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; as his friend Thomas Nashe wrote, “No leaf he wrote on but was like a burning glass to set on fire all his readers.”
We are still Marlowe’s readers today: Riggs’s biography follows Constance Brown Kuriyama’s Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life, published in 2002. The early death of such a man is written in the swagger of his life, and Marlowe’s murder at the age of 29 in a bar brawl has been endlessly commemorated in the fantasies of his fans. The movie Shakespeare in Love imagined that Marlowe died for Shakespeare’s cowardice; Crimelibrary.com, a website devoted to “criminal minds and methods,” includes a feature on Marlowe’s death among its litany of serial killers, terrorists and outlaws. Louise Welsh’s novel Tamburlaine Must Die is the third book in the past fifteen years to return to the circumstances of the murder, and to spin stories around its fantastic possibilities.
While their treatments differ–Riggs’s biography has the footnoted weight of a sober academic study, while Welsh’s novel is as quick and dark as a child’s nightmare–these two books agree that here, indeed, is quite a man. Riggs wants to give us a Marlowe of his time, but he does so uneasily. His is a slippery subject. Marlowe spelled his name many ways–“Marlin,” “Merling,” “Marlen” and “Marley”–and moved through as many worlds. Marlowe spent his childhood in Canterbury: His father was a shoemaker, and his education at the local school consisted mainly of the memorization of religious texts and Latin literature. In 1580 he won a scholarship to Cambridge. So far in the story, much is typical, but at some point while he was at Cambridge, Marlowe’s life became extraordinary. He began writing love poetry and the plays that would briefly make him the most famous playwright in England; he also started working as a government spy, informing on English Catholics in exile in Europe.
It is precisely this combination of ordinary and extraordinary activities, played out in a single life, that makes Marlowe a fascinating, and yet impossible, biographical subject. Riggs’s painstaking research allows him to tell us what a typical contemporary of Marlowe’s might have had for lunch–“a small piece of beef and barley broth, at eleven a.m.”–but this is not quite the same as telling us what Marlowe himself ate. In the great epic of human activity, lunchtime is a relatively marginal interlude; but in the biography of a specific individual, what he thought and when is vital. And this cannot be known, as Riggs himself admits, “for the simple reason that he has left no first-person utterances for us to interpret.”