Constance Brown Kuriyama's Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life may well become the definitive portrait of the quintessential Elizabethan "bad boy," despite the fact at least a dozen respectable Marlovian studies already exist.
Regarded by many as the Muses' Darling, the British poet, playwright, and technical innovator died young and violently; nevertheless, the son of a Canterbury shoemaker is rightfully considered the greatest English dramatist until Shakespeare (1564-1616) — who learned many tricks of the trade from exact contemporary Marlowe (1564-1593) — surpassed the exceptionally talented wordsmith's reputation.
The Bard's most important predecessor was the first to deploy dramatic blank verse in one of his earliest plays, the two-part Tamburlaine the Great (c. 1587). It was quickly followed by Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II. Alongside 1598's long poem, Hero and Leander (finished by George Chapman), Marlowe created gorgeous lyrics such as The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, which many will immediately recognise from its unforgettable opening line, "Come live with me and be my love."
Marlowe attended Canterbury's King's School and Cambridge's Corpus Christi College. "He was not the privileged firstborn son and heir of an established Canterbury tradesman," Kuriyama explains; rather, Marlowe was "an energetic, shrewd, resourceful upstart — the Renaissance new man on a humble scale."
Thomas Nashe, best-known as the subject of Marshall McLuhan's doctoral dissertation, was one of Marlowe's university acquaintances. He is frequently credited with co-authoring Dido, Queen of Carthage while the pair of Elizabethans were students. After receiving his degree, Marlowe relocated to London in 1587, anticipating bigger conquests and greater triumphs after taking up his position in a social circle that included Nashe, Sir Phillip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Kyd, and Robert Greene.
"Later, perhaps," Kuriyama observes, "he would remember his Cambridge years as a golden age, because, for all his brash Machiavellian cynicism, Marlowe spent most of his first 23 years swathed in a humanist cocoon, his pride and ambition continually fed by his academic and literary success. In London he would confront another less familiar, less predictable world whose malign power and indifference he had occasionally sensed in childhood, a world that could have little respect for his talent and even less regard for his life."
Nonetheless, both parts of Tamburlaine were successfully performed on the London stage shortly after Marlowe graduated, a fact that so irked rival Greene he scornfully dismissed it as "daring God out of heaven with that Atheist Tamburlan" in his preface to Perimedes the Blacksmith (licensed in 1588).
By 1587, London's population had reached approximately 150,000. "During the late 1580s and early 1590s," notes Kuriyama, "Marlowe was the most admired, envied, and widely imitated playwright in London."
In 1593, the same year the self-possessed atheist carelessly and arrogantly broadcast his belief that there were irreconcilable inconsistencies in the Bible, he was mortally wounded in a tavern brawl at Deptford, three miles outside of London, by Ingram Frizer, apparently over a bar bill. Marlowe drew his dagger; Frizer wrestled it away from him and drove it through the 29-year-old celebrity's right eye.
Naturally, conspiracy theorists still maintain he was deliberately provoked and murdered because he knew too much about too many important men (particularly since he had been in the employ of the English secret service).
"But conspiracy theories [have] a powerful emotional appeal in the jaded anti-authoritarian climate of the later twentieth century, and the sensational or potentially sensational content of some of the Marlowe documents also seems to encourage suspicion," writes the Texas Tech University professor. In so doing, she constructs a thoroughly supported, reasonably plausible, and interpretatively economical alternative to Marlowe's alleged murder. "Though Frizer has regularly been cast as a villain by Marlowe's biographers, he seems on the whole an unlikely assassin."
Scabrous remarks and outrageous blasphemies, as Marlowe's newest biographer views them, simply prove the point that a reputation for unorthodoxy can become a serious liability and deeply offend a jealous zealot such as Richard Baines, who averred that the atheistic Marlowe, utterly contemptuous of conventional Christian beliefs, scorned "both God and his ministers." (Atheism and sedition were comparable crimes against divinely sanctioned authority.)
For Kuriyama, "Richard Baines of Cambridge was a product of the same destabilising social and intellectual forces that fostered Marlowe's heterodoxy, although his quest for meaning took a rather different course . . . If he was the man who informed on Marlowe, he also continued to be involved, at least occasionally, in intelligence work [for] in late May 1593 the same Richard Baines submitted his list of allegations about Marlowe's conversation and opinions."
Not surprisingly, Marlowe's brilliant work and untimely death affected the Bard who, in true Shakespearean style, effected his own kind of poetic justice by including details of both in As You Like It proving, if nothing else, there is indeed a God.
"The Wild Man of Elizabethan Drama"
originally appeared 13 July 2002 in The Globe and Mail. © 2002-2008 Judith Fitzgerald and The Globe and Mail. All Rights Reserved.