The life of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe.
Christopher Marlowe (bap.1564, d.1593) was born in Canterbury, the second of nine children to John Marlowe (c.1536-1605), a shoemaker, and his wife Kate (d.1605). Like their immediate contemporaries the Shakespeares, the Marlowes were not a rich family, but John succeeded to the role of inspector of leather in 1581, and became warden of the Shoemakers’ Company in 1589, and the family belonged to an artisan class which was both respectable and financially comfortable.
Over Christmas 1578, Christopher enrolled at King’s School, Canterbury. The archives show that he was in receipt of a scholarship worth £4 a year. These scholarships were paid to ‘fifty poor boys … endowed with minds apt for learning’. By 1578 he would have been fourteen, so he may have previously attended the school as a fee-paying scholar until the family fell on temporary hard times. Two years later, Marlowe left King’s School and went up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This too was on a scholarship. Archbishop Matthew Walker, a former master of the college, provided scholarships for promising students, one of which was to be awarded to a King’s scholar born in Canterbury; a scholar who was expected to be of the ‘best and aptest schollers, well instructed in the gramer, and if it may be such as can make a verse’; he should also be ‘so entred into the skill of song that they shall at the first sight solf and sing plaine song’.
By 1587, Marlowe had slipped away from academic pursuits into the shadowy recesses of political intrigue. On 29th June, the privy council was called to investigate the case of a Cambridge student named Christopher ‘Morley’, who was the subject of some damning reports and whose Master’s degree ‘which he was to take at this next Commencement’ was under scrutiny. (Spelling of the family name, as is so often the case, was not exact. John Marlowe was often called Marley and sometimes Marle. Christopher appears as Marlowe, Marlow, or Marlo on his title-pages, Marley in his only extant signature, Marlin or Merling in Cambridge University records, and Morley in the coroner’s inquest on his death.). The minutes of this meeting report that:
Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames [Rheims] and there to remaine, their Lps thought good to certefie that he had no such intent, but that in all his accions he had behaved himself orderlie and discreetlie, wherebie he had done her Majestie good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithfull dealinge. Their Lps request was that the rumor thereof should be allaied by all possible meanes, and that he should be furthered in the degree he was to take at this next Commencement, because it was not Her Majesties pleasure that any imployed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those who are ignorant in th’affaires he went about.
This report suggests there were two conflicting accounts circulating about Marlowe. One, popular in Cambridge, warned he was planning to defect to the English Seminary at Rheims in France. During the reign of Elizabeth I and subsequently that of James I, it was illegal for Catholic parents to educate their children within the Catholic religion at home. As a result, many Catholic families sent their offspring overseas. It was also necessary for those wishing to become Catholic priests to study abroad, and Rheims, in the north of France, was a major centre for Catholics wishing to train in the priesthood. However the conflicting report suggested Marlowe was occupied on government business, ‘for the benefit of his country’. The truth is, Marlowe had been employed as a spy, or ‘intelligencer’ for Sir Francis Walsingham since coming up to Cambridge. Spying, or simply moving in Catholic circles and passing on pertinent information regarding seditious activity, such as the recruitment of students into the Catholic church, was a common activity. Ben Jonson, for example, acted as an intelligencer for the Earl of Salisbury, perhaps to supplement his income, perhaps in order to guarantee patronage of his work. That Marlowe was engaged in similar activity does not necessarily mark him out as a Catholic activist.
Marlowe was variously absent from Cambridge during 1585-7, probably travelling overseas on government business, since he could have easily passed on information to Walsingham about local Catholic activity without ever leaving the city. Four men who would later come to be associated with Marlowe; Richard Baines, Robery Poley, Thomas Watson, and Thomas Walsingham, were also involved in passing on information to the authorities from France in the 1580s, and Francis Walsingham’s secretary, Nicholas Faunt, was both a Canterbury man, and engaged in a government mission to Paris in 1587, the year Marlowe was reported absent from the university.
Tamburlaine the Great, based on tales of the fourteenth century warlord Timur-i-leng, was Marlowe’s first theatrical success. Dating the play is problematic, but it was probably first performed by the Admiral’s Men in 1587. The success of the play encouraged Marlowe to write a sequel, The Second Part of the Bloody Conquests of Mighty Tamburlaine. A letter dated November 16th provides some fascinating detail about this play’s staging: ‘My L. Admyrall his men and players having a devyse in ther playe to tye one of their fellowes to a poste and so to shoote him to death’, one of the ‘callyvers’ (muskets) proved to be loaded; the player ‘swerved his peece being charged with bullet, missed the fellowe he aymed at, and killed a chyld and a woman great with chyld forthwith’. This account corresponds with a scene in Act Five of the play when the governor of Babylon is executed by firing squad, and perhaps demonstrates the potentially dangerous lengths to which the Elizabethan theatre could go in order to achieve realism.
Only days after his release, Marlowe was bound over to keep the peace towards Allen Nicholls and Nicholas Helliott, constable and beadle of Shoreditch respectively. He was ordered to appear at court in Finsbury at the beginning of October, but failed to appear, due to yet another court case involving a street fight with a tailor in Canterbury. By the beginning of the following year Marlowe was again in the theatre, this time with The Massacre of Paris, based on the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, in which thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered on the streets of Paris and elsewhere by the Guise faction, under the command of Catherine De Medici. The play was performed by Lord Strange’s Men in late January 1589 and is the most political of Marlowe’s works. A version of it survives in an undated octavo edition of 1200 lines. Other plays by Marlowe performed in this year include The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus. His next play, regarded by many as his last, Edward II, followed shortly afterwards. The first printed edition of 1594 records it as acted by Pembroke’s Men but no account of its performance survives.
Another late work is Marlowe’s narrative poem Hero and Leander, which is unfinished. It was one of several of his manuscripts copyrighted by John Wolfe shortly after Marlowe’s death, and a first edition was printed in 1598. The poem, which would subsequently go on to influence Shakespeare, is dedicated to Sir Thomas Walsingham, and there is evidence that Marlowe lived at Walsingham’s house in Kent in the last weeks of his life, perhaps even composing Hero and Leander during this time.
In May 1593, Marlowe was under government surveillance, having been appeared before the privy council and been ordered to report daily until further notice. On Wednesday May 30th, he was stabbed to death in Deptford. Usually described as a ‘tavern brawl,’ the circumstances under which he died were reconstructed during the inquest held on June 1st. At 10am, Nicholas Skeres, Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, and Marlowe, met at a house in Deptford belonging to a widow, Eleanor Bull. The men ate together and walked in the garden in the afternoon, in a ‘quiet’ mood. They had supper in the house at 6pm, after which Marlowe lazed on a bed while the others remained seated round the table. What followed began with an argument about the bill. Frizer and Marlowe ‘uttered one to the other divers malicious words’ because they ‘could not agree about the sum of pence, that is, ‘le recknynge’. Marlowe was so ‘moved with anger’ that he jumped off the bed, grabbed Fritzer’s dagger and stabbed him twice in the head. The wounds, which were measured at the inquest, were not deep. A tussle ensued, and ‘so it befell, in that affray, that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid of the value of twelve pence, gave the said Christopher a mortal wound above his right eye, of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch.’ Marlowe died instantly. Fritzer was charged with self-defence and received a royal pardon on June 28th.
Marlowe was buried on June 1st at St Nicholas’ Deptford, in an unknown grave. His fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd described him as a man ‘intemporate and of a cruel heart’. The earliest epitaph, calling Marlowe ‘Marley the Muses darling’, is in Peele’s Honour of the Garter, dedicated to the earl of Northumberland, dating to mid-June 1593.
In 1627 Michael Drayton wrote of him:
neat Marlow …
Had in him those brave translunary things
That the first poets had; his raptures were
All ayre and fire.
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