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Christopher Marlowe: Heady Murder, Spoil And Villainy

Jul 18, 2008
Born in Canterbury in 1564, Christopher Marlowe would go on to capture the Elizabethan stage with his vibrant and often erotic plays. Drenched in sex, sin and sensational language, before Shakespeare had managed to get a foothold on the playhouses of the South Bank, Marlowe had arrived, achieved amazing success and then been stabbed through the eye in a barroom brawl... the man who killed him, it must be added, got off for self defence.

Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe went to university and, thanks to wealthy patronage, was enrolled at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Here is where Marlowe's colourful life and work first begins to take shape.

An anarchic student, when he wasn't drinking with other poets and playwrights like Robert Greene and Thomas Nash, Marlowe was embroiled in claims of spying and counter spying in Reims, an area of Northern France where many Catholic conspiracies were concocted.

Initially being denied his degree by the university, the highest tier of government, the Privy Council, got involved and insisted that Cambridge issue him with the MA. What service, we may ask ourselves, had Marlowe done in order to win favours from the English authority?

Marlowe's first literary works began to emerge whilst still an undergraduate. He translated the Roman poet Ovid and began work on his first play Dido, Queen of Carthage. This drama focusses heavily on events described in Virgil's Aeneid and opens with Jupiter, the king of the gods, "dandling the infant Ganymede upon his knee" and whispering "Come, gentle Ganymede, and play with me." Can you imagine anyone getting away with that today?

When Marlowe's plays are put on at the theatres of the South Bank, his penchant for the debauched shows no sign of slowing down. Edward II ends with the vicious murder of the king by the assassin Lightborn. As Edward is despised for his weakness at the hands of his supposed homosexual relationship with his "favourite" Piers Gaveston, Lightborn (a play on the name 'Lucifer' - the bringer of the light) enters Edward's cell and murders him by ramming a red hot poker into his backside.

Of course, it's not just fruity story lines that Marlowe is famous for. His poetic language and structure has influenced some of England's most celebrated drama. "The Mighty Line" is how his admirers often refer to his verse because of its robust and rhythmical nature. It is true that Marlowe did not invent what we call today 'blank verse' (a line that is unrhymed and contains five stresses - "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships") but he certainly mastered it. And his poetic imagination certainly influenced writers like Shakespeare.

In the Jew of Malta Marlowe has the beautiful, young Abegail step out onto a balcony above her father Barabas who then asks: "But stay, what star shines yonder in the east? | The loadstar of my life, if Abigail." Shakespeare borrows this for his famous scene in Romeo and Juliet when, in the second scene of act two, Romeo sees Juliet walk out onto her balcony and speaks the immortal: "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? | It is the east, and Juliet is the sun."

Marlowe's most famous play is arguably Dr Faustus, a tragedy about the Wittenberg scholar who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for 24 years of magical powers. Inspiring works of drama, literature, opera and even an episode of the Simpsons, Marlowe's version of the story, though not the original, is probably the most famous.

Controversial throughout its 400 year history, Dr Faustus is troubling and thought-provoking but undeniably a work of vivid genius. The popularity of the play and its continuing appeal is what seems to be at the heart of all of Marlowe's oeuvre. That is to say, his work and reputation have an intensity that defies the problems that they harbour. His style may be dark and dangerous to look at but, like Faustus, we cannot fail to still be intrigued by the power that he harnesses.

Dying at just 30, it seems impossible to imagine what he would have produced if he had lived as long as Shakespeare; and, indeed, it may be impossible to know what position this unruly and truly wild dramatist would command in the history of English literature today. He may not be the most level-headed or morally sound role model but he is an intriguing artist that can no more be ignored today as he could when he was alive.
About the Author
Samantha is a London theatre fanatic and regular West End theatregoer. She writes and researches some of the biggest London shows you can view examples of her work here Oliver and Show and Stay.
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