What not too many know is that Christopher Marlowe is a well-rounded and “self-supporting” author, there is no need to compare him with anyone to recognize his greatness.
So, let’s discover together this greatness of him, telling you about his life and works.
The turbulent beginnings
Firstly, Christopher Marlowe was born on February 26, 1564, in Canterbury, Kent, the son of a shoemaker. It seems that Marlowe’s parents had a lot of trouble with the law. Indeed, young Christopher is left to his own in a family struggling with financial difficulties and many of whose members are prone to violent behavior.
In 1579-80 Marlowe entered the King’s School (January 14) and, in December, Corpus Christi College (University of Cambridge). Shortly after he obtained a scholarship thanks to the intercession of the archbishop. This scholarship, granted by the religious authorities, perhaps suggests that Marlowe wanted to take the orders.
A few years later, having obtained a Bachelor’s degree (B.A.), Marlowe continued his studies to obtain the degree of Magister artis (M.A.), which the University of Cambridge awarded him in 1587 after a long controversy. Marlowe would have in fact left Cambridge for Reims, where he would have been in the pay of Queen Elizabeth’s secret services. Marlowe is said to have stayed in France to spy on English Catholics who were plotting against the government (Babington Plot-1586). The university authorities had interpreted Marlowe’s absence as a serious violation of university rules, and only thanks to the intervention of the Privy Council could he be admitted.
The first works of Christopher Marlowe
Marlowe was still in Cambridge when he translated Ovid (Amores), the first book of Lucan’s Pharsalia and two “Sestiads” of the poem Hero and Leander, which George Chapman completed after his death. He is also said to have composed his first piece Dido, Queen of Carthage (c. 1585), and made the first attempt with the famous empty verse [a ten-foot verse that has a short syllable and a long stressed syllable. Christopher Marlowe is not the inventor, having already been used by the Earl of Surrey in his translation of the Aeneid (1540). Marlowe only takes the empty verse to a level of completion never reached before].
The choice of themes reveals a young man in love with Latin poetry and fascinated by Roman antiquity.
The same year (1587) the Historia von D. Iohan Fausten appeared in Frankfurt, whose English translation (perhaps around 1592), served as the basis for Marlowe’s tragedy Doctor Faustus.
In 1588-89 Marlowe was in London, where he held, probably at the end of 1587, the premiere of Tamburlaine at Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theater. Through the voice of Tamburlaine we can hear that of all those young academics who, like Marlowe, were trained in classics and who, involved in the tumultuous life of the City, adored its beautiful spirit and projection. They sacrificed their youth to these violent and ephemeral passions that they drink in the absolute and in excess. This group, of which Marlowe was a member, became known as “University Wits” and included such writers as Robert Green (1558-92), George Peel (1557-96), Thomas Lodge (c. 1557-1625), and Thomas Nashe (About 1567-1601).
Once again a turbulent life
This bohemian life had its dangers and Marlowe knew something about them. In 1589 he was accused, along with Thomas Watson (probably the poet) of the murder of William Bradley, but, after a few days in prison, considered a mere witness to the crime, he was released. From there undoubtedly derives his reputation as a violent and intemperate man. The era appears to have been conducive to violence, as another playwright, Ben Jonson, was arrested multiple times for rioting and even killed actor Gabriel Spencer.
During this period, Christopher Marlowe is said to have joined a group of intellectuals known in London as the School of Night, where the progress of science and the defeats of the faith were discussed. Sir Walter Raleigh, navigator and writer, best known for his History of the World, was an important member, as was the mathematician Thomas Harriot and, for a time, the philosopher Giordano Bruno In 1594 accusations of atheism were leveled against the members of the School of the Night.
Recurring themes in the works of Christopher Marlowe
In 1590 the two parts of Tamburlaine were published in a single volume, without the name of the author. With Tamburlaine, inspired by the Turkish conqueror Timur Lang (Kech 1336 – Otrar 1405), Marlowe begins the series of titanic characters who, torn by deep passions, are driven by their insatiable desires to challenge the entire universe, and to die, victims of the their indomitable excess (hubris). Tamburlaine wants to conquer the world, Barabas, the Jew from Malta, is the toy of this desire for revenge which, moreover, will lead to his ruin, while Faust wants to reach the Truth and seeks the absolute of beauty, ready to sacrifice himself for it. all eternity.
It is, moreover, the strength of the main characters that weakens, at the expense of the drama, the character of the secondary characters. The importance of the main characters, however, will allow Marlowe to cultivate, to a level that only Shakespeare can match, the art of the monologue in which human consciousness is agitated in a perpetual search for meaning and truth about itself. Marlowe took an interest in self-destruction as a recurring feature of the human mind. This interest makes the English playwright practically our contemporary.
In 1591 – 92 Marlowe presents The Massacre of Paris and Edward II. In those same years, Robert Green, a friend of Marlowe and one of the University Wits, died. From his deathbed he wrote to Marlowe to evoke him to abandon his atheistic attitudes that came to him “from that poison that is Machiavelli’s philosophy”. This letter, and Marlowe’s alleged membership of the School of Night, served to convince him of atheism in the eyes of the men of his time. However, a critical reading of his works does not allow us to express such a radical judgment.
How did Christopher Marlowe die?
On May 12, 1593, a friend of Marlowe’s, the playwright Thomas Kyd, was arrested for treason. An essay on atheism is discovered in his home and, under torture, he denounces Marlowe as the author of this essay. On May 18, Marlowe was arrested while he was at the home of Sir Thomas Walsingham, head of the secret services. He is ordered to remain at the disposal of the authorities until further notice.
On May 30, Marlowe spends the day with Eleanor Bull, a cheerful widow, in a London suburb, in the company of three men including her killer, Ingram Frizer. The purpose of the meeting was never established, but we know that at least two of the three men accompanying Marlowe were involved in espionage activities. One of them had also participated in the Babington plot, which Marlowe allegedly investigated in France. According to the court’s version of the report, a dispute arose between Marlowe and Ingram Frizer over the payment of the meal. An angry Marlowe is said to have taken a dagger and in battle Frizer managed to stick it in the playwright’s eyes.
Many doubts remain about the official version of Marlowe’s death. It is possible that he was the victim of an ambush with the aim of eliminating him, a writer who is dangerous for his ideas. Furthermore, on the same day of the playwright’s death, a complaint was filed with the Privy Council accusing Marlowe of atheism, blasphemy and homosexuality, all of which would have been enough to bring the writer individually to the gallows. The report’s recommendation was to silence the voice of such a dangerous member. Marlowe’s killer, Ingram Frizer, was pardoned by the queen on June 18 of the same year and no charges were brought against him.
Christopher Marlowe was buried in St Nicholas Church in Deptford on 1 June 1593. He was twenty-nine years old.
The year following his death, Edward II and Dido, queen of Carthage, are released. In the following years many posthumous works are published, showing that Christopher Marlowe’s talent has continued… to the present day!
For example, Edward II is a 1991 film by Derek Jarman, based on the tragedy of the same name by Christopher Marlowe.
Today’s protagonist was played by actor Rupert Everett in the hugely popular 1998 film Shakespeare in Love. Here, among other things, we talk about the inspiration that Marlowe may have given William Shakespeare for his Romeo and Juliet and also about his very strange death.
Marlowe appears in the 2011 film Anonymous where, once again, reference is made to the turbulent soul of the playwright and the unclear circumstances of his death.
In Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Survive, Marlowe (played by John Hurt) is an elderly and distinguished vampire, friend of protagonists Adam and Eve, who lives in Tangier and continues to write poems and poems.
The memory of Christopher Marlowe also continues in recent years, for example in the television series “Will” in 2017, where actor Jamie Campbell Bower plays him.
Recently (2021), Marlowe appears among the characters of the second season of the television series “A Discovery of Witches” played by actor Tom Hughes.
If after 450 years from his death we still talk about Christopher Marlowe it is evident how much he has an indelible mark not only in literature, a bit like it happened to other unruly geniuses such as Oscar Wilde or Charles Baudelaire, all “friends” of Zoa Studio from some time!