Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe, also known as Kit Marlowe, was an English playwright, poet, and translator of the Elizabethan era. Marlowe is among the most famous of the Elizabethan playwrights. He was Shakespeare’s most important predecessor in English drama, who is noted especially for his establishment of dramatic blank verse. He was born at Canterbury and educated there and at Cambridge. He adopted literature as a profession and became attached to the Lord Admiral’s players.

Marlowe’s plays, all tragedies, were written within five years (1587-92). He had no bent for comedy, and the comic parts found in some of his plays are always inferior and maybe by other writers. Only in Edward II does he show any sense of plot construction, while his characterization is of the simplest, and lacks the warm humanity of Shakespeare’s. All the plays, except Edward II, revolve around one figure drawn in bold outlines. This character shows no complexity or subtlety of development and is the embodiment of a single idea.

In Tamburlaine the Great, the shepherd seeks the “sweet fruition of an earthly crown,” in The Jew of Malta Barabbas seeks “infinite riches in a little room,” while the quest of Doctor Faustus is for more than human knowledge. Each of the plays has behind it the driving force of this vision, which gives it an artistic and poetic unity. It is, indeed, as a poet that Marlowe excels. Though not the first to use blank verse in English drama, he was the first to exploit its possibilities and make it supreme. His verse is notable for its burning energy, its splendour of diction, its sensuous richness, its variety of pace, and its responsiveness to the demands of varying emotions.

The Massacre at Paris is a short and luridly written work, the only surviving text of which was probably a reconstruction from memory of the original performance text, portraying the events of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, which English Protestants invoked as the blackest example of Catholic treachery. It features the silent “English Agent”, whom subsequent tradition has identified with Marlowe himself and his connections to the secret service. The Massacre at Paris is considered his most dangerous play, as agitators in London seized on its theme to advocate the murders of refugees from the low countries and, indeed, it warns Elizabeth I of this possibility in its last scene.

Doctor Faustus (or The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus), based on the German Faustbuch, was the first dramatised version of the Faust legend of a scholar’s dealing with the devil. While versions of “The Devil’s Pact” can be traced back to the 4th century, Marlowe deviates significantly by having his hero unable to “burn his books” or repent to a merciful God to have his contract annulled at the end of the play. Marlowe’s protagonist is instead carried off by demons, and in the 1616 quarto his mangled corpse is found by several scholars. Doctor Faustus is a textual problem for scholars as two versions of the play exist: the 1604 quarto, also known as the A text, and the 1616 quarto, or B text. Both were published after Marlowe’s death. On 30 May Marlowe was stabbed to death during a fight at a house in Deptford, apparently after an argument about a bill. He was about 29. The incident’s relation, if any, to Marlowe’s investigation by the Privy Council is unknown.