Christopher Marlowe, 1564-1593

Biographical note

Dramatist, son of a shoemaker at Canterbury, where he was born, was educated at the King’s School there, and in 1581 went to Benet’s (now Corpus Christi) College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. 1583, and M.A. in 1587. Of his life after he left the University almost nothing is known. It has, however, been conjectured, partly on account of his familiarity with military matters, that he saw service, probably in the Low Countries.

His first play, Tamburlaine, was acted in 1587 or 1588. The story is drawn from the Spanish Life of Timur by Pedro Mexia. Its resounding splendour, not seldom passing into bombast, won for it immediate popularity, and it long held the stage. It was followed in 1604 by Faustus, a great advance upon Tamburlaine in a dramatic sense. The absence of “material horror” in the treatment, so different in this respect from the original legend, has often been remarked upon. Marlowe’s handling of the subject was greatly admired by Goethe, who, however, in his own version, makes the motive knowledge, while Marlowe has power, and the mediæval legend pleasure. In his next play, The Jew of Malta, Marlowe continues to show an advance in technical skill, but the work is unequal, and the Jew Barabas is to Shylock as a monster to a man. In Edward II., Marlowe rises to his highest display of power. The rhodomontade of Tamburlaine and the piled-up horror of The Jew are replaced by a mature self-restraint, and in the whole workmanship he approaches more nearly to Shakespeare than any one else has ever done. Speaking of it Lamb says, “The death scene of Marlowe’s King moves pity and terror beyond any scene, ancient or modern, with which I am acquainted.” Marlowe is now almost certainly believed to have had a large share in the three parts of Henry VI., and perhaps also he may have collaborated in Titus Andronicus. His next plays, The Massacre of Paris and The Tragedy of Dido (written with Nash) both show a marked falling off; and it seems likely that in his last years, perhaps, breaking down under the effects of a wild life, he became careless of fame as of all else. Greene, in his Groat’s Worth of Wit, written on his deathbed, reproaches him with his evil life and atheistic opinions, and a few days before his hapless death an information was laid against him for blasphemy. The informer was next year hanged for an outrageous offence, and his witness alone might not be conclusive, but Marlowe’s life and opinions, which he made no secret of, were notorious. On the other hand, his friends, Shakespeare, Nash, Drayton, and Chapman, all make kindly reference to him.

To escape the plague which was raging in London in 1593, he was living at Deptford, then a country village, and there in a tavern brawl he received a wound in the head, his own knife being turned against him by a serving man, upon whom he had drawn it. The quarrel was about a girl of the town. The parish record bears the entry, “Christopher Marlowe, slain by ffrancis Archer, the 1 of June 1593.”

Marlowe is the father of the modern English drama, and the introducer of the modern form of blank verse. In imagination, richness of expression, originality, and general poetic and dramatic power he is inferior to Shakespeare alone among the Elizabethans. In addition to his plays he wrote some short poems (of which the best known is Come live with me and be my love), translations from Ovid’s Amores and Lucan’s Pharsalia, and a glowing paraphrase of Musaeus’ Hero and Leander, a poem completed by Chapman.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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