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Doctor Faustus: About the Playwright

By Marlo M. Ihler
From Insights, 2005

 

Christopher Marlowe, dramatist and poet, was born in Canterbury, England, February 6, 1564, the same year as William Shakespeare. Generally considered the founder of English drama and the father of dramatic blank verse, he prepared the way for Shakespeare and other Elizabethan poets and dramatists.

Details of his early life are limited: he was raised in a middle-class family as the son of a shoemaker. Just prior to his fifteenth birthday, he secured a coveted opening at the prestigious King's School in Canterbury where he attended on scholarship. Here he received a rigorous education, receiving highly-rated training in religion, music, Latin, Greek, classic literature, writing, and history.

He continued his education at Corpus Christi College (then Benet College) in Cambridge where he received his B.A. in 1584 and his M.A. in 1587. According to school records, his normally consistent attendance was often interrupted by frequent absences during his last years of school, jeopardizing his master's degree. This, in addition to his refusal to take holy orders into the Anglican Church as his scholarship required, resulted in the university officials' refusal to award his degree. However, Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council intervened in his favor, and the degree was finally granted.

Due to the Queen's special intervention on his behalf, it is believed that Marlowe was affiliated with her secret service, an intelligence and diplomatic operation and the most successful espionage network of the day (http://www.marlowe-society.org, 2005). He assisted in uncovering plots against the queen by the Catholics who wanted her off the throne, the most famous being the Babington Plot.

Marlowe moved to London following his schooling, where, again, little is known about his life. It is known that here he began his career as a playwright and actor for the Lord Admiral's Company, and may have continued as a spy in the service of the queen. He also became associated with a colorful and intellectual social circle that called themselves The School of the Night or Free-Thinkers. Sir Walter Raleigh and the young earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, led this group of “advanced-thinking” noblemen, scientists, travelers, philosophers, and poets (http://www.marlowe-society.org, 2005). They met secretly to discuss forbidden topics and thus were considered atheists by many.

In 1593, following torture by the Queen's Privy Council, a one-time friend and fellow playwright, Thomas Kyd, accused Marlowe of heresy and atheism, a most serious crime. But before he could be brought before the council, the twenty-nine year old poet and playwright was stabbed to death at an inn in Deptford in an argument over the bill. There is reason to believe, however, that Marlowe may have been deliberately provoked and murdered in order to prevent his arrest, which could have led to the implication of important men such as Raleigh (http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc24.html, 2005).

Marlowe's untimely death brought an end to his short but brilliant career. His writings include seven plays, the four most important being Tamburlaine the Great (Parts 1 and 2) (1586-87), The Jew of Malta (1589), Edward II (1592) and Doctor Faustus (1592-93). Other works include translations of the Latin poets Ovid and Lucan, and the mythological poem Hero and Leander (1593), which was completed by George Chapman. His education shaped him into an innovative genius who first conceived and created blank verse drama. This is why Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: “If Shakespeare is the dazzling sun of this mighty period, Marlowe is certainly the morning star” (http://www.marlowe-society.org, 2005).

Marlowe's dramas consist of heroic themes that usually focus on characters who are destroyed by their own ambitions and passions. Tamburlaine the Great caused the greatest excitement among his contemporaries. Its gallant theme, splendid blank verse, and the color and scale of its pageantry led to its constant revival, with the great English actor Edward Alleyn of the Lord Admiral's Company taking the role of Tamburlaine. Alleyn also played the lead roles in The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus.

The Jew of Malta may be considered the first successful tragi-comedy, and provided inspiration for Shakespeare's ShylockMost authorities detect influences of Marlowe's writings in other works of Shakespeare, specifically Titus Andronicus and Henry VI.

Edward II is considered probably the earliest successful historical drama. It contains superior verse and the compelling portrayal of a flawed and weak ruler. This play paved the way for the histories of Shakespeare, such as Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V.

Of all of Marlowe's works that made him one of the most prominent Elizabethan dramatists, Doctor Faustus has remained the most famous. The story of Faust is a prevalent and an important one in literature, having been told and retold throughout the centuries. Marlowe's Faust powerfully exemplifies the intellectual aspirations of the Renaissance, but he recognizes and is haunted by their vanity and sinfulness. In his thirst for knowledge and power, he discards orthodox methods and turns to magic and less reputable means to satiate his desires, eventually selling his soul to the devil. The outcome is ruin, tragedy, and damnation (The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, fifth edition, Vol. 1, p. 1829)

Marlowe's writings are important, not only because of the skill with which he wrote, but also for his artistic and imaginative genius. He returned high poetry to its rightful place on the stage and left us characters as fiery and passionate as their creator, preparing the way for other great dramatists to follow (http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc24.html, 2005).


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