X
- Constance Kuriyama,Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life. Cornell University Press, 2002. ISBN 0801439787
- Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, Vintage, 2002 (revised edition) ISBN 0099437473
- Alan Shepard, “Marlowe’s Soldiers: Rhetorics of Masculinity in the Age of the Armada”, Ashgate, 2002. ISBN 075460229
- M. J. Trow, Who Killed Kit Marlowe?, Sutton, 2002; ISBN 0750929634
- Anthony Burgess, A Dead Man in Deptford, Carroll & Graf, 2003. (novel about Marlowe based on the version of events in The Reckoning) ISBN 0786711523
- David Riggs, “The World of Christopher Marlowe”, Henry Holt and Co., 2005 ISBN 0805080368
- Louise Walsh “Tamburlaine Must Die”, novella based around the build up to Marlowe’s death.
- John Passfield Water Lane: The Pilgrimage of Christopher Marlowe (novel) Authorhouse, 2005 ISBN 1-4208-1558-X
- John Passfield The Making of Water Lane (journal) Authorhouse, 2005 ISBN 1-4208-2020-6
- An article on Marlowe at Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Shakespeare and the Globe
- The Marlowe Society
- Marlowe Lives!
- The works of Marlowe at Perseus Project
- Christopher Marlowe Books
- Works by Christopher Marlowe at Project Gutenberg
- Peter Farey’s Marlowe Page includes a factual biography and reproduces the documents concerning Marlowe as well as his complete works (but also contains material related to the Shakespearean authorship question)
- Peter Bull presents a case for Marlowe as the true author of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
- The Opposite of Showbusiness: a play by Jim Grover in which it suggested that Marlowe was killed by Edward Alleyn