The exact birthdate of Christopher Marlow is not known, but bearing in mind that baptism at the time took place quite soon after the actual birth to protect the infant from what was believed to be an eternal purgatory, there is reason to believe that he was born just a day or two before the date of his baptism, which took place on February 26th.
The year was 1564, and he is thus not only the same age as another immortal playwright of the time, William Shakespeare, they both this year, 2014, turn 450 years old.
He studied at King´s School in Canterbury where he was born, and after these studies he received a scholarship to attend Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, and it was here the first seeds to all the rumours which still today give fodder for speculations about Christopher Marlow and his doings were planted.
He received what was that times equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in 1584 without any problem, but when he three years later was to receive his master’s degree, the university put its heels down. The reason for this was a rumour that he intended to travel to Reims for studies to become a catholic priest.
At this moment it arrives a communication from the Privy Council of Elizabeth I, where it was stated that when Marlow did whatever he did to give rise to the rumour that he was going to attend a priest seminar, ha had acted loyally and faithfully served the Queen. WHAT he had actually done was never disclosed and has given rise to the speculation that still endures to this day, that Christopher Marlowe was part of the efficient network of spies that had been founded by Sir Francis Walshingham, chief of the intelligence service at the court of Elizabeth I. Marlow´s role as a spy has never been confirmed, but the letter itself confirmed that he indeed had had some kind of secretive mission on behalf of the Queen.
Christopher Marlowe was the greatest playwright and poet of his time, and served as an inspiration to among others William Shakespeare, who didn´t come to popular attention until after the death of Marlow, a fact that has served as fodder for one of the countless theories that exist around the identity of William Shakespeare.
Christopher was only active for seven years, but during these years, he managed to produce seven plays of which only Tamburlaine The Great and Tamburlaine The Great II, was published before his death in 1593.
The other plays are as follows:
Dido, The Queen of Carthage, which is believed to be his first play.
The Jew of Malta
Edward the Second
The Massacre at Paris
Just as is the case with William Shakespeare, very little is known about Christopher Marlow´s actual person. He has not only been assumed to have been a spy, but also an atheist – a sharp contrast to the allegations at the university, that he had plans to join a seminar to become a priest – homosexual, troublemaker, magician (which in a way any playwright is), forger, tobacco user (!) and last but not least, licentious and dissolute. Regardless of which of these allegations, if any, are true, it seems safe to say that Christopher Marlow left quite an impression on those who met him.
When it comes to the suggestion that he was a spy, no evidence that he was part of Walsingham’s network has ever been found, something which is to be expected, spies were not supposed to leave evidence behind, even for posterity. What does survive however are records showing that he spent far more time away from the university in Cambridge than what was actually allowed to be able to continue the studies, and maybe he during these periods was away on missions on behalf of Sir Francis Walshingham. What can also be seen in surviving documents is that when he returned after these periods, ha had more money to spend than his scholarship would have made possible.
So, what can these missions have consisted of? One theory that was lifted in 1937 was that the person Morley who in 1589 was tutor to Arabella Stuart – great great grandchild of Henry VII through his daughter Margaret – and a real threat to Elizabeth´s position, was in fact Marlow who was placed in the household to spy on the young pretender and the goings on around her person.
The year before his death, 1592, Christopher Marlow was arrested in Flushing in the Netherlands, accused of counterfeiting coins. He was sent back to England and was to be dealt with by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Lord High Treasurer. Nothing happened, however, not in the shape of a prison sentence or any other kind of punishment. One possibility is that the arrest terminated a mission as a spy that the court was very much aware of, and that the counterfeited coins had been part of that same mission.
On May 18th 1593 a warrant for Christopher Marlow´s arrest was issued. No explanation was given, but rumour had it that the reason was the distribution of heretical texts. On May 20th he was brought before the Privy Council, but no proof has been found by posterity that the Privy Council was even meeting on that day. Marlow was ordered to return every day until he was instructed to do otherwise.
Ten days later, on May 30th, Christopher Marlow was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer in Deptford, today part of southeast London.
Ever since Marlow died at the age of 29, there has been speculations as to the reason for his murder, but it has never been proved that his death had any relation what so ever to his arrest ten days earlier. Theories around his death include his alleged relationship to Thomas Walshingham (cousin of Francis Walshingham). Through the centuries Marlowe has been presumed to have been homosexual, something which there is no proof of either, but the theory in relation to this is that the wife of Thomas Walshingham should have contracted Frizer to protect the reputation of her husband.
Other theories is that he would have been murdered on the order of William Cecil, as a result of catholic propaganda in his plays, or by direct order of Elizabeth for the distribution of atheist propaganda. One can only hope that this confusion did not actually exist for real in the Elizabethan court. On the other hand, it´s a fascinating illustration of the complexity of Christopher Marlow.
The maybe most creative theory is the one suggesting that Christopher Marlow didn´t die at all. Instead he would have continued his career as a playwright under a new name, that of William Shakespeare. This is of course one of the numerous theories designed to prove that the man from Stratford wasn´t who most of us assume he was. A variant of this theory was put forward in an article by an anonymous writer in 1819, suggesting that “Christopher Marlow” was in fact a nom de plume used by Shakespeare during a period; in other words suggesting that Christopher Marlow never existed. No one has ever bothered with this theory, however.
Christopher Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in Deptford and therefore, unlike many other distinguished English authors and playwrights, lack a plaque in Poet´s Corner in Westminster Abbey. On the other hand, he was given a commemorative window in 2002, founded by the Marlowe Society. Even though they according to their statutes does *not* try to prove that Marlowe was Shakespeare, the window has a slightly provoking question mark after the year that is generally considered to be the year Christopher Marlowe died.
This tiny mark has led to articles, books and demands that the window should be removed by the faction that fights to prove that Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare. It has to be said that it´s not bad for two playwrights to, 450 years after they were born, be able to still stir such strong emotions.
Finally, the theory as to why Marlowe died that is generally accepted by those less inclined to embrace conspiracy theories is that he was killed over an unpaid bill.
The World of Christopher Marlowe – David Riggs
The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe – David Riggs
Christopher Marlowe; Poet and Spy – Honan Park
Marlowe; Facts and Fiction – J.A. Downie
Constructing Christopher Marlowe – J.A. Downie & J.T. Parnell