Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564, the year of William Shakespeare's birth. His father worked in Canterbury, England, as a cobbler, and Christopher was one of many children to be born into their middle-class household (Bakeless 3-30). After attending the King's School on a scholarship, he won another scholarship to attend Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Marlowe completed his BA degree in four years and then stayed on at Cambridge to work towards an MA. Students who did so were granted an extended scholarship—and were expected to take Holy Orders.
During the following three years, Marlowe began to absent himself from the college for weeks on end. Although such absences were not uncommon among BA students, Marlowe's spotty attendance seems to have earned the ire of the college administration. Rumors arose that Marlowe planned to defect to the Catholic seminary of Rheims, France. Amidst such rumors, it became a matter of the Queen's Council that Marlowe should receive his degree at graduation—the Privy Council conveyed to the college that Marlowe had been in government service all along. The evidence suggests that he had been serving England as a spy in Rheims.
When Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587, it was to write for the stage. Before the end of the year, both parts of his Tamburlaine were produced in London. The plays basked in a decidedly popular and vernacular spirit. Renaissance scholar David Riggs notes that the chaotic stage of Tamburlaine, featuring a blasphemer and murderer protagonist, "challenged the limits of public behavior" (220). In any case, Marlowe's debut earned him an excellent standing among contemporary playwrights. His plays, of a quality astonishing for a man in his twenties, constantly produced crowd-pleasing spectacles. In the following six years before his early death, Marlowe continued to achieve success through such works as Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and The Massacre at Paris.
The last part of Marlowe's life was violent and contains some suspicious coincidences. According to scholar Lisa Hopkins, while living near London in 1592, a year before his death, Marlowe appeared so threatening and was thought so dangerous by two constables of the town of Shoreditch (the suburb in which Marlowe lived and where the theatres for which he wrote were located) that they formally appealed for protection from him. As many researchers of Marlowe's life have noted, it is puzzling to consider what a person must do in order to make the police afraid of him. In September of that same year Marlowe was involved in a fight in his native Canterbury, attacking Williame Corkine with a sword and dagger. This year, too, was the one in which Marlowe's good friend Thomas Watson died. There is the possibility that during this time Marlowe had a relationship with Thomas Walsingham, nephew of the Sir Thomas Walsingham, who was the head of the spies in Queen Elizabeth's service. However, the relationship is by no means proved. It is a matter of record, however, that Marlowe was staying at Walsingham's country house in Scadbury at the time he was killed.
The circumstances of Marlowe's death provide much for speculation. On May 30, 1593, when Marlowe was only twenty-nine, he was feasting in a rented private room in a Deptford house (the home of Dame Eleanor Bull, not a tavern as is often recounted) with a group of four men. He reportedly quarreled with Ingram Friser (the personal servant of Sir Thomas Walsingham), who killed Marlowe on the spot by stabbing him above the right eye. Friser claimed self-defense and was pardoned shortly thereafter, despite the mysterious circumstances. David Riggs points out that the Queen herself had ordered Marlowe's death four days before (334). Was the Friser incident merely a coincidence? And how had Marlowe earned the anger of the Queen?
Two days after Marlowe's death, a man named Richard Baines sent a document to the police accusing Marlowe of blasphemy and homosexuality. Among other things, the document recounts Marlowe's barely concealed atheism, his public denouncement of faith, and his sacrilegious speech against Jesus himself. The document also notes that Marlowe was not content merely to keep these opinions to himself: at every opportunity, he supposedly tried to win men over to his views. His allegedly heretical views were in fact already known to the government. When the famous playwright Thomas Kyd—Marlowe's former roommate—was arrested in possession of blasphemous papers, Kyd confessed that he had received the documents from Marlowe. Seen in this light, the Queen's order and Marlowe's consequent death seem to be of a piece. Harold Bloom is convinced that Marlowe was "eliminated with maximum prejudice by Walsingham's Elizabethan Secret Service" (10).
If these events are linked, the details remain obscure. Allegations abound. Men reported that Marlowe was cruel, violent, homosexual, and foul-mouthed, cursing all the way to his last breath. Although these reports cannot be discounted easily, little conclusive evidence supports any of these allegations. As J. B. Steane puts it, "as for Marlowe the man, atheist and rebel or not, we have to acknowledge that there is no single piece of evidence that is not hearsay—only that there is a good deal of it, that it is reasonably consistent, and that on the other side there is no single fact or piece of hearsay known to us" (16). Who was Marlowe, really?
Further complicating our picture of Marlowe is the relationship between author and work. Marlowe's works have been interpreted as atheistic and blasphemous; they also have been understood as traditional and Christian. The two sides stand apart in their proximity to any picture of Marlowe's personal life. To be sure, an author does not necessarily write through autobiography or self-expression, or to communicate an ideological position. Yet, it is significant that the young poet, dead before his thirties, was a man who studied to take Holy Orders, who likely served his country in espionage missions, and who died violently under the taint of scandal. Such a colorful and ambiguous character cannot help but loom behind Marlowe's work. Where biography has relevance for literary interpretation, readers can profit from meeting the challenge of seeing Marlowe's plays from the perspective of his life; at the same time, one should remember that his works were intended for English audiences who did not know as much about his life as we do now.