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Christopher Marlowe, Biography and Visits

King's School, Canterbury, Kent


Christopher Marlowe was born in the same year as Shakespeare, 1564. The tower of St George the Martyr, where he was christened on 26th February 1564, still survives in St George's Street, Canterbury, Kent. His father was a cobbler with a quick temper, and young Christopher seemed to inherit the fiery Marlowe disposition. Family life appears to have been turbulent. But Christopher was bright, and attended King's School in Canterbury, which still survives just behind Canterbury Cathedral. He then went on to Corpus Christie College, Cambridge. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, had established a scholarship which paid for students of King's to attend Corpus Christie College, a tradition that continues today. The fact that a Matthew Parker scholarship funded Marlowe's years at Cambridge suggests expectations for a church career. But Marlowe was not destined to take an expected path in life. He graduated in 1584, with the university threatening to withhold his degree because of poor attendance during term time. There were also suspicions that Marlowe had converted to Catholicism after a stay at the English college in Rheims. Then the Queen's Council stepped in with information that Marlowe had been on Her Majesty's business, both in Rheims, and during his absences from college. These intriguing facts suggest that Marlowe may have been on Her Majesty's Secret Service, conducting espionage work amongst the Jesuits of Rheims. All this has provided much for writers to speculate about.


Globe Theatre

Whatever Marlowe may have been up to for the government, the main focus of his short working life was to be theatre. Abandoning a Church career, 1587 saw Marlowe becoming a playwright in London. His plays were performed at the Rose Theatre, where he worked with Edward Alleyn and his company, the Admiral's Men. Part of the original Rose Theatre has been excavated, and in summer months these excavations can sometimes be viewed as part of the Globe Theatre tour on Bankside in London. The Rose was built in a similar design to the Globe, and the present reconstructed Globe gives a very clear picture of what the Rose would have looked like. In fact the foundations of the Rose, accidentally found during excavations for an office building, provided guidance for designers of the reconstructed Globe.

The chronology of plays performed at the Rose is not clear. Dido, Queen of Carthage, may have been an early play, perhaps written at Cambridge. But some commentators put this play in the middle or end of Marlowe's career. Doctor Faustus may come after Tamburlaine, a play it seems to answer; or it may have been written in 1592, after Edward II . There were also translations of Ovid, and collections of poetry, with Hero and Leander being the best known.

Not much is known of Marlowe's life in London. There is a record of an arrest in 1589, following a street fight. In 1592 Marlowe was bound over to keep the peace. A week before his death in 1593 he was summoned to report to the Queen's Council. A "heretical tract" had been found among the papers of playwright Thomas Kyd, and possibly under torture, Kyd had claimed this tract belonged to Marlowe. A week later, on 30th May, Marlowe was at the Deptford house of Thomas Walsingham, brother of Francis Walsingham head of Elizabeth I's secret service. He was with three other men, who all had secret service links. The official story was that these four men were simply having a day out in Deptford together. They were seen in deep discussion all afternoon, "in quiet sort" as the coroner's report put it. The coroner's report then claims that after supper a fight broke out during which Marlowe grabbed Ingam Frizer's dagger and started attacking him with it. In the struggle that followed Marlowe was accidentally stabbed and killed instantly. The true facts of Marlowe's death have never been finally established. It seems strange that three tough secret service men and a playwright with an anger management problem should take a pleasure trip to Deptford. It seems strange that Marlowe should be killed only a week after his arrest for possible heresy. Two days later a document written by Richard Baines was handed into the authorities claiming that Marlowe was a militant and dangerous atheist. The document includes this ominous line: "I think all men in Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member may be stopped."

Senior figures in government were close to Marlowe and would not have wanted to be pulled into a scandal with a prominent atheist. On the other hand, his death could well have been the accidental result of a fight, as the coroner's report claimed. Hanging around in a house in Deptford all afternoon is a strange way to assassinate someone, and Marlowe did have a vicious temper.



Interior of the Globe Theatre

Whatever happened in Deptford, Marlowe was definitely working on the outer edges of acceptability, in his daily behaviour and in his fascinating writing. He was a man who had trained for the Church, with a scholarship from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and ended up having people suggest his "mouth should be stopped" for his atheistic views. His play Tamburlaine celebrates an enemy of Christianity, but does not deny spirituality in its widest sense. Dr Faustus appears to be a Christian morality play, graphically demonstrating what happens to someone who sells their soul to the devil. It is not difficult to see parallels between Marlowe and Faustus, a character born to humble parents, who attends university and studies theology, and then rejects the Church. Rather than take up a position as a clergyman, Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer, in return for twenty four years of limitless power on earth. Reading Dr Faustus there is a feeling of great energy taking a person along their path in life, and a puzzle about where it all leads. There seems to be no ending, no final point where effort pays off and where everything is clear. Lucifer himself was once one of God's most loved angels. But at what pitch of perfection - beyond which there is nothing more to achieve - does the good angel start to move in the opposite direction? Faustus himself is fascinated by the circular nature of the universe. He is described at the beginning of Act 3 as viewing clouds, planets and stars, the Primum Mobile itself: "whirling round with this circumference, within the concave compass of the pole." (3.1.10 - 11)

This is one of a number of references to circling heavens. In the Rose this must have been all the more resonant, as the theatre was built in a circle to reflect the great circle of the world. After enjoying himself for his allotted time Faustus eventually must face the reckoning. Terrified, he waits for midnight on the appointed day, looking up at circling planets and stars. He urges them to stop in their endless course. But of course they do not. Faustus looks towards his endless future in hell:


Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,

A hundred thousand, and at last be saved,

Oh, no end is limited to damned souls (5. 2. 179 - 181)


Statuette of Dr Faustus outside the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, Kent

Of course the idea of an endless course with no final homecoming might seem hellish. But an endless journey with no hope of homecoming is also a promise of a journey that will circle endlessly back to where it once was. What Faustus threw away was the promise of eternal life in heaven, the same kind of endlessness he now faces in hell. Heaven and hell seem very similar in that respect. This message, with an interchangeable heaven and hell, was too big to fit into an orthodox sixteenth century view of the world.

There is a display dedicated to Marlowe at the Canterbury Museum in Stour Street, which consists of an "Elizabethan treasure chest" containing items relating to Marlowe's mysterious death. Canterbury's main theatre is named after Marlowe, but unlike the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, the Marlowe Theatre offers a general programme of productions.









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