Christopher Marlowe was born in February of 1564, the same year as Shakespeare. He was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, and attended the King’s School there. With fellowship support endowed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, young Marlowe matriculated at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge University in 1580 and received the BA degree in 1584. He may have served Queen Elizabeth’s government in some covert capacity, perhaps as a secret agent in the intelligence service presided over by Sir Francis Walsingham. He may have been recruited to this service during his stay at Cambridge. In 1597, the Privy Council ordered the university to award Marlowe the MA degree, refusing to credit the rumor that had intended to study at the English College at Rheims, presumably on order to prepare for ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. He spent lavishly on food and drink while at Cambridge to the extent that his fellowship would presumably not have afforded. He was absent for prolonged periods during his stay at the university. By 1587 he appears to have moved to London. Part I of Tamburlaine the Great, first performed in that year, took London by storm.
Ten days before he died by violent death, on 30 May 1593, Marlowe was commanded to appear before the Privy Council and then to attend them daily thereafter until “licensed to the contrary.” Although the details of this investigation are not known, a warrant for his arrest had been issued on May 18, possibly because he was suspected of having authored a treatise containing “vile heretical conceits.” He had been arrested in the Netherlands in 1592 for alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins. Apparently he was living at that time with Thomas Walsingham, a cousin of his more famous Sir Francis Walsingham. When Thomas Kyd’s living quarters were searched on May 12, papers of a heretical cast were found and were asserted by Kyd to have been written by Marlowe.
When Marlowe was then stabbed to death at a tavern in Deptford, the coroner’s report concluded that Marlowe had quarreled with Ingram Frizer over payment of the tavern reckoning, and that Marlowe had seized Frizer’s dagger, wounding him on the head, at which point Marlowe was stabbed fatally in the right eye. Frizer was exculpated on the grounds of self-defense. He, along with Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, had been employed by the Walsinghams in (among other matters) helping to foil the infamous Babington conspiracy in behalf of Mary, Catholic Queen of Scots. Whether Marlowe’s death was related to matters of Catholic conspiracy is not known. What is certain is that the Puritan-leaning divines of London trumpeted his death in 1593 as an exemplary demonstration of God’s just vengeance against a man and writer who had earned for himself the reputation of atheist blasphemer, glutton, Machiavel, and sodomist. Francis Meres wrote in 1598 that Marlowe had been “stabbed to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival of his in his lewd love” as punishment for “epicurism and atheism” (Palladis Tamia, 286v-287).
Tamburlaine erupted onto the London stage in two parts, in 1587 and 1588. Its subversive quality is especially manifest in the realm of struggles for political power. Tamburlaine is presented as a man who rose from rustic obscurity to imperial greatness as the “scourge of God.” He triumphed in Part I over one ruler after another, from Mycetes King of Persia to Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks, and the Sultan of Egypt, and then, in Part II, the kings or governors of Natolia, Hungary, Bohemia, Jerusalem, and Babylon. His astonishing successes thrive on the decadence of the rulers he overthrows; an insistent theme of these plays is that established and inherited rule inevitably declines into dissipation and worldly extravagance. Given that inborn weakness of hereditary power, a shepherd of supreme self-confidence and ruthless determination can prevail against all his enemies. He relies too on his followers, Theridamas, Techelles, and Usumcasane, whom he rewards by making them monarchs under his authority and who are accordingly loyal to him to the last extreme. He is, in other words, a self-made man who exploits what English audiences understood to be the gospel of Nicolò Machiavelli: might makes right. When he lays siege to a fortress, he displays his banners of white, red, and black on succeeding days: offering at first mercy to those who surrender, then death to all but women and children, then total mayhem. By invariably carrying out the dire threat signaled by these icons, even when women come to him pleading for lenity those who are innocent, he terrifies his enemies into accepting his invincible might.
Roy Battenhouse, in his Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, a Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy (1941), has argued that the two plays of Tamburlaine constitute a composite whole ending in a way that is morally and religiously orthodox: Tamburlaine’s victories lead finally only to his death and the end of his empire. His death is edifying and divinely purposeful, Battenhouse insists. But this argument really won’t do. The two plays were performed in separate years, and the first ends with Tamburlaine supremely powerful. His ruthlessness has been vindicated, along with its subversive suggestion that any ordinary man could do the same if sufficiently ready to practice Tamburlaine’s scorched-earth methods. Moreover, Tamburlaine’s eventual death in Part II is not clearly the result of divine retribution. He has dared the authority of the gods in the name of human self-assertion, but the causes of his eventual death may well be simply those of aging and normal mortality. Wherever he goes he has taken with him the embalmed and lead-encases corpse of his wife, Zenocrate, in an attempt to defy death itself. This is a battle he cannot win. For the rest, however, he offers an unsettling model of human striving that the gods themselves do not seem to be able to prevent.
Marlowe’s other plays are no less defiant of moral order in human life or in the cosmos. The Jew of Malta centers on a Jewish merchant who plays Christian monarch off against Turkish tyrants in their struggle to dominate commerce in the Mediterranean, and does so with such audacity and cunning that he eventually becomes the ruler of Malta. To be sure, he is defeated in the end by being dropped into a cauldron of boiling oil, but this may be little more than a nominally convenient moral conclusion for a play that seethes with hubris and ingenious maneuvering. Marlowe’s best-known play, Doctor Faustus, similarly frames its action with a moral perspective by insisting that the famous magician will be damned for selling his soul to the devil in return for 24 years of pleasure and power. Faustus is dragged off to hell by devils at the end of the play. What could be more edifying? Yet in the course of the play Faustus turns out to be doggedly insistent on learned secrets about planetary motion and the like, daring to “practice more than heavenly power permits” (the Epilogue). Why do heavenly powers deny him the right to ask questions? In these terms Faustus becomes in part a Promethean figure, wresting powers for humanity that the jealous gods wish to deny us. And then Edward II, though it too espouses a nominal orthodoxy by having the kingship of England finally restored to just political rule, presents readers with a monarch who openly defies sexual conventionality in order to enjoy the embraces of his favorite, Gaveston.
A major contribution of Marlowe to the Renaissance and to the Reformation, then, is to dramatize the heady excitement of being what Harry Levin memorably calls him, an “overreacher” (The Overreacher, A Study of Christopher Marlowe, 1974). Marlowe overreaches in the realms of real politics, sexuality, the quest for knowledge, and still more. In this sense Marlowe stands before us as the quintessential Renaissance man, daring to open our eyes to possibilities that are at once visionary, frightening, and, above all, ineluctably human.
Featured image credit: page from original printing of Marlowe’s The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, 1628. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.