Biography: Christopher Marlowe

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Christopher Marlowe was an innovative writer who was alternately considered an atheist and a devout Christian.  His plays reflect this extraordinary diversity in his beliefs and morals and his inquisitive mind.  Marlowe introduced moral thinking in his plays and was considered to be a man deeply concerned with religion, suffering and evil.  He was born in 1564 in Canterbury, the same year as Shakespeare.  Although he was the son of a shoemaker, Marlowe was a brilliant scholar.  He attended King's School in Canterbury and later Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.
He was awarded a scholarship during his college years, but the grant was meant for men interested in priesthood.  Quite apparently, Marlowe must have drastically changed his career plans after college.  After earning his B.A. and M.A degrees he became a spy for Queen Elizabeth's government.  At twenty-three Marlowe came to London and associated with other recent university graduates who survived by writing plays and pamphlets.
Marlowe had several brushes with the law and was accused of making scandalous and seditious speeches.  He got into a street fight and landed in jail.  A few days before the case was to be heard, Marlowe spent the day with some shady acquaintances.  Many scholars believe that he died instantly at the age of twenty-nine from a two-inch dagger wound inflicted above the eye during a fight about the bill at a tavern on that day.  Theories about his death are still circulated.
Although his life was short, Marlowe did succeed in publishing seven dramatic poems that were tragedies, including Doctor Faustus.  His heroes are usually "overreachers," men who are self-driven by greed and ambition.  They fail to recognize their responsibility to God and their fellow creatures.  Many scholars believe that Marlowe's dramatic style showed Shakespeare what was possible in dramatic poetry and greatly influenced him.
Doctor Faustus is based on an old German folktale.  The real John Faust, or Faustus, was a travelling magician who died about 1540.  After death, he became a legendary figure.  People attributed his skills as a magician to a pact that he had made with the devil.  Marlowe transformed this tale into an ambitious scholar at Wittenberg who sells his soul to the devil to satiate his thirst for power and knowledge.  Marlowe's audiences firmly believed in the existence of the devil, which made the play all the more tragic and horrific.