“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 …