If Marlowe's university had a yearbook, then this brilliant but flawed playwright would probably have earned the entry "Least Likely to See the Age of 30." His adopted motto, "What nourishes me, destroys me," probably says it all. Marlowe was into excess, in his appetite for tobacco and for boys, and even in his larger than life works. The Rolling Stones perhaps to Shakespeare's Beatles?
Marlowe was born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare, and was a product of the same social class. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Marlowe was university-educated. This solid foundation in the classics made him a talented translator and also informed his darkly hip poetry. Marlowe popularized a change in the way poetry was written, heavily influenced by Latin, and by the late 1580s his way of writing was the state of the art, to which almost all other writers aspired.
While his work could show terrific empathy with a morally ambiguous character, Marlowe in person could be caustic and quick to rage. He certainly wasn't afraid to speak his mind and criticize other writers and their techniques.
The theatrical world was a small one, and Shakespeare would have got to know Marlowe personally in late 1591 at the Rose theatre, where Marlowe's star actor, Edward Alleyn, was performing the choice roles. Shakespeare clearly learned much from Marlowe's work, assimilating and reprocessing in his typical manner. Later Marlowe would find himself knocked off the top spot at the box office, failing to make the successful step into the history plays which would make Shakespeare a star. This would have been extremely difficult to take for the university-educated wit who was so disparaging of those from a humbler educational background.
In London in 1593, against a backdrop of plague, bad harvests, threat of invasion and growing unemployment, Marlowe found his work picked up by a xenophobic minority and used to attack local immigrants refugees used then, as now, as a scapegoat for all ills.
That same year State conspiracy theorists began to see plots by religious extremists everywhere, not least in the written word.
The home of Thomas Kyd, the author of "Spanish Tragedy", and the spark behind the new wave in writing that Marlowe had popularized, was raided, and notes found there which the contemporary reports suggest were heretical in content. In another person's handwriting and different color ink, the name Marlowe was mentioned as a source for some materials.
Kyd was savagely interrogated and tortured, during which he denied any knowledge of the items found in his rooms. He would later die of his injuries.
Marlowe was arrested and examined by the Privy Council for the second time that winter. In the first instance, Marlowe, who was still being paid as an agent by the government, was arrested on the Dutch island of Flushing for allegedly forging coins and expressing pro-Catholic sympathies. The second time he was arrested he was released on condition that present himself to the authorities daily.
Marlowe clearly believed his own press and, as the enfant terrible of English drama at that time, reveled in the dark side and allowed himself to be consumed by it. Though his mouth may have gotten him into trouble, his, like Kyd's before him, was probably more a case of death by allegory. In this state of heightened paranoia, The State could look at a work like Marlowe's "Edward II" and interpret its depiction of a weak sovereign and corrupt court as an attack on the reign of Elizabeth I and its own behavior.
The coroner's report that followed Marlowe's death, in suspicious circumstances in 1593, claimed Marlowe was killed in a "dispute over an unpaid bill." But Marlowe's murder had much more the feel of a "hit" about it.
Works by Christopher Marlowe:
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