May 30, 1593, Christopher Marlowe, at twenty-nine
years old perhaps England's most famous
playwright and poet, went to a tavern in the
London suburb of Deptford to spend the afternoon
with friends. According to the coroner's
inquest, there was an argument about the bill
in the course of which Marlowe drew his knife
and lunged at Ingram Frizer, who was seated
on the opposite side of the table. In the scuffle
that followed, Marlowe's knife ended up
stuck in his own head, just above his eye,
fatally wounding him. Frizer was briefly held,
but then released without punishment. Case
closed. Puritan moralists such as Thomas Beard
saw the murder of Marlowe, who had a dangerous
reputation for atheism, as a manifest sign
of God's judgment.
sleuths in the twentieth century, reopening
the case, discovered that it was not so simple.
At the time of his death, Marlowe was under
official investigation for atheism and treason;
in the search for evidence against him, his
roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, had been
arrested and tortured, and a police spy, Richard
Baines, had given Queen Elizabeth's secret
police, headed by Thomas Walsingham, a list
of Marlowe's alleged "monstrous opinions." Moreover,
it turns out that Ingram Frizer was on Walsingham's
payroll, as were several of the other men who
were present in the room at the tavern when
Marlowe was killed. Perhaps Marlowe's death
really was the consequence of an argument about
the tavern "reckoning," as it was
called, but it is also possible that it was
a quite different reckoning that Marlowe was
paying for with his life.
The records of Marlowe's life give ample
evidence of a personal risk-taking shown also
by many of the great characters he created
for the theater. The son of a provincial cobbler,
he managed, in a world with very little social
mobility, to make his way to Cambridge University,
then plunged into both the unstable world of
spies, blackmailers, and agents provocateurs
and the almost equally unstable world of actors
and playwrights. He was fascinated, it seems,
by extremes: ambition on a vast scale, boundless
desire, a restless, reckless willingness to
transgress limits. Such are the passions that
drive Tamburlaine, in Marlowe's vision,
to conquer the world and Faustus to sell his
soul to Lucifer in exchange for knowledge and
power. And such perhaps are the passions that
enabled Marlowe, in the six short years between
1587, when he received his M.A. from Cambridge,
and 1593, when he died, to transform the English
Marlowe's plays had been seen or heard
before. Take, for example, this clumsy expression
of passionate love by the title character in Cambyses,
King of Persia, a popular play written
around 1560 by another Cambridge graduate,
For Cupid he, that eyeless boy, my heart
hath so enflamed
With beauty, you me to content the like cannot be named;
For since I entered in this place and on you fixed mine eyes,
Most burning fits about my heart in ample wise did rise.
The heat of them such force doth yield, my corpse they scorch, alas!
And burns the same with wasting heat as Titan doth the grass.
And sith this heat is kindled so and fresh in heart of me,
There is no way but of the same the quencher you much be.
Now compare Preston's couplets, written
in a metre called "fourteeners," with
the lines in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (ca.
1592–93) with which Faustus greets the conjured
figure of Helen of Troy:
the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips suck forth my soul, see where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena! (Scene 12, lines 80–86)
Marlowe has created and mastered a theatrical
language — a superb, unrhymed iambic
pentameter, or blank verse — far more
expressive than anything that anyone accustomed
to the likes of Preston could have imagined,
a language capable of remarkable intensity,
intellectual rigor, and emotional complexity.
Marlowe's achievement in Doctor Faustus is
both astonishing and unprecedented, but, although
it seems closely linked to his unique personality,
poetic gifts, and career, it cannot be understood
in isolation from the larger cultural context.
The story of Faustus was not Marlowe's
invention but came from a German narrative
about an actual historical figure. The powerful
fears aroused by such a figure, and the legends
associated with his name, are inseparable from
widespread anxieties about sorcery and magic,
anxieties violently manifested, for example,
in the chilling case of Doctor Fian and skeptically
challenged by Reginald Scot. Moreover, the
theater is by definition a collaborative form,
and in Marlowe's time the collaboration
frequently extended to the text. It is not
surprising, then, that Doctor Faustus has
come down to us in versions in which Marlowe's
own hand is conjoined with those of other playwrights
and not surprising too that scholars, just
as they have disagreed about the manner of
Marlowe's death, have disagreed about precisely
which parts of these texts are by Marlowe himself.