by Anthony Waldstock
Genius, atheist, blasphemer, dissolute homosexual and Elizabethan “roaring boy” Marlowe lived a fast life and died young. He famously quipped that “All they who love not tobacco and boys are fools”. His violent death in an Inn at Deptford on May 30th 1593 has been variously associated with his homosexuality and spying activities but the true facts are lost to us.
Christopher Marlowe 1564 – 1593
Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker and was born in Canterbury in 1564. He attended King’s School, Canterbury and went up to Cambridge where he took his BA in 1584 and his MA in 1587. The University authorities hesitated to award the latter and the privy council found it necessary to intervene to see that his employment on a confidential mission for the government, in which he had proved “orderly and discreet,” should not put him at a disadvantage in the matter of his degree. This mission was on behalf of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster whose brother, Thomas, was Marlowe’s patron.
For the next six years he lived an extraordinary life, continuing to serve as a confidential agent for the government and throwing himself headlong into the London theatrical life. Many details of his life were a source of scandal to some of his contemporaries. He was an atheist, a blasphemer, dissolute homosexual and Elizabethan “roaring boy” who lived a fast life and died young. He famously quipped that “All they who love not tobacco and boys are fools”. His violent death in an Inn at Deptford on May 30th 1593 has been variously associated with his homosexuality and spying activities but the true facts are lost to us.
What is certain is that on leaving Cambridge he almost at once changed the course of English Drama. This he achieved when he presented the fledgling professional theatre of London with his startlingly original first part of Tambourlaine the Great in 1587. It rapidly became a popular feature in the repertory of the Admiral’s Men, the company led by Edward Alleyn and when the second part arrived later in the same year it easily matched the success of the first.
After Tambourlaine, Marlowe took as his subjects large-scale heroes who defy social, political and religious taboos but are eventually destroyed by their passions and ambitions. The Jew of Malta is described as a tragedy but is in reality a clack comedy in which murderous excess and inflated rhetoric parody the ideals of statesmanship and the posturings of Christian authority. It appears to have been written around 1590. It was being played for Henslowe early in 1592, and was entered in the Stationers’ Register early in 1594. The earliest form to survive, however, is an edition by Thomas Heywood in 1633, which has clearly been rewritten by various hands.
The most accomplished, and one of the most famous, of his plays is Edward II. His treatment of the defeat and horrific murder of the homosexual king by the jealous and alienated barons of the kingdom has a plainness of style which at once transformed the chronicle play. The art and beauty of blank verse reached their fruition in this play which can be seen as paving the way for the sophistication which is found in the mature histories of Shakespeare. The play was entered in the Stationers’ Register on July 6, 1593. The first complete edition known was printed in 1594 with the statement that the play had been acted by the Earl of Pembroke’s players. Thus, the winter of 1592-93 is the most likely date of its composition. Not only does the maturity in the play suggest this but so also does the fact that Pembroke’s Company was prominent in London only at that time.
The equally famous Doctor Faustus is thought by many to be the last of Marlowe’s plays. It only survives in two equally unsatisfactory texts each of which has additions and emendations which identify them as “performing versions” used by the actors of the early seventeenth century. Despite the accretions, Marlowe’s genius shines through and the portrayal of the character of Faustus himself and his increasingly symbiotic relationship with Mephistopheles are undamaged. There are difficulties with the date of Doctor Faustus. It had usually been assigned to the winter of 1588-89, but recent scholarship argues for a later date. The English translation of the German Faustbuch, which was the source which Marlowe undoubtedly used, was not published before 1592. The first certain record of the play is of its being acted for Henslowe in 1594 and the two surviving texts date from 1604 and 1610.
The Tavern Brawl at the Widow Bull’s tavern at Deptford, whatever the underlying cause, certainly robbed Elizabethan London of one of her more colourful characters. However, it also robbed English Literature of one of her greatest lights at the height of his powers.Further reading on Marlow:
The Reckoning : The Murder of…
A Dead Man in Deptford