Christopher Marlowe

Definition

Theater

  • (1564 - 93) English playwright and poet, who through his establishmentof blank verse as a medium for drama did much to free the Elizabethan theaterfrom the constraints of the medieval and Tudor dramatic tradition.

    The son of a shoemaker, Marlowe was educated at Corpus ChristiCollege, Cambridge, on a scholarship that may have been intended toprovide for his taking holy orders. The university authorities seemto have been extremely reluctant to award Marlowe his MA, citing asgrounds for their refusal his frequent term-time absences. They appear,however, to have relented upon receiving a letter from the Privy Councilstating that Marlowe's absences were due to his employment "onmatters touching the benefit of his country." The letter alsomentions Rheims in France, leading to speculation that Marlowe hadbeen employed to conduct espionage work among the Jesuits residentthere.

    After leaving Cambridge in 1587 Marlowe settled in Londonand began to write for the theater. His first play Tamburlainethe Great, was performed that same year, probably by the Admiral'sMen with Edward Alleyn in the lead. With its swaggering power-hungrytitle character and gorgeous verse the play proved to be enormouslypopular; Marlowe quickly wrote a second part, which may have beenproduced later that year. Marlowe's most famous play, The TragicalHistory of Doctor Faustus, based on the medieval German legendof the scholar who sold his soul to the devil, was probably writtenand produced by 1590, although it was not published until 1604 (seeDr Faustus; Faust, Johann). Historically the play isimportant for utilizing the soliloquy as an aid to character analysis anddevelopment.

    The Jew of Malta (c. 1590) has another unscrupulousaspiring character at its centre in the Machiavellian Barabas. Byturns violent and grotesque, the play delivers a caustic critiqueof contemporary religious values. Edward II (c. 1592),which may have influenced Shakespeare's Richard II, was highlyinnovatory in its treatment of a historical character and formed animportant break with the more simplistic chronicle plays that hadpreceded it. Marlowe also wrote two lesser plays, Dido, Queen ofCarthage (date unknown) and The Massacre at Paris (1593),based on contemporary events in France.

    Marlowe was killed in a London tavern in May 1593, supposedlyas the result of a quarrel with his drinking companions over the apportioningof the bill. Over the years, however, there has been a great dealof speculation concerning his death, with many writers suggestingthat he was assassinated in connection with his activities as a spy. Otherspoint to the fact that only twelve days before his death Marlowe had beensummoned by the Privy Council to answer charges of atheism (seeThomas Kyd).

    Although Marlowe's writing career lasted for only six years,his four major plays make him easily the most important predecessorof Shakespeare.

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