Five Fascinating Facts about Christopher Marlowe
Curious trivia about playwright Christopher Marlowe
1. Christopher Marlowe was a pioneer of the Elizabethan theatre. He influenced Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s biographer Jonathan Bate has even suggested that Marlowe and Shakespeare became locked in a competition, where each influenced the other. Marlowe was just two months older than Shakespeare: he was born in Canterbury in February 1564, the son of a shoemaker. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (part one of a two-parter) is thought to be one of the first English plays written in blank verse – that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter.
2. Christopher Marlowe didn’t exactly die in a tavern brawl, as is widely believed. The circumstances surrounding Marlowe’s death are a little more complicated. It’s often said that he died when he was stabbed in a bar brawl over the bill, but in fact the house in which the playwright met his end was a dining-house (not a tavern) owned by a woman named Eleanor Bull, and the men he was with were somewhat sinister and suspicious figures – it’s even been suggested that he was deliberately killed on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Francis Walsingham.
3. Marlowe’s atheism got him into hot water with the authorities – and indirectly led to the early death of a fellow playwright. Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy (and possibly the original Hamlet play on with Shakespeare based his masterpiece), was tortured into giving them information about Marlowe’s beliefs. A broken man, Kyd died, probably of his wounds, within a year.
4. Marlowe may have been a government spy. Numerous rumours have grown up around Marlowe, and it has been speculated that he was a spy for Francis Walsingham, who worked for Queen Elizabeth I. Certainly it’s suggestive that the government intervened when the University of Cambridge seemed on the brink of withholding Marlowe’s Master’s degree from him (on the grounds that he was suspected of going to Rheims to train as a Roman Catholic priest following the awarding of his degree); the government referred to unspecified ‘affaires’ in which Marlowe had assisted the state.
5. Christopher Marlowe’s work has inspired some memorable book titles. Aldous Huxley’s 1923 novel Antic Hay borrows its title from Marlowe’s history play, Edward II: ‘My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns, shall with their goat feet dance the antic hay’. More recently, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novel The Wench Is Dead took its title from a phrase uttered in The Jew of Malta.
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Image: Portrait dated 1585 and thought to be of Christopher Marlowe, via Wikimedia Commons.