Introduction to Christopher Marlowe: Biography and Plays

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  • 0:05 His Life
  • 2:45 His Plays
  • 7:48 His End
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

English playwright Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare with a short but potent body of work to his name. Learn all about his plays - and his fascinating character - from our video lesson!

His Life

Christopher Marlowe is kind of the other Elizabethan playwright (it's like pork - the other white meat). He precedes Shakespeare a little bit - chronologically and in reputation - just by a few years. They knew each other. They're contemporaneous, roughly. He was kind of the go-to guy for tragedies for a long time in London. He was also a crazy fascinating person. His biographical details are muddied, which is just perfect because it makes people able to fight about him ad nauseam today.

Marlowe served the English government in some secret capacity.
Christopher Marlowe

What kind of things do they argue about? There's tons of accusations and illicit information about Marlowe. Some of it is confirmed; some of it is not at all confirmed. People say that he was a spy for England, that he was a traitor, that he was an atheist, that he was a homosexual... (Can you imagine such things?!) A few people even think that Marlowe was Shakespeare, or that Shakespeare was Marlowe. They claim that Marlowe faked his own death and then continued to write as Shakespeare, or that Shakespeare found fame under the assumed name before he used his own. There's all sorts of crazy accusations about that. Those are probably not true, but he and Shakespeare are enigmatic enough figures that you can say stuff like this and no one can really say that you're wrong. That's why rumors like that keep being perpetuated.

Here's what we do know: Marlowe was baptized in Canterbury in 1564, so he was born sometime around then. He got a Bachelor of Arts degree, and then a master's, from Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. When he was there, we know that he served the English government in some secret capacity because there's a letter from Elizabeth's administration that was written to the school about his master's degree. What he actually did, we don't know, but lots of people think he was a spy, kind of a prototype James Bond without the gadgets and with a codpiece.

Regardless of his other employments, he was an incredibly popular and influential playwright. He wrote in blank verse, which is just unrhymed iambic pentameter - like Shakespeare - and was one of the first ones to do it. Only two of his works were actually published during his lifetime (they were all performed and continue to be performed); everything else was published posthumously. In addition to plays, he wrote some poems and translations of Latin works. His drama is what we're most interested in, but we'll mention a couple of his poems near the end of our little lesson here.

His Plays

Since Marlowe didn't actually have too many plays to his name because his life was cut tragically short, as we'll soon discuss, it's actually possible to talk about everything that he wrote. So, we're going to do it!

Dido, Queen of Carthage (1587)

This is believed to be Marlowe's first performed play, although record-keeping was not so hot back then, so we can never be sure. It's based on three early books of the Roman poet Virgil's epic The Aeneid. It's about a crazy queen who falls in love with Virgil's hero, Aeneas, and, when he spurns her to continue on his mission, she commits suicide. We can already see that Marlowe didn't really shy away from racy and offensive themes - he just dove right in. This was first performed by a company of young boy actors sometime between 1587-1593.

Tamburlaine the Great (1587)

This is Marlowe's first proper London production, probably in 1587. This again takes on classical source material; Tamburlaine is about an Asian emperor Timur the Lame (which sounds a lot like Tamburlaine). He kind of clawed his way up from being a shepherd to being a ruler. Scholars celebrate this play as a turning point in Elizabethan drama because it introduces rich language, complex plotting, and complex themes - things that hadn't really been seen before on the London stage. It was so successful that it was followed by a sequel, and these two plays were the only ones that were actually published during his lifetime.

The Jew of Malta (1592)

Not an awesome name by today's standards; this was first performed in 1592. It tells the tale of a merchant, the titular Jew named Barabas, who basically plots revenge against Malta, which is the country where he lives, because they made him penniless. They stole all of his stuff. It's got these political and ethical complications that make one of Marlowe's favorite themes - ambiguous protagonists - super relevant to this play. His good guys aren't always good - they don't always seem to be perfectly good - but we kind of sympathize with them anyway, even if they're (gasp) Jewish. This one's one of those ones that's hard to read - we're not sure what audiences would have made of it then or what Marlowe intentions really were with this character. What we do know is that it definitely influenced Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, which is also about a Jewish merchant getting his revenge.

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