Christopher Marlowe, born on February 26, 1564, in Canterbury, England, was a renowned English playwright, poet, and translator of the Elizabethan era. Despite his tragically short life, Marlowe’s contributions to English literature and drama were profound, and he is often regarded as one of the greatest playwrights of all time.
Early Life of Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker and attended The King’s School in Canterbury before receiving a scholarship to study at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. There, he excelled in his studies, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1584 and a Master of Arts degree in 1587. During his time at Cambridge, Marlowe displayed remarkable intellectual prowess and an inclination towards poetry and drama.
Marlowe’s personal life remains somewhat enigmatic and surrounded by speculation. He had a reputation for leading a turbulent life, frequently involving himself in brawls and engaging in controversial religious and political discussions. Marlowe’s involvement with espionage and his rumored atheism also added to the intrigue surrounding him. His life was cut short at the age of 29 when he was fatally stabbed in a dispute over a bill in a tavern on May 30, 1593.
Famous Plays of Christopher Marlowe
1. Tamburlaine the Great (1587)
“Tamburlaine the Great” is a two-part play that tells the story of Tamburlaine, a shepherd who rises to power and becomes a conqueror of vast territories. The play is notable for its grand scope, poetic language, and the ambitious nature of its protagonist. Tamburlaine’s thirst for power and his relentless pursuit of domination are central themes in the play. Marlowe’s use of powerful imagery, dramatic speeches, and a larger-than-life protagonist helped establish him as a pioneer of English blank verse drama.
2. Doctor Faustus (1588)
“Doctor Faustus” is Marlowe’s most famous play, based on the German legend of Faust. The play revolves around the character of Faustus, a highly intelligent scholar who is dissatisfied with traditional forms of knowledge and seeks forbidden knowledge and power. Faustus makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for twenty-four years of unlimited power and pleasure. The play explores themes of ambition, the limitations of human knowledge, and the consequences of making immoral choices. Marlowe’s vivid depiction of Faustus’ internal struggle and his iconic soliloquies make “Doctor Faustus” a masterpiece of Renaissance drama.
3. The Jew of Malta (1589)
“The Jew of Malta” is a controversial play that delves into greed, revenge, and religious conflict themes. The main character, Barabas, is a wealthy Jewish merchant who faces persecution and plots his revenge against his enemies. Marlowe’s portrayal of Barabas challenges traditional stereotypes of Jews prevalent at the time, presenting a complex and cunning protagonist driven by circumstances. The play showcases Marlowe’s skill in creating morally ambiguous characters and his ability to explore social and political issues through gripping and dramatic storytelling.
4. Richard II (1592)
“Edward II” is a historical drama based on the reign of King Edward II of England. The play explores themes of power, love, and the consequences of defying societal norms. Marlowe portrays Edward II’s controversial relationship with his favorite, Piers Gaveston, which leads to conflict and ultimately his downfall. The play presents a poignant examination of the clash between personal desires and responsibilities of rulership. Marlowe’s powerful language, particularly in the depiction of Edward’s emotional turmoil and the conflicts within the court, demonstrates his mastery of dramatic dialogue.
Christopher Marlowe Writing Style
Christopher Marlowe’s writing style was characterized by its dramatic intensity, poetic eloquence, and innovative use of blank verse. He was a pioneer of English Renaissance drama and played a significant role in shaping the theatrical landscape of his time.
1. Powerful Language and Imagery
Marlowe’s plays are renowned for their grandiloquent language and vivid imagery. He employed a rich and ornate vocabulary, crafting speeches and dialogues that resonated with emotional intensity. His use of metaphors, similes, and rhetorical devices helped create memorable and evocative scenes, heightening the dramatic impact of his works.
2. Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter
Marlowe is credited with popularizing the use of blank verse, unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter, in English drama. Blank verse allowed for greater flexibility and naturalness in the rhythms of dialogue, and Marlowe skillfully exploited its possibilities. His verse exhibits a strong sense of rhythm, marked by the steady beat of five iambs (unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) per line. This rhythmic quality, combined with his rich language, gave his plays a heightened poetic quality.
3. Heroic and Ambitious Protagonists
Marlowe’s plays often revolved around protagonists who were larger-than-life figures with ambitious aspirations. These heroes, such as Tamburlaine in “Tamburlaine the Great” and Doctor Faustus in “Doctor Faustus,” were driven by their desires for power, knowledge, and greatness. Marlowe’s portrayal of their grand ambitions and the internal conflicts they faced resonated with the themes of human potential, pride, and the pursuit of transcendence.
4. Exploration of Complex Themes
Marlowe’s works delved into complex and provocative themes, including religion, power, morality, and the human condition. His plays often grappled with questions of sin, redemption, and the consequences of making choices that challenge societal norms. Marlowe presented characters who were morally ambiguous, inviting audiences to question established values and norms.
5. Tension and Conflict
Marlowe’s plays were marked by tension, conflict, and a sense of impending doom. The protagonists often found themselves in precarious situations, confronting powerful adversaries or facing their own inner demons. Marlowe skillfully built dramatic tension through confrontations, soliloquies, and the clash of opposing forces, leading to tragic outcomes.
Famous Lines of Marlowe
1. Doctor Faustus
- “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” – These lines, spoken by Faustus in Act 5, Scene 1, reflect his lamentation over his diminished powers and serve as a reminder of Helen of Troy’s beauty and the destructive consequences it had.
- “Hell is just a frame of mind.” – This line, uttered by Mephistopheles, Faustus’s demonic companion, in Act 2, Scene 1.
- “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” – These haunting words are spoken by Faustus in Act 1, Scene 3.
- “Ay, we must die an everlasting death.” – These lines, spoken by Faustus in Act 3, Scene 1.
- “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight / And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough.” – This poignant lamentation from Act 5, Scene 2.
- “O, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honor, of omnipotence, / Is promised to the studious artisan!” – These lines, spoken by Faustus in Act 1, Scene 1.
2. Tamburlaine the Great
- “Nature, that framed us of four elements / Warring within our breasts for regiment, / Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.” – These lines, spoken by Tamburlaine in Act 1, Scene 1.
- “Give me a spirit that on this life’s rough sea / Loves to have his sails filled with a lusty wind, / Even till his sail-yards tremble, his masts crack, / And his rapt ship run on her side so low / That she drinks water and her keel plows air.” – These lines, spoken by Tamburlaine in Act 1, Scene 2.
- “A thousand hearts are great within my bosom: / Advance our standards, set upon our foes; / Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George, / Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!” – These lines, spoken by Tamburlaine in Act 5, Scene 1.
- “Virtue is the fount whence honor springs.” – This line, spoken by Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s love interest, in Act 4, Scene 4.
- “I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains, / And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about.” – These lines, spoken by Tamburlaine in Act 5, Scene 1.
- “I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits, / Musicians, that with touching of a string / May draw the pliant king which way I please.” – These lines, spoken by Tamburlaine in Act 5, Scene 2.
Christopher Marlowe as a Spy
There are speculations and claims that Christopher Marlowe was involved in espionage activities during his lifetime. While it is challenging to ascertain the precise details of his alleged spy work due to the limited available evidence, historical records. And detailed information suggests that Marlowe may have had connections to intelligence networks.
During the Elizabethan era, England was embroiled in religious and political conflicts, both domestically and internationally. The government of Queen Elizabeth I maintained a network of spies and agents to gather information, monitor potential threats, and protect the realm. Given Marlowe’s intellect, education, and connections, it is plausible that he became involved in covert activities.
One of the most significant pieces of evidence suggesting Marlowe’s involvement in espionage is his association with Sir Francis Walsingham. The latter was the principal secretary and spymaster for Queen Elizabeth I. Walsingham had an extensive intelligence network, and several of Marlowe’s acquaintances and colleagues were famous to be informants or agents. These connections, along with Marlowe’s own penchant for controversial discussions and his rumored atheism, could have made him an attractive candidate for intelligence work.
Additionally, Marlowe’s frequent travels and extended stays abroad have fueled suspicions of his involvement in espionage. He journeyed to the Continent, particularly to areas known for their political intrigues, such as France and the Low Countries (present-day Belgium and the Netherlands). It is conceivable that he may have used these trips as opportunities to gather information or liaise with contacts.
England during the life of Christopher Marlowe
During the early life of Christopher Marlowe in the late 16th century, England experienced a period of significant political, social, and religious upheaval. Understanding the context in which Marlowe lived is crucial to appreciating the influences on his work and his own experiences during that time.
1. Religious Conflict
One of the central issues of the era was the religious divide between Protestantism and Catholicism. England had officially broken away from the Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII, and under the reign of Elizabeth I, the country became a Protestant nation. However, tensions persisted between Protestants and Catholics, leading to sporadic episodes of violence and persecution.
2. Political Turmoil
The political landscape was also tumultuous during Marlowe’s early life. Elizabethan England saw persistent challenges to the Queen’s authority, both domestically and from abroad. Threats to the crown came from various sources, including rival claimants to the throne, foreign powers such as Spain, and political factions within England.
3. The Age of Exploration
Marlowe lived during a time of great exploration and expansion. England was beginning to establish its maritime supremacy and lay the foundations of its colonial empire. The voyages of explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh brought new territories, wealth, and ideas from around the world.
4. Cultural Renaissance
The Elizabethan era marked a flourishing of arts and culture, with a vibrant theater scene in London. The period saw the rise of English drama, with playwrights like William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and, of course, Christopher Marlowe. The theater became a popular form of entertainment and a platform for expressing social and political ideas.
5. Intelligence and Espionage
As mentioned earlier, the Elizabethan government, under the guidance of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, maintained a network of spies and informants. This was a time of intense international intrigue, with England facing plots and conspiracies from Catholic opponents, such as the Babington Plot and the threat of the Spanish Armada. Espionage played a significant role in safeguarding the nation and protecting the Protestant regime.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. How did Christopher Marlowe died?
Christopher Marlowe’s death occurred on May 30, 1593, stabbed at a tavern in Deptford, London. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain a subject of speculation and debate.
According to the official account, Marlowe had a dispute over the payment of a bill with three other men: Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Robert Poley. During the altercation, Marlowe was stabbed above the right eye, resulting in a fatal wound. Frizer, who was present at the scene, claimed self-defense and subsequently acquitted of murder.
2. How old was Marlowe when he died?
Christopher Marlowe was 29 years old when killed. His death occurred on May 30, 1593, making him a young man at the time of his untimely demise. Despite his short life, Marlowe made significant contributions to English literature and drama, leaving behind a lasting legacy.
3. During his lifetime, Christopher Marlowe was rumored to be which of the following?
A. Spy B. Painter C. Carpenter D. Guard