Christopher Marlowe was one of the most popular dramatists of the Elizabethan age. He was an energetic young man with a brilliant mind and a quick temper. He was also a man of mystery.
In the Elizabethan period, Marlowe’s plays were probably more popular than those of William Shakespeare. The two men were actually born in the same year, 1564. They also came from similar backgrounds. Marlowe was born in Canterbury, the son of a prominent shoemaker. Shakespeare was born in Stratford, the son of a glove-maker. Both attended their local grammar school. Marlowe, however, won a scholarship to study at Cambridge University. Marlowe and Shakespeare were both in London in the 1590s and they probably knew one another. Shakespeare makes reference to Marlowe’s work in some of his plays.
While at Cambridge University, Marlowe probably began working as a secret agent for the government. Records show that he was absent from the university for long periods. And when he returned, he clearly had lots of money. As records show he spent much more than his scholarship would allow on food and drink. Historians believe, that these absences and his considerable spending power are evidence that he had been away on wellpaid secret missions for the government. There is another evidence too. The university authorities were unhappy that Marlowe planned to go to study at the Catholic College in Reims, France. Catholicism was not tolerated in England under Queen Elizabeth. As a result, the university refused to grant Marlowe his MA degree. At this point, the Privy Council informed the university that Marlowe had been involved in secret government business that had greatly helped the country. When they heard this, the university authorities agreed to grant Marlowe his degree.
Marlowe visited the Netherlands in 1592. He was probably on another government mission, spying on English Catholics who were living and working there. But Marlowe got into trouble with the authorities. He was arrested for helping to make counterfeit coins. Again, the Privy Council came to the rescue, and Marlowe was free to return to England.
When he wasn’t working on government business, Marlowe spent his time writing poetry and plays. He was the first dramatist to write in blank verse, a style which other writers, including Shakespeare, soon adopted.
Marlowe’s poetic language was rich and exotic with a beautiful rhythm. Marlowe’s first play, Tamburlaine, was a great success. It was about a shepherd boy who becomes the conqueror of the world. The play involves a lot of terrible violence and cruelty, something which Elizabethan audiences probably found very exciting. In Dr Faustus, we see the desire for knowledge and power. Faustus agrees to give his soul to the devil in return for absolute power, all the pleasures and sins of the world and hidden knowledge.
The circumstances of his death are very mysterious. He was just 29 years old. One day, the end of May, 1593, being in Deptford he met three other men who were involved in secret government work. The official report states that the men had spent the day eating and drinking. But then there was an argument about the bill. There was a fight and Marlowe was stabbed above the eye. He died instantly and English literature lost one of its greatest dramatists.
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According to the official record Marlowe
- was poisoned.
- was hung.
- was shot.
- was killed in a drunken fight.
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