The Enigma of Christopher Marlowe

Everyone has heard of William Shakespeare, even if they know little about him or have seen none of his plays, but few people have heard of his fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe. While his exact contemporary, boosted by his university education, Marlowe began writing well before Shakespeare and was already the toast of London theatre when Shakespeare arrived there. Yet despite his fame during his own lifetime, the perception of his character today has been greatly coloured by his reported violent death.

With his dark and mysterious reputation, I found Marlowe fascinating and made him a major character in my novel Not Wisely but Too Well where he has a profound impact on Shakespeare’s life and work.

While there are several purported portraits of Shakespeare, we have only one reputed to be of Marlowe. It was uncovered in his old Cambridge College, Corpus Christi, and the story behind its rediscovery is as enigmatic as its subject, as I recount in What nourishes me, destroys me. Is this a portrait of Christopher Marlowe?

Marlowe was born only two months before Shakespeare, also to a father in a leather trade, but while there are many similarities in their lives, there are also wide divergences. Although, in reality, we know more about Marlowe’s life than Shakespeare’s, Marlowe is still an enigma. In Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, I examine Marlowe’s complicated life, explore the parallels and divergences between his life and Shakespeare’s and ask why their reputations are so different today.

In A Sound Machiavel: The Plays of Christopher Marlowe, I look at his powerful plays and their Machiavellian anti-heroes. Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’ reinvigorated blank verse, laying the foundations for Shakespeare and greatly influencing his own plays and their language. So similar is their work that many of Marlowe’s fans, the Marlovians, believe that ‘Shakespeare’ is in fact Marlowe. They maintain that Marlowe escaped his reported death and went into hiding in Europe where he continued to write plays which were sent back to England to be staged by Shakespeare under his own name. In A Fateful Day in Deptford: the ‘death’ of Christopher Marlowe, I look closely at the events surrounding Marlowe’s reported violent death and ask whether it is possible that the Marlovians might be right about what actually happened that day.

Although they might dispute the reasons for his death, most of Marlowe’s biographers are content to accept the coroner’s conclusion that Marlowe died as a result of a fight he instigated, their assessment of his character being strongly influenced by violent incidents in his past. However, in Christopher Marlowe’s History of Violence, I examine whether they are truly justified in coming to this conclusion.

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