Christopher Marlowe: A Profile

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Christopher Marlowe


Christopher Marlowe.

However, since spelling was not yet standardized in Elizabethan England his name also appears in various records as "Marlin", "Merlin", "Marlyn", "Marlen", "Marley", and "Malyn".  

His popular nickname was "Kit", but he also called himself "mercury" (after the messenger to the gods in Roman mythology).

His signature (right), was made upon the will of Katherine Benchkin in 1585 while he was still a student at Cambridge.



Officially unknown, but sometimes given as February 6th, 1564.

Baptized February 26th, 1564 at St. George's Church, Canterbury (left).




Wednesday, May 30th, 1593.

Killed by Ingram Frizer during a fight at a meeting house in Deptford. As reported in the coroner's report, he attacked Frizer (who was unarmed) and in the ensuing struggle was accidentally knifed in the brow by his own dagger.

He was 29 years old.



Brown hair and eyes.

Height and weight are unknown.

He was rumored to dress in a rather bold, ostentatious manner - a rumor supported by accounts of his forceful personality and by the portrait commonly attributed to him (right).

Although the man in this portrait is unnamed, many scholars believe it is Marlowe. 

In the upper left corner, the portrait is inscribed "ANNO DNI AETATIS SVAE 21 1585" ("Aged 21 in 1585"). At this date, Marlowe had just graduated from Cambridge with a B.A. Thus, the portrait may have been commissioned to commemorate this honor. It is also interesting to note that this date is the start of the period when Marlowe may have been recruited for espionage work.

In the same left corner, the portrait is also inscribed with the words "Quod me nutrit me destruit" ("What nourishes me destroys me" - a popular renaissance motto).



Any attempt to establish the personality of someone who lived over 400 years ago is inherently problematic, especially considering the scanty sources we posses on Marlowe. Nevertheless, we may be able to approach a rough sketch of his nature...

Thomas Kyd (a fellow playwright at The Rose) famously wrote that Marlowe was "intemperate and cruel of heart" and was known for his "rashness in attempting sodden pryvie injuries to men". Yet these words must be tempered by the fact that Kyd suffered greatly for his association with Marlowe (he was tortured on the rack). Moreover, when Kyd made this statement he was desperately trying to distance himself from Marlowe in order to regain lost favor with his patrons.

While Marlowe undoubtedly possessed a violent streak, he was not involved in a great many disputes considering his rowdy and dangerous environment. Furthermore, in Elizabethan England violence was a far more common and necessary part of social life - some of the events in Marlowe's criminal record may well be the natural reactions of any Elizabethan man given the context of the incident.

Regarding friendships, Marlowe was a central figure or his era and was connected to a lively social scene. He counted lords and wealthy landowners among his patrons, and the Queen among his greatest admirers. Evidently, he was capable of charming people when required.

Elements of his personality may also be reflected in the content of his plays, particularly in the characterization of his main heroes who are usually dynamic, charismatic, and conflicted individuals. They entertain great ambitions, but suffer a gradual corruption of spirit in the pursuit of their goals. Perhaps Marlowe recognized this tragic and unstable combination of strength, ambition, and spiritual decay as a theme in his own life?

Finally, it is clear that Marlowe also had a caring and sensitive side to his nature: his translations of Ovid, and his poems 'A Passionate Shepherd to His Love' and 'Hero and Leander', are some of the most tender, romantic works in all English literature.



Father - John Marlowe, a shoemaker. He was known as a stern, violent man.

Mother - Katherine Marlowe (maiden name Arthur). Her father was a rector at St. Peter's Church, Canterbury.

His parents married on May 22nd, 1561. Their marriage lasted nearly 44 years until thier deaths in 1605.

Siblings - Mary (baptized: 1562); Margaret (baptized: 1565); unnamed brother* (baptized: 1568); Jane (baptized: 1569); Thomas (baptized: 1570); Ann (baptized: 1571); Dorothy (baptized: 1573); Thomas (baptized: 1576). 

*His name is not recorded and he died shortly after his baptism.



King's School, Canterbury                                                                (1578-1580)

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge                                                   (B.A. 1580-1584; M.A. 1584-1587)  

For the six year period during which Marlowe matriculated at Cambridge, he was one of a few students to receive an Archbishop Parker scholarship.  

What was Marlowe's experience at Cambridge like?

To start, Marlowe's scholarship indicates he intended to enter the clergy after graduation - the normal course for Parker's scholars. Along the way, however, he apparently became more interested in drama than in Christianity (i.e., while he was increasingly absent from his classes, he still managed to complete translations of Lucan and Ovid, and wrote two original plays). His later attacks on organized religion are likely due to some disenchantment he experienced during his theological studies.

In general, life at Cambridge was fairly repressive in the 1580's: the university held exceedingly strict rules regarding the behavior of its students. For example, students could not go into town without tutors; students were not permitted to leave university residence save for one month every year; all students were required to wear a gown of "sad colour"; and swimming in the river Cam was forbidden. Needless to say, all these rules were frequently disobeyed.

In the dorms, Marlowe shared his room with three other students. Many rich and noble students also shared the same building as him (e.g., Richard Boyle, the future Earl of Cork). Dogs were kept in rooms, too. Cards and dice were allowed and provided a common pastime. Another common entertainment was the production of plays. At various times of the year, student-produced plays were held in a small space at the university. The audience was often raucous, and violence sometimes erupted during lively performances that ridiculed college and town officials.

Throughout the 1580's, Cambridge was also alive with religious turmoil (echoing the rest of the country). Puritanism was particularly strong. Indeed, Marlowe's fellow students were John Penry, John Greenwood, and Henry Barrow: all notorious Puritans who were later executed for promoting their beliefs.

One of the most notable features of Marlowe's time at Cambridge is his increasing absence during his M.A. studies. At various instances, Marlowe's name completely vanishes from the college buttery book (an account of student expenses on food), indicating that he was not present at the university. No one knows where he went or what he was doing for the duration of these absences...

In 1587, when Marlowe expected to graduate, the university suddenly tried to deny awarding his M.A. - apparently, they were not impressed by his meager class attendance. With no one else to appeal to for help, many students in this situation would've suffered an inglorious end to their education. But Marlowe had friends in high places.

In a letter sent directly to university officials, the Privy Council (the supreme legal authority in the country after the Queen) argued on Marlowe's side, stating that his absences were due to "matters touching the benefit of his country". After receiving the letter, the university quickly awarded Marlowe his degree without further complaint.

This direct intervention by the Privy Council is both surprising and unprecedented and leads many contemporary scholars to speculate that Marlowe was recruited by the government for espionage work during his studies.



As a playwright, Marlowe was a superstar among his contemporaries: easily the most popular and envied writer in the country. All his plays were successful, starting with 'Tamburlaine the Great: Part One' which was soon produced after he graduated from Cambridge. 

Initially, he wrote for a play company known as 'The Admiral's Men' who performed at James Burbage's 'The Theatre' in Shoreditch. Later, in 1589, 'The Admiral's Men' merged with 'Lord Strange's Men' (who employed a young William Shakespeare as a writer and reviser of plays). Thus, Marlowe would have come into contact with Shakespeare on a daily basis, and there is some evidence to suggest that Marlowe collaborated with him on parts of the 'Henry VI' trilogy as well as 'Titus Andronicus'.

In 1591, a dispute over finances led 'The Admiral's-Lord Strange's Men' to leave Burbage and join Philip Henslowe's theatre 'The Rose' at Bankside. The following years saw Marlowe's fame grow to record heights. For example, 'The Admiral's-Lord Strange's Men' performed at court 6 times from December 1591 - February 1592. In the public theatres, some of Marlowe's plays were staged 6 days a week and lasted for a run of 18 weeks or more.

As a spy, Marlowe could have been utlized in many capacities. One of the most common duties for a spy was the transport of important documents between nations. This was dangerous work and often required the use of disguises. For example, a Spanish courier traveling through Scotland posed as a dentist and carried secret letters in a hidden compartment in his bag. Spies were also known to conceal messages by having them sewn into the buttons of their coats. Ultimately, this was a world rife with secret codes, subterfuges, and notes written in invisible ink.

Consider the cypher key above used by Elizabethan spies (click to enlarge). Various characters represent the months of the year, common words, countries, as well as famous monarchs and political figures, etc.

Another common duty of spies was the infiltration of suspicious groups. Since Marlowe belonged to the trusted inner circles of political figures known for their radical beliefs (i.e., Lord Strange, Lord Northumberland, and Sir Walter Raleigh), it is possible he may have acted as an informant for the government. 

Marlowe's main link to the spy network was likely through Thomas Walsingham, his patron. Walsingham was the cousin of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's chief advisor and spymaster (right).




Norton Folgate - a village on the Northern outskirts of London (click on map for a closer view). Norton Folgate was a relatively pleasant settlement surrounded by fields... However, Shoreditch was nearby.

Shoreditch's name is derived from the words "sewer-ditch". It was a 'liberty', which meant that it lay outside the authority of London authorities (e.g., the Sheriff, Alderman, and Lord Mayor). Hence, Shoreditch was a haven for cut-purses, vagabonds, drunkards, alehouses, stews of prostitutes, gaming dens, and bear-baiting pits. It also held a theatre and was populated by many actors, writers, etc.

Marlowe Family House, Canterbury - on occasion, Marlowe visited at the family home and spent time with his parents (right). The house no longer stands.

Scadbury Manor, Chislehurst, Kent - the home of Marlowe's patron, Thomas Walsingham. Marlowe probably wrote the majority of 'Hero and Leander' while staying as a guest. He was arrested here on May 18th and thereafter taken before the Privy Council under charges of atheism.



Probably poor. Although he wore expensive clothes, he owned no property of significance and it is likely that all his plays, patrons, and intelligence work actually paid very little. As a playwright, one had to own part of a theatre to make any real money (as Shakespeare eventually did - he owned a share of 'The Globe'). 

Perhaps this explains why Marlowe resorted to counterfeiting money in Flushing?




There are plentiful rumors and debates over his sexuality. Some of the criminal evidence collected against him suggests he may have been homosexual (though the term itself was unknown in Elizabethan times).



A rumored atheist.

Although raised in a religious background, he seems to have turned on Christianity with a vengeance during his student years at Cambridge. Later in life, he even belonged to intellectual circles widely suspected of being 'freethinkers': people who questioned the validity of traditional beliefs. 

Whether or not he was a true atheist may be debatable, but his plays certainly show a marked lack of reverence for contemporary religious movements and beliefs.



18th September, 1589 - arrested in Hogg Lane, Shoreditch for a swordfight with William Bradley (an occasional playwright). Bradley died at the scene from wounds inflicted. Also arrested was Thomas Watson who came to Marlowe's aid (it was Watson who actually struck and killed Bradley).

Previously, Bradley was known to the police for quarrelling. He owned money to both Watson and John Alleyn (brother of Edward Alleyn, the star actor of 'The Admiral's Men') and had refused to pay - this was possibly the cause of the fight.

Neither Marlowe nor Watson fled the scene (leaving was an admission of guilt and could result in hanging). Both men were held in Newgate Prison until Marlowe secured bail 12 days later and the Coroner dismissed the charges against Watson on the grounds of self-defense.

26th January, 1592 - arrested and deported from Flushing (a Dutch harbor town) on the charge of counterfeiting English and Dutch coins. Also deported was Gifford Gilbert, a goldsmith who assisted in the counterfeiting. Sir Robert Sidney, the governor of Flushing, sent a note to Lord Burghley detailing the crime.

The charges were lodged by Richard Baines, another spy who shared the same chamber as Marlowe and Gilbert. Both Kit and Baines accused each other of counterfeiting and intending to defect to Spain and Rome. However, although Marlowe was due to see Lord Burghley on his return, as soon as he reached England the charges were dismissed.

9th May, 1592 - bound to keep the peace by constable Allen Nichols and subconstable Nicholas Elliot. Fined 20 pounds. This charge could have resulted from something relatively minor, such as swearing, pushing, or brandishing a weapon.

September, 1592 - arrested for assaulting William Corkine (a tailor) with a stick and dagger. The case was settled out of court.

Sunday, 20th May, 1593 - arrested on suspicion of atheism. He appeared before members of the Privy Council at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey. He wasn't charged or kept under arrest, but his daily attendance on the court was required thereafter. This could simply mean checking in with one of councilors (not necessarily the whole court). Of course, before the court resolved his case he was killed in Deptford... 




1586 - 'The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage' (with Thomas Nashe)  


1587 - 'Tamburlaine the Great: Part One'


1587 - 'Tamburlaine the Great: Part Two'


1589 - 'The Jew of Malta'



1589 or 1593 - 'The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus'


1592 - 'Edward the Second'


1593 - 'The Massacre at Paris'



1580's - Lucan's 'Pharsalia' (translation)

1580's - Ovid's 'Elegies' (translation)

1580's - 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love'

1593 - 'Hero and Leander' (unfinished)



Marlowe's legacy touches on three main areas: an advancement of English literature; a revelation of the Elizabethan spy world; and an example of artistic courage. 

Advancement of English Literature

Marlowe's work was revolutionary from the start. He attacked the established order of drama and mocked the stale technique of rhyming used by contemporary playwrights. Consider his prologue to 'Tamburlaine the Great: Part One':

"From jigging veins of riming mother wits                                    And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay                               We'll lead you to the stately tent of war                                            Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine                                 Threatening the world with high astounding terms                           And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword."

Thus, with his earliest play, he entered history as the first major English dramatist to use blank verse and reveal its potential as one of the most effective, poetic forms in theatre. From then onwards, blank verse quickly became the standard dramatic form for the entire renaissance period. Centuries later, Swinburne commented that Marlowe is "the greatest discoverer, the most daring and inspired pioneer, in all our poetic literature. Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language".

Marlowe is also significant as the only contemporary writer to influence Shakespeare. Not only did he collaborate with Shakespeare on his early plays, but he provided the Bard with an inspired example to follow long after his death. As Tennyson once remarked: "If Shakespeare is the dazzling sun of this mighty period, Marlowe is certainly the morning star." Marlowe's work brought an unprecedented complexity to Elizabethan tragedy and poetry - his sonorous language, rich characters, and daring moral themes pushed English literature toward new, unscaled heights of artistic achievement.

Revelation of the Elizabethan Spy World

Although much still lies undiscovered, Marlowe's dramatic death has helped stimulate great public and scholarly interest in the spy networks organized under Elizabeth. New documents continue to be discovered by those investigating Marlowe's demise, and every spark of information helps to enlighten this shadowy area of English history.

Artistic Courage

Marlowe lived in a time steeped in religious persecution, political abuse, state censorship, torture, and execution. Yet unlike many of his contemporaries, his was not prepared to compromise, to cooperate, to concede - he pursued his art in defiance of the limitations of his society and challenged others to do the same.

In an era of absolute religion, he mocked the gods. In an age of totalitarian control, he asserted the individual's right to choose his own destiny. 

As long as freedom is curtailed, and art is maligned, and thought is crushed throughout the world, Marlowe's work and spirit will continue to hold relevance...



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Keefer, Michael. Introduction. Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. By Christopher Marlowe. Ed. Michael Keefer. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts, 1991.

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"The Life of Christopher Marlowe." Southwest College. 2007. Houston Community College System. 21 June 2007.

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