Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), known to friends by his nickname Kit, was an English playwright and poet who lived a short life ridden with scandal and brilliance. Marlowe was the eldest son of a local cobbler in Canterbury named John Marlowe (see Family Tree). Though his birth is not documented, his baptism in Canterbury was recorded on February 26 1564, just a few months prior to fellow playwright William Shakespeare.
At age 14, Marlowe was enrolled in the King’s School in Canterbury, and soon after at the age of 16 he obtained a scholarship to continue his education at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. He earned his B.A. in 1584, and–with some hint of scandal–his M.A. three years later. Approximately a year after receiving his B.A., Marlowe became a government agent, which led to attendance issues at his college. At this time, suspicion that Marlowe had Catholic sympathies arose. This mistrust nearly prevented him from receiving his M.A. in 1887. That June, a court consisting of the Queen’s highest-ranking officials negated these speculative claims by informing the college that Marlowe had “done Her Majesty good service.” Marlowe soon thereafter received his final diploma.
There is much speculation as to Marlowe’s actual role as a government agent. One theory is that he was a spy. During his absences in college Marlowe was supposedly spotted in a Catholic Seminary in Rheims, France. It was presumed that Marlowe helped unravel the “Babington Plot,” a plan devised to assassinate the Queen and her court ministers. The plot was supposedly devised in Rheims. Some conclude that glowing praise found in the letter used to validate the distribution of Marlowe’s M.A. must be due to a serious act of patriotism on Marlowe’s part. More information about these theories can be found on the Conspiracies & Espionage page.
Marlowe was also an active member of “The School of Night,” a group of free-thinkers led by Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland. Those known to be part of this group were labelled as “atheists,” a dangerous accusation at the time, especially for Marlowe who had already been accused of Catholicism.
Scandal not only followed Marlowe, but also his friends. In 1589, Marlowe was arrested and imprisoned with his friend and fellow-poet Thomas Watson following William Bradley’s death in Hog Lane, London. There was a swordfight and Bradley died. Shortly before Marlowe’s death in 1593, Thomas Kyd, Marlowe’s roommate and fellow-playwright, was arrested on suspicions of treason after Crown officials searched their shared rooms. Marlowe appears to have been the target. Kyd was tortured until he accused Marlowe of blasphemy. A warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest.
Less than two weeks after the warrant was issued, Marlowe was found dead in Deptford on May 30, 1593. He supposedly died following a bar brawl over the bill, though much about the events of that night remain a mystery. He was approximately 29 years old.
In the six active years of his brief career, Marlowe produced seven plays: Dido, Queen of Carthage (likely co-written with Thomas Nashe), the first and second parts of Tamburlaine the Great, the Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, Edward II, and the Massacre at Paris. Marlowe saw several of his plays performed in his lifetime. One of his poems, “Hero and Leander,” supposedly incomplete at the time of Marlowe’s death, was published posthumously by George Chapman with additions. Henry Petowe also augmented this poem shortly after its publication (see Petowe’s edition in the Mini-Archive). Excepting collaborations with Shakespeare, all of Marlowe’s works are available online on EMED.