Christopher Marlowe--the name is also spelled Marly and Marlin in the records--was born in 1564, the son of a well-to-do shoemaker and a clergyman's daughter. He was educated at King's School in his native Canterbury and at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he proceeded B.A. in 1584 and M.A. in 1587. The privy council intervened to see that his employment on some confidential mission for the government, in which he had proved "orderly and discreet," should not put him at a disadvantage in the matter of his M.A. degree. For the remaining six years of his life there is evidence of exceptional activity. Apparently he continued to serve as a confidential agent for the government; he engaged in the philosophical or theological speculation of a circle centering around Raleigh; he achieved distinction by his non-dramatic verse, of which the unfinished Hero and Leander is the most important example and he became the outstanding dramatist of London, in association chiefly with the Admiral's Company of players. Many details of his life were a source of scandal to some of his contemporaries, and for us are still shrouded in mystery. In May, 1593, a manuscript was discovered in Kyd's possession which he declared to be Marlowe's left' with Kyd in 1591 when he was in the service of a noble lord for whose players Marlowe was writing. The document--merely a copy of part of a theological treatise already published--though unitarian in nature, was atheistic in the eyes of the orthodox. Testimony as to blasphemous conversations on Marlowe's part was also produced. Before the privy council took definite action about the charges, Marlowe was killed. Puritan disapproval of his connection with the stage and of his free-thinking perhaps influenced Meres' statement that he was stabbed "by a bawdy serving-man, a rival of his in his lewd love." Records discovered by Hotson merely show that he was stabbed in a tavern in Deptford by Friser, one of three companions who also were, or had been, in the service of the government. The procedure of the coroner's inquest by which Friser was exonerated is regarded by some modern students as regular, by others as an attempt to cover official secrets or even a political assassination. Marlowe was buried on June 1, 1593.
Tamburlaine, unanimously accepted as Marlowe's first play, was attracting attention by 1588, when Greene in the preface to Perimedes the Blacksmith speaks of "atheist Tamburlaine" in what is pretty clearly an attack on Marlowe. Evidence of his authorship is chiefly to be found in the character of the play, however. The two parts were published together anonymously in 1590, with some omissions, as the printer's preface indicates. Perhaps the success of the first part led Marlowe to write the inferior second part in which Tamburlaine is followed to his boasting and unrepentant end. A Renaissance interest in the oriental conqueror and his barbaric passions and display, surviving no doubt in part from medieval story and drama, and stimulated by new contacts with the East, is reflected by the popularity of the type on the London stage. The story of Tamburlaine apparently held an especial fascination for writers, and had become mythical before Marlowe created his conqueror. Marlowe seems to have consulted a number of historical or pseudo-historical accounts of the East for his material, and even contemporary geographical works for some of his sonorous references to distant places. In this first play Marlowe developed his "mighty line," as Jonson calls it, and made it a fit instrument for the intense and passionate characters created by him. While at times, especially in Tamburlaine, his style approaches bombast, his swelling periods and bold figures contributed greatly to the effectiveness of tragic style in his successors.
Doctor Faustus has usually been assigned to the winter of 1588-89, but recent scholars like Tucker Brooke and Boas (in his edition of the play for The Works and Life of Marlowe under the general editorship of Case) argue for the date 1592. The German Faustbuch, translated into English, seems to have been the source, and there is evidence that this was not published before 1592. The first certain record of the play is of its being acted for Henslowe in 1594. The problem of the text is a difficult one. The earliest known edition was not published until 1604, and it contains some material which bears evidence of composition after Marlowe's death. Some scholars trace Dekker's hand in this version, possibly through revision for acting in 1594. Apparently the serious parts of the play have been cut, with an enlargement of the spectacular and comic scenes of conjuring and dancing, the sort of thing always loved by the London populace. In 1602 Henslowe paid William Bird and Samuel Rowley for "additions" to the play. Presumably these were included in the enlarged edition which came out in 1616. The new material in this version, though added to the poetic scenes, is still primarily of a spectacular nature, and does not often suggest Marlowe. Boas argues that Rowley collaborated with Marlowe from the beginning, contributing most of the original comic prose as well as many of the later verse additions. Accordingly he constructs a composite text for the play, but one based primarily on the edition of 1616. It is, however, in the tragic portrayal of the scholar who, irked by the limitations of academic studies, purchased supreme knowledge and power with his soul, that the play represents Marlowe at his best, in spite of the imperfections of the surviving texts.
Edward II was entered in the Stationers' Register on July 6, 1593. The first complete edition known was printed in 1594 with the statement that the play had been acted by the Earl of Pembroke's players. The winter of 1592-93 is suggested as the date of composition by indications of maturity in the play and by the fact that Pembroke's Company was prominent in London only at that time. The source is Holinshed's Chronicles. Edward II represents a great advance over the known plays on English history that preceded, and is the best of Marlowe's work in construction, in characterization, and in sustained tone. Against a background of the fierce feudal barons, Marlowe has drawn a very effective picture of the sentimental and weak but stubborn king.
Of the three (remaining) extant plays by Marlowe, the most important is The Jew of Malta, written possibly around 1590. It was being played for Henslowe early in 1592, and was entered in the Stationers' Register early in 1594. The earliest form to survive, however, is an edition by Thomas Heywood in 1633, which has clearly been revamped. The Massacre at Paris was printed without date about 1593. Dido, Queen of Carthage, printed in 1594, was written in collaboration with Thomas Nashe. It has been claimed that Marlowe had a hand in several other extant plays, particularly in the two parts of The Contention of York and Lancaster, which are versions of Shakespeare's Second and Third Parts of Henry VI.
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