Christopher Marlowe was an English playwright, poet, and translator of the Elizabethan era. He was born in Canterbury, England, in 1564. He died young at the age of twenty-nine and his career as a playwright lasted only six years. His work, particularly, the play The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, secured his lasting legacy. His achievement had a great impact on William Shakespeare, who was born in the same year as Marlowe and who rose to become the pre-eminent Elizabethan playwright after Marlowe's mysterious early death.
Marlowe was born in Canterbury to shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife Catherine. His date of birth is not known but he was baptized on February 26th, 1564 and is likely to have been born a few days before, making him two months older than William Shakespeare, who was baptized on 26 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. Marlowe attended The King's School in Canterbury and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he studied on a scholarship and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584. In 1587, the university hesitated to award him his Master of Arts degree because of a rumor that he had converted to Roman Catholicism and would soon attend college elsewhere. These rumors were set to rest and Marlowe was awarded his Master of Arts when the Privy Council intervened on his behalf, praising him for his "faithful dealing" and "good service" to the Queen. The nature of Marlowe's service was not specified by the Council, but its letter to the Cambridge authorities has provoked considerable speculation, particularly the theory that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham. No direct evidence supports this theory, although the Council's letter itself is evidence that Marlowe had served the government in some secret capacity.
Marlowe as a spy
Some biographers think that Marlowe was a government spy. His frequent lengthy absences from university and the Privy Council's intervention to the university to grant him his Master's degree in spite of the rumor that he had converted to catholicism have provoked much speculation that Marlow had become a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham's intelligence service. In the absence of hard evidence that he was, in fact, a spy, the debate is still active about the nature of his service to the queen. What biographers are certain about is that after attaining his master's degree, Marlowe moved to London and took up writing full-time.
In spite of his short life, Christopher Marlowe wrote many successful plays in an incredibly short six-year literary career. Some scholars contend that Marlowe started writing for the theater after 1587 while occasionally serving the government. Marlowe's plays are known for the use of blank verse and their overreaching protagonists and controversial themes. His first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, was not published until 1594. The play was performed by the Children of the Chapel, a company of boy actors, between 1587 and 1593. His second play was the two-part Tamburlaine the Great (c. 1587; published 1590). This was Marlowe's first play to be performed on the regular stage in London and is among the first English plays in blank verse. Marlowe's most famous play is The Tragicall History of Doctor. It is based on the German Faustbuch, Doctor Faustus. It is seen as the first dramatized version of the Faust legend, in which a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power.
Complete list of Marlowe's plays:
Dido, Queen of Carthage (c. 1586) (possibly co-written with Thomas Nashe)
The story focuses on the classical figure of Dido, the Queen of Carthage. It tells an intense dramatic tale of Dido and her fanatical love for Aeneas (induced by Cupid), Aeneas' betrayal of her and her eventual suicide on his departure for Italy.
Tamburlaine, part 1 (c. 1587), part 2 (c. 1587–1588)
Tamburlaine the Great (part I) is about the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane), who rises from shepherd to warlord. It is among the first English plays in blank verse, and with Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, is generally considered the beginning of the mature phase of the Elizabethan theatre. Tamburlaine was a success and was followed by Tamburlaine the Great, Part II.
The Jew of Malta (c. 1589)
A play about the Jew Barabas' barbarous revenge against the city authorities, has a prologue delivered by a character representing Machiavelli.
Doctor Faustus (c. 1589, or, c. 1593)
It is based on the German Faustbuch. It was the first dramatized version of the Faust legend of a scholar's dealing with the devil.
Edward II (c. 1592)
This is one of the earliest English history plays. It focusses on the relationship between King Edward II of England and Piers Gaveston, and Edward's murder on the orders of Roger Mortimer.