100 Heroes: Christopher Marlowe

The gay man who helped shaped Elizabethan literature.

100 Heroes: Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe, also known as Kit Marlowe, was an English playwright, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era.

Marlowe's work greatly influenced William Shakespeare.

Marlowe's plays are known for the use of blank verse and their overreaching protagonists.

Early life

Marlowe was born in Canterbury. His date of birth isn't known, but he was baptised in early 1564 so is likely to have been born soon before that.

He studied at Cambridge University.


Of the dramas attributed to Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage is believed to have been his first. It was performed by the Children of the Chapel, a company of boy actors, between 1587 and 1593. The play was first published in 1594 - the title page attributes the play to Marlowe and Thomas Nashe.

Marlowe's first play performed on the regular stage in London in 1587, was Tamburlaine the Great, about the conqueror Timur, who rises from shepherd to warlord. It's among the first English plays in blank verse, and is considered one of the plays that mark the beginning of the mature phase of the Elizabethan theatre. Tamburlaine was a success and was followed by Tamburlaine the Great, Part II.

The two parts of Tamburlaine were published in 1590. All Marlowe's other works were published posthumously. The sequence of the writing of his other four plays is unknown - they all deal with controversial themes.

The Jew of Malta, about the Jew Barabas' barbarous revenge against the city authorities, has a prologue delivered by a character representing Machiavelli. It was probably written in 1589 or 1590 and was first performed in 1592. It was a success and remained popular for the next fifty years.

Edward the Second is an English history play about the deposition of King Edward II by his barons and the Queen, who resent the undue influence the king's favourites have in court and state affairs.

The Massacre at Paris is a short work portraying the events of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, which English Protestants invoked as the blackest example of Catholic treachery.

Doctor Faustus, based on the German Faustbuch, was the first dramatised version of the Faust legend of a scholar's dealing with the devil.

Mystery and death

Little is known of Marlowe, but there is plenty of speculation. One commonly held theory is that he was engaged as a spy for England, and was often engaged on surreptitious missions across Europe.

Marlowe was killed in 1593, stabbed by Ingram Frizer in what was reported by the coroner to be a fight over an unpaid bill. However, numerous scholars have raised doubts about the coroner's report and the true circumstances remain a bit of a mystery.

Personal life

While there is still some debate, it's generally accepted that Marlowe was a gay man.

He is quoted as having said: "all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fools".

In Hero and Leander, Marlowe writes of the male youth Leander: "in his looks were all that men desire..."

Edward the Second contains the following passage enumerating homosexual relationships:

The mightiest kings have had their minions;
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patroclus, stern Achilles drooped.
And not kings only, but the wisest men:
The Roman Tully loved Octavius,
Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.

Marlowe was the first to write a play about the life of Edward II. The play was extremely bold, dealing with a star-crossed love story between Edward II and Piers Gaveston.

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