“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.

Marlowe makes his audience uncomfortable. Who are these high-spirited, honey-tongued psychopaths who spout great poetry and kill thousands with a smile? We used to dismiss them as barbarians. Today, watching the play, we are not in a position to feel so morally superior. The same countries and cities Tamburlaine lays waste are still with us today, and so are men who take pleasure in destruction. In the most shocking scene of the play, Tamburlaine burns the Muslim holy books and defies Mohammed to strike him down for doing so, and then mocks him when he does not.

No wonder Marlowe’s contemporaries saw the play, which in its full version is no kinder to Christians, as an atheist manifesto. “What can be smashed should be smashed; what will stand the blow is good; what will fly into smithereens is rubbish,” is how the Russian critic Dmitri Pisarev defined nihilism in the mid-nineteenth century. Marlowe had the same disdain for tradition and authority as Pisarev, but he understood better what the full consequences of such beliefs are.

Playing Tamburlaine in Washington, Avery Brooks, with his good looks and his rich baritone, is a striking presence on the stage. He boasts:

I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains
And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about,
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.

Even in the rare moments when he shows affection for his long-suffering wife, Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian ruler, whom he had abducted and raped—though she has come to love him—he is scary. We know that what he loves more than any single human being is war, and what he loves about war is carnage. Other conquerors in history had their court intellectuals, theologians, and poets justify their slaughter of the innocent, but not this Scythian who knows he is alone against the whole world. As he explains to his son, Calyphas, who happens to have a moral sense and whom he despises as a coward:

Villain, art thou the son of Tamburlaine
And fear’st to die, or with a curtle-axe
To hew thy flesh and make a gaping wound?
Hast thou beheld a peal of ordnance strike
A ring of pikes, mingled with shot and horse,
Whose shattered limbs, being tossed as high as heaven,
Hang in the air as thick as sunny motes,
And canst thou, coward, stand in fear of death?
Hast thou not seen my horsemen charge the foe,
Shot through the arms, cut overthwart the hands,
Dyeing their lances with their streaming blood,
And yet at night carouse within my tent,
Filling their empty veins with airy wine
That, being concocted, turns to crimson blood,
And wilt thou shun the field for fear of wounds?

His son does not reply, but tells his two brothers, when they try to rouse him from bed, so he may join them and their father in some battle:

I know sir, what it is to kill a man.
It works remorse of conscience in me.
I take no pleasure to be murderous,
Nor care for blood when wine will quench my thirst.

Shortly after, his father, finding Calyphas unprepared for battle, stabs and kills him in front of his brothers, telling them:

…Since I exercise a greater name,
The scourge of God and terror of the world,
I must apply myself to fit those terms,
In war, in blood, in death, in cruelty,
And plague such peasants as resist in me
The power of heaven’s eternal majesty….
Ransack the tents and the pavilions
Of these proud Turks, and take their concubines.
Make them bury this effeminate brat,
For not a common soldier shall defile
His manly fingers with so faint a boy.

Tamburlaine, who starts out vowing to overthrow the gods, is defeated finally by his “servant death,” who previously used to wait on him and do his will. It first turned on him when it took away his wife, Zenocrate. Even as he himself falls ill, he continues to see it as his slave, “the ugly Monster Death,/Shaking and quivering, pale and wan for fear,” as he aims at him “his murdering dart.” Death is tear-thirsty, says one of his generals. Standing with his sons on a huge map of the world laid out on the palace floor, and pointing to them all the countries he has conquered and still hopes to conquer, Tamburlaine drops dead.

Is Tamburlaine a tragic figure? No, although Marlowe’s beautiful poetry makes us believe that against our better judgment. Here is the monster in a lyrical mood as his wife lies dying:

Black is the beauty of the brightest day!
The golden ball of heaven’seternal fire,
That danced with glory on the silver waves,
Now wants the fuel that inflamed his beams,
And all with faintness and for foul disgrace
He binds his temples with a frowning cloud,
Ready to darken earth with endless night.

Being a long, two-part play with a large cast, Tamburlaine has not had many revivals. In Tyrone Guthrie’s 1959 production, Donald Wolfit portrayed him as a barbaric, frightening, and increasingly insane hero. An earlier adaptation by Basil Ashmore had him as a Hitler figure. In Keith Hacks’s 1972 version for the Edinburgh Assembly Hall and Glasgow Citizen’s Theater, the set featured corpses on gallows and wheels. Terry Hand’s 1993 production at the Barbican in London also emphasized cruelty and blood. The temptation to turn the play into Grand Guignol is understandable, though, I believe, unnecessary, and Michael Kahn’s production in Washington on the whole avoided it. Marlowe’s words alone are eloquent enough. He wants us to take away from the play an understanding of the kind of evil human beings are capable of as they wage war. Preparing for battle, the Persian king, Mycetes, another reluctant warrior in the play, laments:

Accurst be he that first invented war!
They knew not, ah, they knew not simple men,
How those were hit by pelting cannon-shot
Stand staggering like a quivering aspen-leaf.


Edward the Second, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer is Marlowe’s last play and with Doctor Faustus his most often performed one. Divided into five acts, or more precisely into twenty-six short scenes, it recounts the fate of a fourteenth-century English king who loses his crown and life over a male lover. Edward neglects his royal duties in order to carry on with Piers Gaveston, a Frenchman his father banished from the court and whom he brought back from exile as soon as he became king. The powerful nobles and the Church are appalled and united in their determination to get rid of the upstart who is distracting the sovereign from affairs of state. They loathe everything about him, starting with his dapper look, his short Italian hooded cloak larded with pearl, and his Tuscan cap. Enemies are threatening England on all sides while their “brainsick” king dallies about the palace with his lover’s head resting on his shoulder. The pretty boy taunts the trailing nobles:

Base leaden earls, that glory in your birth,
Go sit home and eat your tenant’s beef,
And come not here to scoff at Gaveston,
Whose mounting thoughts did never creep so low
As to bestow a look on such as you.

It is bad enough that Gaveston is the King’s lover, but he, like Marlowe, is of humble origin. The more virulent the opposition to him, the more Edward wants him. This genuinely puzzles the nobles. “Why should you love him whom the world hates so?” they ask the King. “Because he loves me more than all the world,” is his reply. To their horror, Gaveston wants to turn the court into an unending bacchanal. At the very opening of the play, he tells of the kind of amusements he has planned for the King:

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please.
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive tree
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring, and there hard by,
One like Actaeon peeping through the grove
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of an hart,
By yelping hounds pulled down and seem to die.
Such things as these best please his majesty….

In the Washington production, which is set in 1920s England, his words come to life before our eyes as the dignified court turns into a transvestite nightclub filled with dancers. Things rapidly go downhill. The King locks up the bishop of Coventry who objects, confiscates his lands, and hands them over to Gaveston with several impressive titles thrown in. Outraged, the nobles divide into two parties, the smaller one siding with the King, the other, led by Roger Mortimer, determined to depose him. After much conniving with the help of the archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Isabelle, they manage to separate Gaveston from Edward and have him secretly killed. Civil war breaks out until the King is forced to give up his throne. With all the reversals, changing alliances, and frantic activity of the participants in the conspiracy, the plot gets to be a bit confusing until it becomes clear that Edward, who in the meantime has been reduced to a pathetic, self-pitying figure, is doomed.

Mortimer, his chief enemy, does not shirk from murdering him or anyone who stands in his way. He is a man much more driven by his inner demons than by practical considerations. Queen Isabelle’s story is different. Torn between her sense of duty as a wife in the face of cruel treatment by her husband, concerned about her young son’s future, she calculates that a dalliance with Mortimer and siding with the conspirators won’t hurt her or her son’s prospects.

Compared to Tamburlaine, Edward, Mortimer, and Isabelle have rich inner lives. Their complexity as characters has given much greater freedom to theater directors in how to interpret the play. Gaveston, for example, has been played as a “typical” Frenchman, impudent and frivolous in some productions; “King Eddie’s Whore,” in Bertolt Brecht’s 1924 adaptation; or wearing a white outfit in a 1989 production that made the audience think of Elvis Presley, while his foe Mortimer sported a Hitler moustache. Edward could be either a decadent weakling or an anguished figure, a “lamb encompassed by wolves.”

Gale Edwards’s decision to set the play in the Jazz Age and have the cast dressed in evening clothes and military uniforms of the period recalls Ian McKellan’s film of Richard III and has the feel of something already seen, already done. Despite some excellent performances in the large ensemble and several visually stunning scenes, the production doesn’t quite work for me. The idea of having the ghost of Gaveston make its appearance as a white angel in a gold shantung suit to hover over the King at the point of his death is not only in poor taste, but undermines the merciless logic and the shocking denouement of Marlowe’s play.

The ending is justly famous. Edward is kept in a dark dungeon up to his knees in water “wherein the filth of all the castle falls.” As his life draws to an end, he is like a man who has finally awakened from a dream:

Methinks I should revenge me of the wrongs
That Mortimer and Isabel have done.
But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

Unknown to him, Mortimer has summoned a hit man from abroad who brags that he has learned his trade in Naples where he was taught to poison flowers, pierce the windpipe with a needle point, and take a quill and blow a little powder into a sleeper’s ear. In a mockery of his sexuality, he kills Edward by inserting a red-hot poker into his anus. After disposing of the King and attaining the power he desired, Mortimer cannot stop killing, even when it is no longer in his interest to do so. He ignores the pleas of Edward III, the young heir to the throne, and murders his uncle, the dead king’s brother, whereupon the young king has him arrested. “Weep not for Mortimer,/That scorns the world” is his parting shot as he is being led away. The struggle for power and the misuse of power, Marlowe makes clear, often derive their momentum from hatreds and loves that have little to do with whatever reasons and explanations the ones in power deign to share with us.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is to be praised for putting on these two formidable plays and reminding us what an irreverent, troubling, and brilliant poet and playwright Marlowe still is.

This Issue

January 17, 2008