And set black streamers in the firmament,
To signify the slaughter of the gods."
Christopher Marlowe (baptised February 26, 1564 May 30, 1593) was an English poet, dramatist, and translator. He is probably best known for The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Tamburlaine. He was one of the first to write English drama in blank verse.
He was regarded highly, at least in terms of his writing, by his literary contemporaries, including William Shakespeare (who was beginning his own rise to fame when Marlowe died, and whose works contain many Shout Outs to Marlowe). Staid, respectable people, however, regarded him as a contentious brawler and a dangerous rebel against society. Which seems to have been exactly the reputation Marlowe was going for. By all accounts he was one of those over-clever young men who get a charge out of shocking their elders and social superiors. In his case it may have come back to bite him. It certainly bit his friend and roommate Thomas Kyd who probably died of the trauma he suffered when questioned about Marlowe's opinions and associates.
Marlowe's death in what was considered a Bar Brawl at Deptford was long the source of suspicion and rumor. In the 20th Century, a researcher discovered the original coroner's report and while he dismissed foul play, he did note that Marlowe spent his final day in the company of known underworld types linked to Thomas Walsingham, a relative of Queen Elizabeth's hatchet-man Sir Francis Walsingham. This has fed many Conspiracy Theories about Marlowe and the circumstances of his death. There are still others who argue that Marlowe faked his death and continued writing under the pseudonym of... William Shakespeare. This is far from being the most popular theory even among aficionados of the Shakespearean authorship theory.
In any case, while Marlowe did influence Shakespeare, there are enough differences between their plays to give pause to any claims of continuity. For one thing, Shakespeare was quite good at writing women characters whereas Marlowe's work is very much a boy's club with only Dido, Queen of Carthage counting as a prominent female role in his plays. In Marlowe's case this might have been an Invoked Trope since only men were allowed to act in his day, so he might have dialled down the female presence in his works for greater theatrical realism. However, this still means that Shakespeare went out of his way, to deliberately write characters who were feminine. Where Shakespeare mixed comedy with tragedy, and put in supporting characters with a lot of humour in his plays, Marlowe's works are far more unified and even in tone and generally lack Shakespeare's comic skill. The main point in common of course is the characterization of the anti-heroic and anti-villainous protagonists, with schemers and manipulators and elaborate revenge schemes, but this in the case of both Marlowe and Shakespeare is not original to them. It comes from Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy which was the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier for the Elizabethan Tragedy and the first popular success of the Golden Age of English drama.
As a Historical-Domain Character, his appearances in fiction almost invariably feature his acquaintance with Shakespeare, his suspicious death, or both.
Works by Christopher Marlowe with their own trope pages include:
Additionally, in 2016, the Oxford University Press attributed the three parts of Henry VI to both Marlowe and Shakespeare, but this attribution is controversial and far from universally accepted. Nor is Marlowe the only proposed collaborator in the trilogy, as it has also been suggested that Thomas Nashe co-wrote part 1.
Other works by Christopher Marlowe provide examples of:
- Arcadia: "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love"
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Happens all the time in Marlowe's plays where his characters routinely conspire and betray each other. Edward II and The Jew of Malta are especially bad because even the supposed good characters stab each other in the back by the end. The total lack of trust and absence of comic relief at times, makes Marlowe's plays a bleaker read than Shakespeare's.
- Cool People Rebel Against Authority: All of Marlowe's hero-villains are rebels against some authority (religious and secular) and all of them are pretty cool, with the best dialogues and richest motivation.
- Karmic Death: How any Marlowe protagonist meets his end, except for Edward II.
- Religion Is Wrong: Marlowe was labelled an atheist in the Elizabethan Age. But this was done by his enemies and atheism did not have the same sense as it would to a modern audience. In any case, mocking Catholicism, Islam and Judaism was Acceptable Targets for the Protestant English and Marlowe sticks to the party line in that regard. Nevertheless, Marlowe's plays are ambivalent about religion.
Machiavel: I count religion but a childish toy
- Dido, Queen of Carthage has the Roman Gods as Jerk Ass Gods but then this is very much in keeping with the source material.
- Tamburlaine declares himself the Scourge of God and sets fire on the Koran and basically has a philosophy akin to a proto-ubermensch who cannot be stopped by any force until his death.
- Edward II has the King and Piers Gaveston humiliate the Catholic Archbishop for opposing Gaveston's presence and has the King mocking the Church, which probably went down very well with the Protestant prejudices of his time.
- The Jew of Malta has Christians, Muslims and Jews as characters and all of them are shown to be equally selfish, two-timing and corrupt, with the Christians triumphing over Barabas and the Turk by being more backstabbing and ruthless than both of them. As Machiavelli outlines in the prologue:
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
- Yaoi Fanboy: He shipped Jesus and John. Someone quoted, or paraphrased, him as saying that "John the baptist was bedfellow to Christ, and leaned alwaies in his bosom, and used him as the sinners of Sodoma." He is also supposed to have said that "Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest [unchaste]" and that "the Angel Gabriel was bawd [pimp] to the Holy Ghost". Due to this he was accused of atheism (though it meant something more like "heresy" in those days) and blasphemy-serious charges-but died only days before his case was scheduled to be heard before the Privy Council, which some see as linking his murder with it.
Marlowe in Fiction
- Affectionate Nickname: "Kit" Marlowe is used by his friends in fictional stories, based on his real nickname. Incidentally this inspired the Kit Harington's name as well.
- Always Someone Better: In historical stories, especially Shakespeare in Fiction, it's common to portray Shakespeare feeling that Marlowe was always better than him and that had he not died so young, he would be the great writer of his day. This is especially the case in Shakespeare in Love and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman.
- Ambiguously Gay: Or not really ambiguous in fictional stories, where his sexuality is emphasized.
- Artistic License History: The available facts on Marlowe's life leave a great deal of room for the imagination, so fictional versions of Marlowe play loose with facts and often take rumors at face value.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Only Lovers Left Alive has Marlowe alive during the 20th century, being a long-lived vampire.
- Cloak & Dagger: Other historical stories feature Marlowe as a gay atheist Elizabethan James Bond; Peter Whelan's play The School of Night does this. Marlowe is believed to have been a spy and an associate of Walter Raleigh at any rate.
- Historical-Domain Character: He appears in Shakespeare in Fiction and his dramatic death has also been portrayed in a series of novels, most notably Anthony Burgess' A Dead Man in Deptford.
- I Coulda Been a Contender!: Fictional stories of Marlowe play up the poignance of his death, and how he had a chance to be as great and famous as Shakespeare had he not died. Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and others remember their old friend and mourn how he was Too Cool to Live.
- The Mentor: There's no evidence that he was this to Shakespeare, though there are indications that he and Shakespeare collaborated on Henry VI, but Marlowe is often portrayed as the Big Man on Campus who gives advice to the provincial grammar school noob from Stratford who all the other university wits make fun of for his "little greek and latin".
- In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Marlowe looks at Shakespeare's early verse, tells him it's very bad and that he should probably not waste his time but he does it gently, and Shakespeare takes his compassionate criticism to heart and writes A Midsummer Night's Dream to impress his hero and is disappointed that he died before seeing it.
- Rupert Everett plays Marlowe similarly in Shakespeare in Love giving professional advice and some uncredited doctoring on Romeo and Juliet and then being killed, which Shakespeare at first thinks was actually meant for him since he had pretended to be Marlowe, believing that his nemesis Lord Wessex is behind it. Marlowe's death wracks Shakespeare with guilt. However, it later turns out his death was simply due to a tavern brawl, like historically happened.