“Danger’s the chiefest way to happiness.”
—Guise, The Massacre of Paris
The most outrageous of the great English dramatic poets, his brilliant theater career and life came to a violent end at the age of twenty-nine. He left seven plays, among them Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II, The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II, five poems, and extensive translations of Ovid and Lucan. Not a single one of his works survives in manuscript, and only one was published during his lifetime. Christopher Marlowe’s contribution to dramatic literature was understood early. He gave English theater a new voice by bringing blank verse with its speech rhythms to the popular stage. He introduced a cast of exotic characters never previously seen: a Scythian warrior who conquers half of Asia, a German scholar who sells his soul to the Devil, a gay English king who falls in love with one of his male courtiers, a Maltese Jew, and an African queen, all of whom must have astounded the spectators with their physical appearance and their foreign ways. Shakespeare, who was two months younger, worked for the same theater company, and knew both his plays and poems, wrote his own great plays after Marlowe’s death.
Marlowe was an enigmatic figure with a reputation as a homosexual and an atheist that has long outlived him. The evidence of his impiety comes from passages in his plays and from oral reports that have him blaspheming that Saint John the Evangelist was a bedfellow to Christ and that the archangel Gabriel was a pimp for the Holy Ghost. And yet, despite his notoriety, we have little reliable information about his life. He was born on February 26, 1564, in Canterbury, the ancient spiritual capital of England and a place of pilgrimage to the famous cathedral where Thomas à Becket was assassinated in 1170. The son of a poor shoemaker whose parents were farmers, Marlowe grew up among dark, narrow streets smelling of the nearby cattle market and the butcher’s stalls where the animals were slaughtered. There were eight other children. A diligent student, he won a scholarship at the age of fourteen to the prestigious King’s School in Canterbury and, a year later, to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he was to receive both a BA and an MA degree.
While still at the university, he found patronage and employment as a government spy in the shady world of Elizabethan politics. When Cambridge threatened to withhold his master’s degree in 1587 because of his frequent absences from classes, the Queen’s Privy Council, the highest and most powerful government institution, wrote to say that he had done her majesty “good service” and deserved to be awarded his degree. It appears that he was recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham, the head of Elizabeth’s spy network, and most likely used first as a courier to France and the Low Countries before becoming an informer about the political and religious views among the circles of Englishmen living and studying abroad. Whatever duties he actually performed for his spymasters, Marlowe began to live a complex double life in a world in which secrecy, duplicity, betrayal, and danger were the rule and where he, like everyone else, had to pretend to be what he was not.
The world of espionage and intrigue Marlowe entered was already a kind of theater with a vast cast of characters that came from some of the most distinguished families in England, and included diplomats of several countries, war profiteers, spies on various payrolls, ambitious military men, assassins, torturers, itinerant clergymen, and small-time crooks, all caught in the maze of interlocking plots to either defend or depose the Queen. The arts of cunning and deceit were required for agents to survive. Greedy for honor and profit is how they were described by one suspicious spymaster.
Everyone took bribes so that most professions of loyalty were suspect. There were informers even in colleges. We don’t know whether Marlowe betrayed someone at Cambridge, but it’s not farfetched to suppose that the rumors of some such possibility first caught the attention of his future employers, as they would have in the Soviet Union and other such regimes. With the Protestant–Catholic struggle consuming the politics of the day, there was need for men who could pass themselves off as modest scholars and poets while disguising their true motives. Marlowe, for his part, must have observed his employers and their other agents. In his plays he is fascinated by the lust for power, the sham morality of the powerful, and the fate of the innocent whose lives are sacrificed in the name of some cause or some man’s ambition in the centuries-old tragicomic play we call history.
In 1589 Marlowe was charged with murder and sent to Newgate Prison, but released two weeks later after another man was found guilty. On other occasions, he was arrested for street-fighting, and he was deported from the Netherlands for counterfeiting gold coins. At the time of his death, in a tavern brawl in May 1593, he was about to be indicted and most likely sent to prison after his former roommate, the dramatist Thomas Kyd, confessed under torture that a document full of blasphemies in his possession was the work of Marlowe. As for his death, there are strong reasons to believe that it was the result of political intrigue. The coroner’s inquest states that the dispute was about who should pay the bill, that the murder weapon, which belonged to his friend Ingram Frizer, was first wrenched by Marlowe from its owner and then turned against him in self-defense by Frizer, who stabbed him above the right eye. All of this begins to sound implausible after we learn that one of the four men present was a senior intelligence operative who watched all this without attempting to break up the fight and that Marlowe was buried two days later in an unmarked grave while the killer shortly afterward received a pardon from the Queen.
Most scholars believe that Marlowe translated Ovid’s Amores in 1584–1585 while he was still at Cambridge. His decision to make the first translation of these poems, universally regarded as pornographic, into English was an act of uncommon gall. His translations were subsequently banned by the censors and the book was publicly burned in 1599. Ovid’s poems were not only erotic; they were scandalous in other ways. He treats all received ideas with irreverence. As his great twentieth-century translator, Peter Green, said:
He could, by turns and without effort, assume the roles, or masks (personae), of devoted lover, social butterfly, avuncular rake, cynical Don Juan, literary gossip and praeceptor (as a change from desultor) amoris.1
Marlowe treated Ovid as a contemporary, someone who felt about the world as he did. He not only reproduced his astonishing conversational fluency, he also innovated by translating the unrhymed Latin distiches into heroic couplets.
If Spencer was regarded as the English Virgil, Marlowe identified himself with his opposites, with poets who mocked imperial Rome. As David Quint has written:
There are two rival traditions of epic: the first is associated with Virgil and the epics of the imperial victors, and the second is associated with Lucan and the epics of the defeated. The victors experience history as a coherent, end-directed story, and the losers experience history as contingency and open-endedness.2
Marlowe’s finest poem, Hero and Leander (1592–1593), is another erotic narrative in the manner of Ovid, while his plays, whose plots deal with mad ambition and its consequences, owe much to Lucan, whom he also translated. These two anti-imperial Roman poets both paid dearly in the end for having a big mouth; and this may have been the case with Marlowe himself.
When it was first performed in London in 1587, Tamburlaine the Great was such a huge success that Marlowe had to write a sequel. It was unlike any play previously produced on the Elizabethan stage. Marlowe, as T.S. Eliot said, got into blank verse the melody of Edmund Spenser and freed it from the rhymed couplets of Henry Howard Surrey. Already in the prologue to Part I, we hear a confident new voice. The author blows his own trumpet while making fun of his contemporaries’ mechanical rhythms (“jigging”) and their simplistic rhymes:
From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
View but his picture in this tragic glass,
And then applaud his fortunes as you please.
The theater will be like a looking glass he will hold before the spectators so that they may see themselves for what they are. Unlike his didactic contemporaries, he will pass no judgment on the action. The play will be a place where an uncensored view of life is presented and not a pretext for an object lesson in morality. Marlowe knew that what he was about to show was bound to astonish. The plot of Tamburlaine the Great was based on the life of the fourteenth-century Tartar ruler Timur (1336–1405). After ascending to the throne in Samarkand in 1369, he subjugated most of Persia, Georgia, and all the states between the Indus and the lower Ganges (1398).
Timur seized Damascus and Syria from the Mameluke sultan of Egypt, then defeated the Turks at Angora (1402), taking Sultan Beyazid prisoner. Even by the cruel standards of warfare in his time, Timur’s military campaigns were famous for their savagery. “Drown them all, man, woman, and child./Leave not a Babylonian in the town,” Tamburlaine advises one of his generals in the play. Timur destroyed Delhi, slaughtered 80,000 of its inhabitants, and built pyramids out of their skulls. He died while leading an army of 200,000 men to invade China.
In the Elizabethan period his conquests were well known, and many versions of his life were available. Marlowe, who read both Latin and French, knew several of them. Among Protestants, Timur, a Muslim, was regarded as an agent of a wrathful God sent to defeat the Turkish sultan. Marlowe’s play chronicles the many battles he fought, the countries he subjugated, the kings he slew, and the innocents he slaughtered. The Shakespeare Theatre Company production in Washington, D.C., brilliantly condenses the two original plays, each containing five acts, into a fast-paced, visually spectacular, lavishly costumed two-act play. Tamburlaine the Great is a story of a Scythian shepherd who with fixity of purpose, brutality, and what his enemies describe as his “dreaming prophecies” makes himself into one of the great conquerors in history. “Our souls,” Tamburlaine believes,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
“A god is not so glorious as a king,” one of his followers assures him.
I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven
Cannot compare with kingly joys in earth.
Despite more violence than a Tarantino movie, the play at times borders on farce. Jones, the first publisher of Tamburlaine, admits omitting some comic scenes which he regarded as being inappropriate in so “honorable and stately a history.” In Elizabethan times, as we know, tragedies were performed in the course of an afternoon’s entertainment, which included the appearance of clowns, jugglers, and men performing feats of strength. Some of that spirit is in Michael Kahn’s inventive production, making the play both exhilarating and disconcerting to watch. When Tamburlaine feasts, he has the defeated Turkish sultan brought in a cage to watch him and be fed table scraps. After he conquers Babylon, he has his chariot drawn by the three captured Turkish kings. Throughout the play, Tamburlaine and his henchmen get their laughs by humiliating or torturing someone.
Ovid, The Erotic Poems, translated by Peter Green (Penguin, 1982), p. 65.↩
The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe, edited by Patrick Cheney (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 121.↩