The Comedic and Tragic Life of Christopher Marlowe
One of the most famous and shadowy figures in the history of the Elizabethan stage is that of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. Unlike Shakespeare, whose plays tend to be quite character-driven, Marlowe wrote extremely rhetorical, highly poetical works with elevated language and elaborate feats of stagecraft. Marlowe was a university-educated man with complex ties to the government and politics of the period. In contrast, Shakespeare's father was a glove maker, although politically a fairly prominent member of his community, and Shakespeare never attended university, only the common school of his town. Marlowe's concern with power and society's elite is reflected not only in the language of his plays, but also in terms of his play's subject matter. This is reflected in his most famous works, such as "Dr. Faustus" and "Tamburlaine." Marlowe is often studied as an example of a literary influence upon the early Shakespeare. But because Marlowe's style is so different in tone and so divergent in subject matter, he exists more as an interesting historical curiosity in his own right, as an individual playwright of note, outside of Shakespeare's own theatrical history. Simply seeing him as an influence of the later, greater playwright also tends to reduce the considerable differences between the two men's careers and lives.
One of the most substantial differences between Marlowe and Shakespeare is the fact that historians know a fair amount about Marlowe, considering he was an individual of the 16th century (when record keeping was fairly shaky), in contrast to the shadowy Shakespeare. Marlowe was born in the same year as Shakespeare, the son of a cobbler, but it was there the early social similarities between the two men end. (Steane 11) Marlowe was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge University. It was expected that individuals who obtained the scholarship would take holy orders. However, Marlowe had lost his faith. He decided to leave Cambridge and go to London to become a playwright. Unlike Shakespeare, there are no records that Marlowe ever performed as an actor on the stage or was a 'sharer' in any theatrical company. Although it is not surprising today for actors not to perform in their own work, in Elizabethan companies the practice was expected. (Gurr 19-20) For instance, Shakespeare performed the role of the ghost in his "Hamlet." Also, the fact that he died "better off than many of his fellow-dramatists is probably more due to his share in the company," than his efforts as an actor or a writer. (20)
Marlowe seemed intent upon holding himself slightly aloof from the common theatrical scene. He was neither an actor nor a shareholder. His first play was "Tamburlaine," an epic play in two parts about a barbaric ruler who attempts to conquer the world. This absence from the stage may have been because occupied with other matters besides acting or writing. Marlowe's departure from the university caused a considerable amount of dislike for him amongst the university authorities. The Queen's Council intervened on his behalf, saying that the reason for Marlowe's frequent absences from his studies was "he had been serving Her Majesty" who recognized "his merit" and "did not wish him to be published." (Steane 11). This is the first clue that Marlowe may have been involved in espionage work for England, a possible cause of his early death in a tavern brawl.
His absences may have had something to do as well with his dislike of Catholicism, a common trope in many of his plays. Two of his most famous plays are set in pagan times, that of "Tamburlaine" and "Dido, Queen of Carthage." These plays dealt with pagan subjects common in a university education of the time, where individuals were expected to learn Latin and Greek. Shakespeare's more spotty and flexible use of classical names, stories, and settings has often been remarked upon, sometimes disparagingly, sometimes as a source for Shakespeare's creativity. Certainly, Marlowe's use of the Classical Era is far more exact than is Shakespeare's, although Marlowe's use of the Classics is not necessarily more reverential. Others of Marlowe's plays are openly irreligious, such as "Dr. Faustus." At the beginning of the play that bears his name, Faustus throws down the Finally, Faustus throws down the books in frustration and exclaims: "What doctrine call you this? Ce sera, sera. / What will be, shall be?' Divinity adieu!" (1.2.27-28) Even…