Playwright, poet, and rabble-rouser Christopher Marlowe was born in February of 1564. He attended The King's School in Canterbury before going to Cambridge, where he became one of the so-called "University Wits," a group of writers dedicated to establishing new forms of poetry and theatre in the English Renaissance.
Much of Marlowe's life is a mystery. There is ample evidence to support his atheistic beliefs and his questionable morality, but conclusions about these things are difficult. The most persistent lore about Marlowe was that he was a spy for Queen Elizabeth's court, probably recruited while at Cambridge. Marlowe was known to drink, eat, and spend lavishly--at a greater expense than his meager scholarship would allow. He was arrested in 1592 while in the Netherlands, but no charges were ever brought against him.
Whether or not he was a spy, there is no doubt that Marlowe enjoyed great popularity throughout London. He often collaborated with actor Edward Alleyn and the Admiral's Men to bring to life his celebrated plays: Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus. Marlowe also wrote a history play, Edward II, which clearly inspired Shakespeare's Richard II. One of Marlowe's most ambitious plays--The Massacre at Paris-was a retelling of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and a political warning about religious insurrection. Marlowe's powerful tragedies and complex characters were foundational for the development of English Renaissance theatre.
While in London, he roomed with Thomas Kyd, writer of The Spanish Tragedy (which established the success of the revenge tragedy genre in England). It is perhaps this association with Marlowe that brought about Kyd's arrest, torture, and death for being a heretic. Marlowe was a self-proclaimed atheist, and the incriminating pamphlets found in Kyd's lodgings in 1593 most likely belonged to him. On May 18, a warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest, even though he was never taken into custody and in fact reported himself to the courts. Accounts of how and why differ, but Marlowe was murdered on May 30 in a London tavern, apparently in a dispute over the bill.
Marlowe's legacy lives on after his death; conspiracy theorists wonder if his murder was staged, if he was the true author of Shakespeare's plays, and what exactly he knew about the English court. The uncertainty of his life lends to the uncertainty of his death. But there is no doubt that Marlowe was one of the great writers of the late sixteenth century, with a profound influences on the playwrights who would follow him.
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