Christopher Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker. He attended King’s School in Canterbury and then, by winning an Archbishop Parker scholarship, he studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree which should have been followed three years later by a Master’s degree. To earn a Master’s, Marlowe was expected to take orders. That he didn’t, and that the university only awarded Marlowe the Masters after receiving a letter from the Privy Council, speaks to mysteries and uncertainties in Marlowe’s activities while at Cambridge. During the time when he was ostensibly studying for his Master’s, Marlowe left Cambridge for extended lengths of time. His destinations and actions during these frequent absences remain unknown. However, the Privy Council reassured the university by letter in which it declared that Marlowe was working for England’s benefit and for the Queen’s good service. Some scholars believe that this service involved spying against expatriate Roman Catholics (and their conspiracies against Elizabeth) in Rheims. That Marlowe’s work remains a mystery suggests that it was deliberately kept secret by the government.
His post-graduate public career began when he left Cambridge for London. There, he may have continued his work for the government, but he certainly began writing plays. His Tamburlaine the Great (1590) proved a great success and heralded the new age of great Elizabethan Theater, directly influencing its flowering. Marlowe was one of the first playwrights to use blank verse; Thomas Kyd (1558- 1594) imitated it in The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1585). Marlowe’s style was astounding; his title characters and his plays’ actions are larger than life—almost incomprehensively so. Edward II was a powerful monarch who was also flawed and ultimately deposed (though it is unclear whether or not Marlowe wrote a play called Edward II); the Jew of Malta was phenomenally wealthy yet morally bankrupt; Dr. Faustus is a demigod in his magical powers who heedlessly diminishes and damns himself. Faustus aspires to a dominion that stretches “as far as doth the mind of man” (I.i.61) but ultimately wishes to be changed to a dumb beast.
Marlowe’s own character may have been as compelling and ambiguous as those in his plays. Suspicion surrounded him, and friends and acquaintances denounced him for atheism or leanings toward the Roman Catholic faith. In 1593, Thomas Kyd, with whom Marlowe at one time shared lodgings, testified that Marlowe read atheistical texts, upon which testimony Marlowe was arrested for heresy, or atheism (which was then a crime). He was not brought to trial, nor even imprisoned. Instead, he was released on the condition that he report to an officer of the court. Within days of his release, Marlowe was killed by Ingram Frizer (d. 1627). Apparently, the two fought over a lodging house bill, and Frizer fatally stabbed Marlowe in the forehead. Frizer served Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532-1590) who ran an intelligence service. Some scholars believe Frizer assassinated Marlowe for being a spy, or counter-spy. But no evidence has proven such conjectures.
We do know that Marlowe was an extraordinary artist and playwright, one who certainly influenced his contemporaries, including William Shakespeare—who also created a famously-divided character (like Dr. Faustus) in his Hamlet and an avaricious, vengeful Jew in his Shylock. And in his Sonnet 29, when Shakespeare acknowledges envy for “this man’s art,” it does not take much stretch of the imagination to wonder if he may have had Marlowe in mind.