On This Day: February, 6, 1564

Playwright, poet, prodigy, agent in Her Majesty’s secret service: the incomparable Christopher Marlowe was born on this day.

(this 1585 portrait is widely thought to be of Marlowe)

Marlowe was accused of putting atheistic ideas into his plays, and was on the verge of being arrested, when he was stabbed to death on May 30, 1593. Not much is known about him, in fact. Was he a spy? It seems that he was. How thrilling. He was also a drinker, a fighter, a lover, and … a contemporary of Shakespeare. How did they inform and perhaps copy one another? Evidence shows that it was Shakespeare who did most of the copying, which is no surprise, since his plots and stories were always taken from other sources, with one or two notable exceptions. Scholars have studied this literary symbiosis for years. The answer (who copied whom) seems less interesting than the inquiry itself. Let us keep questioning, let us keep investigating, examining, and, of course, celebrating them both. Shakespeare is also dim, in terms of what we know about his life. There’s very little evidence left behind (besides the plays, I mean.) I would suggest you stay away from the film Anonymous if you are interested in the authorship controversy. Or good acting. Just a tip.

Marlowe emerges from the pages of history with more clarity than Shakespeare: there’s just more that is known about his actual life. The revelation that he was a spy adds definite luster to an already fascinating young man. And then that he would die, in a sword-scuffle over who was going to pick up the check (or … was there more to it??) … there’s a lot here to keep conspiracy theorists happy for centuries. It certainly drives the scholarship forward.

But his plays! His language! His influence is so vast as to be nearly invisible now. Unseen and yet felt everywhere. You could probably quote Marlowe without even realizing the source. His phrases are now in our language. That’s the vastness of the impact. For example, from Doctor Faustus:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies:
And all is dross that is not Helena:
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy shall Wertenberg be sack’d,
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest:
Yea I will wound Achillis in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars,
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter,
When he appear’d to hapless Semele,
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms,
And none but thou shalt be my paramour.


“No leaf he wrote on but was like a burning glass to set on fire all his readers.” — Thomas Nashe, a friend of Marlowe’s

“His father lacked cash, always a grave trouble for the family. The chief cause of this lay not in John’s imprudence, but in the fact that payments to shoemakers were often made by either bond or book, which meant that a cobbler often waited for cash while his tanning needs made matters worse. Still, if cash and credit’s mysteries intrigued Christopher, his father’s shop did not. In a juvenile play – which may be his apprentice work if it dates from about 1580 – the script refers, somewhat condescendingly, to Kent and cobblers. Certainly, throughout his writing career, Marlowe avoided his father’s trade, and in this he was unlike the poet of Stratford. Whereas Shakespeare, as the son of a Midlands glover and processor of leather, readily alludes to a glover’s implements or to animal skins, Marlowe, in his known work, never uses words such as shoe, shoemaker, sew, or sole (as for a shoe), but distances himself from his father’s concerns. At various times, when he refers to leather, or boots, or even when he uses the word sell, the allusions are oddly repulsive:

Covetousness: begotten of an old Churl in a leather bag (Doctor Faustus (1616)

wormeaten leathern targets (His version of Lucan’s Pharsalia)

As if he had meant to clean my Boots with his lips (The Jew of Malta)

our boots which lie foul upon our hands (Doctor Faustus, (1604)

You will not sell it [a sacred crown], would you? (Tamburlaine, Part One)

“Such lines may suggest hatred not of the cobbler but of his work, and we can be sure that he never envied John Marlowe’s slavery.” — Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy

“The place and the value of Christopher Marlowe as a leader among English poets it would be almost impossible for historical criticism to over-estimate. To none of them all, perhaps, have so many of the greatest among them been so deeply and so directly indebted. Nor was ever any great writer’s influence upon his fellows more utterly and unmixedly an influence for good. He first, and he alone, guided Shakespeare into the right way of work; his music, in which there is no echo of any man’s before him, found its own echo in the more prolonged but hardly more exalted harmony of Milton’s. He is the greatest discoverer, the most daring and inspired pioneer, in all our poetic literature. Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared, the paths were made straight, for Shakespeare. ” — Algernon Charles Swinburne

“Christopher Marlowe’s life was short, sharp and irresistible. His fame rests not only on six violently glittering plays written in his 20s but also on the tantalizing story that may be considered his masterpiece, for Marlowe inhabited his time like a player strutting upon an invisible stage. His life was his most remarkable piece of theater. Everyone imitated Marlowe. His first play, Tamburlaine, was staged when he was 23, and its success can most readily be gauged by its imitators. As David Riggs notes in his new biography, The World of Christopher Marlowe, within the next couple of years three new plays were staged that were more or less direct copies of Marlowe’s original, while Shakespeare wrote his early Henry VI plays under the influence of Marlowe’s style. A decade later, as the church authorities burned copies of Marlowe’s semipornographic love poems in the streets, Shakespeare again returned to imitating his predecessor in As You Like It. Marlowe’s contemporaries regarded him with a mixture of awe and fear.” — Daniel Swift in “The Nation”

“In common with the greatest – Marlowe, Webster, Tourner, and Shakespeare – they had a quality of sensuous thought, or of thinking through the senses, or of the senses thinking, of which the exact formula remains to be defined.” — T.S. Eliot on the Elizabethan-Jacobean poets

“What an example for our distracted poetry, which so often now strikes at the absolute and achieves the commonplace! These poets [George Chapman and Christopher Marlowe] lived life from the ground upwards.” — Edgell Rickword, 1924

“The unity of tone and purpose in Doctor Faustus is not unrelieved by change of manner and variety of incident. The comic scenes, written evidently with as little of labour as of relish, are for the most part scarcely more than transcripts, thrown into the form of dialogue, from a popular prose History of Dr Faustus, and therefore should be set down as little to the discredit as to the credit of the poet. Few masterpieces of any age in any language can stand beside this tragic poem – it has hardly the structure of a play – for the qualities of terror and splendour, for intensity of purpose and sublimity of note. In the vision of Helen, for example, the intense perception of loveliness gives actual sublimity to the sweetness and radiance of mere beauty in the passionate and spontaneous selection of words the most choice and perfect; and in like manner the sublimity of simplicity in Marlowe’s conception and expression of the agonies endured by Faustus under the immediate imminence of his doom gives the highest note of beauty, the quality of absolute fitness and propriety, to the sheer straightforwardness of speech in which his agonizing horror finds vent ever more and more terrible from the first to the last equally beautiful and fearful verse of that tremendous monologue which has no parallel in all the range of tragedy.” — Algernon Charles Swinburne

“His narrator [in Hero and Leander] is abrupt, devil-may-care, often unreliable, but brilliant enough to be worth listening to, even though he might be asking us to buy him another drink. One thinks of Chaucer’s Canterbury-bound raconteurs, but a much closer parallel exists in works such as T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, or again in monologues by Frost, Lowell, or Tony Harrison. In other words, Marlowe foreshadows the method of the dramatic and psychological monologue. What the narrator says is slanted, but one is encouraged to see through the aberrant report to the real state of psyches, and beyond that to symbols of the human condition. The poem takes a giant step ahead in form, and the form itself partly arises from Marlowe’s need to conceal his feelings; he never permits himself, here or elsewhere, a direct viewpoint of his own. He uses hyperbolic images to distance sexual love, but then explores what might be his, or anyone’s initial experience of it. If the action is cruel, its shame and pain are offset by fumbling tenderness. Nor can we blame the tale-teller for being perverse of inconsistent. Typically, the narrator digresses in an anecdote about Mercury, loses the story’s thread or its relation to the love-story, and so becomes irrelevant, only to enthral in all that he says. His voice has so strong a movement that nothing impedes it, and the poem’s beauty begins to look inevitable, though no more consciously planned than nature’s forms may be. Nothing is overtly patterned in Hero except for the stepping stones of its couplet rhymes. One result is that it becomes a laboratory of the imagination, even a discourse about writing, and a work so free of correctness that it exhibits at every turn the primacy of creativity itself. Marlowe’s major poem has been admired for centuries, though never more avidly than by the Victorians. It’s ‘riot of passion and of delight in the beauty of colour and form,’ wrote George Saintsbury, ‘has never been approached by any writer’. For Havelock Ellis, the poem was ‘the brightest flower of the English Renaissance,’ and Swinburne, with Hero and Leander doubtless in mind, called its poet ‘alone the true Apollo of our dawn.’ Such praise had been foreshadowed in lines which Sir Francis Verney sent to Robert Cecil, then earl of Salisbury, only a few years after Hero was published. Verney hails Marlowe as ‘the splendour of our worthless time’, as if no other Renaissance poet could touch him.” — Park Honan – on Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander” in Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy

“He took his BA in 1584, his MA three years later, by which time he had probably completed Tamburlaine. He was the first of the university wits to employ blank verse. It’s generally thought that most if not all of his small surviving body of nondramatic verse – Hero and Leander, ‘The Passionate Shepherd’, and the Ovid and Lucan translations – were written in his university years, the fruit of youth and relative leisure. The six years that elapsed between his taking his MA and his shadowy death – possibly as a result of drink, or low political intrigue, or a romantic entanglement with a rough character ‘fitter to be a pimp, than an ingenious amoretto‘, or perhaps a tussle over the bill (‘le recknynge’) – at the hand of Ingram Frisar in a Deptford tavern on 30 May 1593 were busy ones. He wrote plays, was attacked for atheism, was associated (if it existed) with Raleigh’s ‘School of Night,’ and lodged with Thomas Kyd (author of The Spanish Tragedy), who later brought charges of blasphemy against him. These he had to answer before the Privy Council in 1593, the very council that secretly employed him to spy on English Catholics on the Continent. He achieved much in a short life.” — Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

“If one takes The Jew of Malta not as a tragedy, or as a ‘tragedy of blood,’ but as a farce, the concluding act becomes intelligible; and if we attend with a careful ear to the versification, we find that Marlowe develops a tone to suit this farce, and even perhaps that this tone is his most powerful and mature tone.” — T.S. Eliot

“He was no timorous servile flatterer of the commonwealth wherein he lived. His tongue and his invention were foreborn; what they thought, they would confidently utter. Princes he spared not, that in the least point transgressed.” — Thomas Nashe

“In Marlowe’s superb verse there is very little to indicate that the writer had ever encountered any human beings.” — James Branch Cabell

“Marlowe painted gigantic ambitions, desires for impossible things, longings for a beauty beyond earthly conception, and sovereigns destroyed by the very powers which had raised them to their thrones. Tamburlaine, Faust, Barabbas are the personifications of arrogance, ambition and greed. There is sometimes a touch of the extravagant or bombastic, or even of the puerile in his plays, for he had no sense of humor; nor had he the ability to portray a woman. He wrote no drama on the subject of love. Furthermore, his world is not altogether our world, but a remote field of the imagination.” — Martha Fletcher Bellinger, 1927

“Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, like Goethe’s Faust, finds himself before the specter of Helen (the idea that Helen of Troy was a ghost or apparition is already present in the ancients) and says to her, ‘Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.’ And then, ‘O thou art fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.’ He does not say ‘evening sky,’ but ‘evening air.’ All of Copernican space is present in that word air, the infinite space that was one of the revelations of the Renaissance, the space in which we still believe, despite Einstein, that space that came to supplant the Ptolomaic system which presides over Dante’s triple comedy.” — Jorge Luis Borges

“And so it befell, in that affray, that the said Ingram, in the defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid of the value of twelve pence, gave the said Christopher a mortal wound above his right eye.” — Coroner’s inquest, 1593

I’m armed with more than complete steel,
The justice of my quarrel.
Christopher Marlowe, Lust’s Dominion. Act iii. Sc. 4.

“He came to London to seek his fortune . . . a boy in years, a man in genius, a god in ambition. Who knows to what heights he might have risen but for his untimely end?” — Swinburne

One of Marlowe’s plays was Tamburlaine, the brutal story of one of the many conquerors of Central Asia (known as Timur, Tamerland, Timurlane, etc.). Tamburlaine was of those dudes who galloped in, sacked everything, and then, strangely, built things back up again, sometimes even better than before. Colin Thubron, in his wonderful The Lost Heart of Asia describes the conundrum of Timur: conqueror, terrorist, pillager, sensitive artisan, lover of beauty, WTF?:

Tamerlane, the Earth-Shaker, was the last, and perhaps most awesome, of these world predators. Born in 1336 fifty miles south of Samarkand, he was the son of a petty chief in a settled Mongol clan. He acquired th ename “Timur-i-Leng” or “Timur the Lame” after arrows maimed his right leg and arm, and passed as Tamerlane into the fearful imagination of the Weset. By his early thirties, after years of fighting over the splintered heritage of Genghiz Khan, he had become lord of Mavarannah, the “land Beyond the River”, with his capital at Samarkand, and had turned his cold eyes to the conquest of the world.

From the accounts that are left of him, he emerges not only as the culmination of his pitiless forerunners, but as the distant ancestor of the art-loving Moghals of India. Over the terrified servants and awed ambassadors at his court, his eyes seemed to burn without brilliance, and never winced with either humour or sadness. But a passion for practical truth fed his unlettered intelligence. He planned his campaigns in scrupulous detail, and unlike Genghiz Khan he led them in person. He clothed his every move with the sanctions of the Islamic faith, but astrology and omens, shamanism and public prayers, were all invoked to serve his needs. An angel, it was rumoured, told him men’s hidden thoughts. Yet he assaulted Moslems as violently as he did Christians and Hindus. Perhaps he confused himself with God.

No flicker of compassion marred his progress. His butchery surpassed that of any before him. The towers and pyramids of skulls he left behind — ninety thousand in the ruins of Baghdad alone — were calculated warnings. After overrunning Persia and despoiling the Caucasus, he hacked back the remnants of the Golden Horde to Moscow, then launched a precipitate attack on India, winching his horses over the snowbound ravines of the Hindu Kush, where 20,000 Mongols froze to death. On the Ganges plain before Delhi, the Indian sultan’s squadrons of mailed elephants, their tusks lashed with poisoned blades, sent a momentary tremor through the Mongol ranks; but the great beasts were routed, and the city and all its inhabitants levelled with the earth. A year later the Mongols were wending back over the mountains, leading 10,000 pack-mules sagging with gold and jewels. They left behind a land which would not recover for a century, and five million Indian dead.

Now Tamerland turned his attention west again. Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus fell. In 1402, on the field of Ankara, at the summit of his pwoer, he decimated the army of the Ottoman sultan Beyazid, and inadvertently delayed the fall of Constantinople by another half century.

Between these monotonous acts of devastation, the conqueror returned to the Samarkand he cherished. At his direction a procession of captured scholars, theologians, musicans and craftsmen arrived in the capital with their books and tools and families — so many that they were forced to inhabit caves and orchards in the suburbs. Under their hands the mud city bloomed into faience life. Architects, painters and calligraphers from Persia; Syrian silk-weavers, armourers and glass-blowers; Indian jewellers and workers in stucco and metal; gunsmiths and artillery engineers from asia Minor: all labored to raise titanic mosques and academies, arsenals, libraries, vaulted and fountained bazaars, even an observatory and a menagerie. The captured elephants lugged into place the marble of Tabriz and the Caucausus, while rival emirs — sometimes Tamerlane himself — drove on the work with the parvenu impatience of shepherd-princes. The whole city, it seems, was to be an act of imperial power. Villages were built around it named Cairo, Baghdad, Shiraz or Damascus (a ghostly Paris survives) in token of their insignificance. It was the “Mirror of the World,” and the premier city of Asia.

Tamerlane himself confounds simple assessment. He kept a private art collection, whose exquisitely illuminated manuscripts he loved but could not read. His speech, it seems, was puritan in its decorum. He was an ingenious and addicted chess-player, who elaborated the game by doubling its pieces — with two giraffes, two war-engines, a vizier and others — over a board of 110 squares. A craving for knowledge plunged him into hard, questing debates with scholars and scientists, whom he took with him even on campaign, and his quick grasp and powerful memory gave him a working knowledge of history, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy.

Yet at heart he was a nomad. He moved between summer and winter pastures with his whole court and horde. Even at Samarkand he usually pavilioned in the outskirts, or in one of the sixteen gardens he spread round the city: watered parks with ringing names. Each garden was different. In one stood a porcelain Chinese palace; another glowed with the saga of his reign in lifelike frescoes, all long vanished; yet another was so vast that when a workman lost his horse there it grazed unfound for six months.

Marlowe, age 22, took on this historical figure. Extraordinary. I have seen a production of Doctor Faustus, but have never seen Tamburlaine. I would love to see it in the hands of an imaginative director and a talented cast. It’s not easy, that’s for sure. But one of the great things about Marlowe (which is, conversely, the challenging thing) is that his language is so evocative, so of itself, that it reads so well on the page. It’s poetry. How to translate that to theatrical action? Marlowe presents some awesome challenges.

Still. His writing can’t be touched.

Here is an excerpt.

Excerpt from Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe.

Enter Tamburlaine, Techelles, Theridamas, Usumcasane, Zenocrate, Anippe, two Moores drawing Bajazeth in a cage, and Zabina following him.

Bring out my footstool.

[They take BAJAZETH out of the cage.]

Ye holy priests of heavenly Mahomet,
That, sacrificing, slice and cut your flesh,
Staining his altars with your purple blood,
Make heaven to frown, and every fixed star
To suck up poison from the moorish fens,
And pour it in this glorious tyrant’s throat!

The chiefest god, first mover of that sphere
Enchas’d with thousands ever-shining lamps,
Will sooner burn the glorious frame of heaven
Than it should so conspire my overthrow.
But, villain, thou that wishest this to me,
Fall prostrate on the low disdainful earth,
And be the footstool of great Tamburlaine,
That I may rise into my royal throne.

First shalt thou rip my bowels with thy sword,
And sacrifice my heart to death and hell,
Before I yield to such a slavery.

Base villain, vassal, slave to Tamburlaine,
Unworthy to embrace or touch the ground
That bears the honour of my royal weight;
Stoop, villain, stoop! stoop; for so he bids
That may command thee piecemeal to be torn,
Or scatter’d like the lofty cedar-trees
Struck with the voice of thundering Jupiter.

Then, as I look down to the damned fiends,
Fiends, look on me! and thou, dread god of hell,
With ebon sceptre strike this hateful earth,
And make it swallow both of us at once!

[TAMBURLAINE gets up on him into his chair.]

Now clear the triple region of the air,
And let the Majesty of Heaven behold
Their scourge and terror tread on emperors.
Smile, stars that reign’d at my nativity,
And dim the brightness of your neighbour lamps;
Disdain to borrow light of Cynthia!
For I, the chiefest lamp of all the earth,
First rising in the east with mild aspect,
But fixed now in the meridian line,
Will send up fire to your turning spheres,
And cause the sun to borrow light of you.
My sword struck fire from his coat of steel,
Even in Bithynia, when I took this Turk;
As when a fiery exhalation,
Wrapt in the bowels of a freezing cloud,
Fighting for passage, make[s] the welkin crack,
And casts a flash of lightning to the earth:
But, ere I march to wealthy Persia,
Or leave Damascus and th’ Egyptian fields,
As was the fame of Clymene’s brain-sick son
That almost brent the axle-tree of heaven,
So shall our swords, our lances, and our shot
Fill all the air with fiery meteors;
Then, when the sky shall wax as red as blood,
It shall be said I made it red myself,
To make me think of naught but blood and war.

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4 Responses to On This Day: February, 6, 1564

  1. Desirae says:

    I have this theory that if Marlowe existed today he wouldn’t be a playwright or even a screenwriter – he’d be a director. There’s something very visual about his work to me.

  2. Jim Cappio says:

    Actually, Sheila, I’d say there is a lot less we know about Marlowe than we do about Shakespeare. Try to trace anything at all about him and you quickly sink into a quicksand of mirrors. I haven’t read Honan’s biography (or his biography of Shakespeare, for that matter), but one of the other recent books about him is rightly called The World of Christopher Marlowe, because time and again it acknowledges that instead of uncovering facts about Marlowe we are reduced to speculating about him on the basis of his world. (Check out in particular the analysis of his alleged love of men.)

    The gold standard here is Charles Nicholl’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant The Reckoning, which analyzes what we know about the circumstances of Marlowe’s death in more detail than you ever thought possible–and incidentally shows just how few facts are known about him. By comparison, Shakespeare’s life, though blank in places, is richly documented (Nicholl’s other book The Lodger Shakespeare sets out the details about Shakespeare’s life in Silver Street in a flat above his wigmaker landlord’s.)

    So, not meaning to tee off on you or anything, and maybe it’s just me, but I have a much clearer picture of Shakespeare as a person than I do of Marlowe.

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