Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy

By Park Honan | Go to book overview
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Christopher Marlowe's life is the most spectacular of any English dramatist. He has a quickness and glitter as if he were moving across the night like a gaudy comet, and yet the man is no more luminous than his art. His story continues to intrigue, not least because it includes an ongoing murder mystery. Just as thrilling for modern sensibilities is his reputation as a spy, an unceasing blasphemer, a tough street-fighter and a courageous homosexual. New material now adds to the picture of Marlowe's secret life; but it is important to recognize that he became a spy in another sense, as a highly critical and original enquirer into human nature and social behaviour.

When he died at Deptford, at the age of 29, he was thought of as the best and most scandalous of the Elizabethan playwrights. Admired by Shakespeare and other writers, he had become a figure of horror for the strait-laced. Even during his lifetime 'Kit Marlowe' was called a blasphemer and an atheist, and people knew of his odder scrapes. Who else would use a stick (baculus or dummy weapon) rather than a rapier to duel with a tailor in a Canterbury street?

In fact, he squeezed much into a remarkably short span. Born in Canterbury in 1564, only two months before his rival's birth in Stratford, Marlowe became one of the two most powerful dramatists of the Elizabethan period. In biography, however, much of the fine detail about his life has been neglected––his human relationships, the milieu of his family and friends, the tangible Canterbury in which he grew up, the shock of his schooling, and his strenuous experience later at Cambridge and in London.

Even the difficulty of assimilating the known biographical facts about Marlowe (and there are surprisingly many) can impede our understanding of him. A recent book, for example, offers a confused picture of his six and a half years at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This is not just a matter of giving him a roommate he never had, blandly neglecting facts about the college's master, Norgate, or failing to mention Francis Kett, a college Fellow with heretical ideas, who was later martyred; the book gives an inaccurate picture of Cambridge's Arts course, and of what is known of


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