Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Marlowe, Christopher from Philip's Encyclopedia

English playwright and poet. Marlowe helped make blank verse the vehicle of Elizabethan drama. Much of his success derives from his ability to humanize his heroes, such as Tamburlaine the Great (1590), The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604), and The Jew of Malta (1633). His masterpiece is the tragedy Edward II (1592). His greatest poems are Hero and Leander (1598) and The Passionate Shepherd (1599). Marlowe served as a spy in Francis Walsingham's intelligence service.

Summary Article: Marlowe, Christopher
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

English poet and dramatist. His work includes the blank-verse (written in unrhymed verse) plays Tamburlaine the Great in two parts (1587–88), The Jew of Malta (c. 1591), Edward II (c. 1592) and Dr Faustus (c. 1594), the poem Hero and Leander (1598), and a translation of parts of Ovid'sAmores. Marlowe transformed the new medium of English blank verse into a powerful, melodic form of expression.

He was born in Canterbury and educated at Cambridge University, where he is thought to have become a government agent. His life was turbulent, with a brief imprisonment in connection with a man's death in a brawl (of which he was cleared), and a charge of atheism (following statements given under torture by the English dramatist Thomas Kyd). He was murdered in a Deptford tavern, allegedly in a dispute over the bill, but it may have been a political killing.

Marlowe's work, considered as a whole, is remarkable for its varied, and even conflicting moods. Hero and Leander and the early play Dido, Queen of Carthage exhibit a sensuous sweetness and charm which is as typical to Marlowe's works as is the mighty eloquence and over-reaching egotism of Tamburlaine or Dr Faustus. Even within individual plays there are striking and often confusing contrasts: in The Jew of Malta Machiavellian heroism stands side by side with farcical (comic and overdramatic) melodrama, while in Dr Faustus comic slapstick is followed by the thrilling poetry of the hero's final speeches. There has been much critical controversy about Marlowe's true intentions and real merits as a dramatist, but modern audiences continue to be intrigued and provoked by his major plays, and there can be no doubt of his formative influence on his Elizabethan contemporaries, including Shakespeare.

The chronology of the plays is uncertain. When Marlowe went to London in 1587 he had probably already written his first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, though it was not published until 1594, when it was probably revised by English writer Thomas Nashe. The Lord Admiral's Men performed Tamburlaine the Great which not only established Marlowe's reputation but also changed the course of English drama of the period. The play offered a heroically dominating central character, spectacular stage action, and rhetorical verse of enormous power. The Jew of Malta was probably his next play and seems to have been written around 1591 although no printed text exists before 1633. In this work Marlowe retained both his ‘superman’ protagonist (main character), driven by a lust for power, as well as spectacular stage effects, but introduced a strong element of farce.

Edward II was first printed in 1594 but was probably first performed in 1592. It marks a new departure, but one which shows the continuing development of Marlowe's dramatic skills. It is a chronicle play which has no central dominant personality; indeed, it is a study in weakness, exhibiting Marlowe's ability to portray character and relations between individuals with psychological subtlety. Serious chronological and textual problems surround Dr Faustus, which was published in 1604 but probably dates from about 1594. In this work Marlowe showed a theatrical maturity and a unique emotional power which proves his outstanding qualities as a dramatist. Faustus is the most powerfully imagined of Marlowe's protagonists, whose aspiring spirit appears to reflect some of Marlowe's own personality and the tendency of the age. His tragedy has retained its symbolic force through the centuries, influencing German writer Goethe (who wrote Faust), and appealing to 20th-century audiences. The Massacre at Paris was also probably written around 1594, but it only survives in a very bad text.

The poem Hero and Leander, unfinished at Marlowe's death, was completed by English writer George Chapman, while ‘Come live with me and be my love’ was published in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599. The first book of Lucan's Pharsalia and Ovid's Amores were probably translated while Marlowe was still at Cambridge.


Marlowe, Christopher


Marlowe, Christopher: Dr Faustus, from V i

Marlowe, Christopher: Dr Faustus, from V ii

Marlowe, Christopher: ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’


Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Full text Article Marlowe, Christopher
Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

Marlowe’s innovations and unique dramatic skills are frequently overshadowed by his being murdered and by his exact...

Full text Article Marlowe, Christopher (1564 - 1593)
The Cambridge Guide to Theatre

He may still have been an undergraduate when he first worked as an agent for Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's scheming...

Full text Article Marlowe, Christopher (1564 - 1593)
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

Born in Canterbury, the son of a shoemaker, Marlowe was awarded a scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Possibly...

See more from Credo