The Jew of Malta | Study Guide

Christopher Marlowe

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Christopher Marlowe | Biography


Family and Education

Born in Canterbury, England, around February 26, 1564, Christopher Marlowe shares his birth year with playwright William Shakespeare and one of the forerunners of modern science, Galileo. While Marlowe's literary career was cut short by his death at age 29, works such as Tamburlaine the Great (written, c. 1587), The Jew of Malta (written, c. 1592), and Doctor Faustus (published 1604) firmly established him as one of the finest writing talents from the golden age of English literature that occurred during the Renaissance.

Marlowe was the eldest son of a shoemaker and was one of nine siblings. Despite the family's limited income, he received a first-rate education. After receiving a scholarship to attend the renowned King's School in Canterbury for his last two years of grammar school, he earned another scholarship to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. There he studied from 1580 to 1587, honing his skills in Latin translation and poetry and writing his first plays. He gained his bachelor of arts in 1584 and a master of arts (MA) three years later. Intriguingly, his MA was initially withheld based on a dangerous rumor.

Reportedly Marlowe had been absent from the university on occasion to study at the English Catholic seminary in Reims, France. Politics and religion were inseparable in English government, and the prevailing religion during Queen Elizabeth's reign (1558–1603) was Protestantism. Catholics were persecuted, and there were numerous Catholic plots to assassinate the queen. Study at the Catholic seminary would have implied Marlowe meant to enter the priesthood, disqualifying him from receiving his MA and placing him under suspicion of treason.

Nevertheless, his MA was awarded due to government intervention. The university received a letter from Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council stating that Marlowe had been employed "in matters touching the benefit of his country" and "had done Her Majesty good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing." The exact nature of that service remains unclear.

Literary Career

Marlowe's literary career spanned less than six years. In that short time, writing for the theater, he emerged as the first great author of blank verse and changed English drama forever. Blank verse is non-rhyming verse written in a rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. The most commonly chosen rhythm is iambic pentameter, which features 10 syllables to a line, with the stress on every other syllable. In poetry and prose, blank verse is intended to create a sense of grandeur by producing a formal rhythmic pattern with a musical flow. Marlowe's skillful use of blank verse in his two-part play Tamburlaine the Great transformed English poetry and brought a new level of maturity to Elizabethan theater. Authors such as Shakespeare would build on Marlowe's literary achievement, using blank verse throughout their plays. Marlowe himself authored seven plays, including one of the most acclaimed in the English language, Doctor Faustus.

Untimely Death

The events culminating in Marlowe's untimely death began with an accusation of atheism, meaning that he did not believe in the existence of God. Though some debate surrounds this claim, Marlowe may have belonged to a close circle of intellectuals—noblemen, courtiers, and commoners—who called themselves the Free-Thinkers. They formed an underground club, the School of Night, which met to discuss a wide range of subjects, many considered dangerous by the church and the Crown and therefore forbidden. A serious charge leveled at the Free-Thinkers was that of atheism, which the church considered heresy, or contrary to the church's beliefs. The penalty, if convicted, was to be burned at the stake.

Whether Marlowe truly subscribed to atheism or not remains open for debate. Multiple individuals accused him of it, although their motives were questionable. In particular Thomas Kyd, a fellow playwright, confirmed the accusation, but only under torture after his own arrest. Marlowe was arrested for atheism on May 20, 1593, but released with the provision that he report daily to the authorities. On May 27 a formal charge was presented in writing to the Privy Council. However, Marlowe was killed three days later—stabbed above the right eye—in what was described as a scuffle over a food bill as he ate and drank with three men: a high-ranking government agent and two others with links to espionage, or spying on a foreign government. What was at the heart of Marlowe's murder is still debated. Whether it was his alleged atheism or simply a falling out among friends, it ended Marlowe's life suddenly and tragically on May 30, 1593.

Marlowe left behind an impressive body of work surpassed in Elizabethan tragic drama solely by his contemporary William Shakespeare. However, with the exception of the two-part Tamburlaine the Great, published anonymously in 1590, Marlowe's works came into print only after his death.

Marlowe is regarded today as one of the greatest tragic playwrights of his times. Critics continue to speculate what this dramatist, born in the same year as William Shakespeare (1564) might have been capable of had he lived a full life. His memorable heroes—especially Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas—are hallmarks of the fascination with outsized characters in the world of Elizabethan drama. Marlowe's influence on the young Shakespeare was indubitable.

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