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Doctor Faustus
Christopher Marlowe


If you met Christopher Marlowe, you might not like him. But you would probably be fascinated by him. Marlowe was a fiery genius whose brief career resembled the trail of a meteor across the night sky.

Marlowe was not just a writer. A hot-headed swordsman, he was arrested twice for street fighting and spent some weeks in prison for his role in a fatal duel. He was also a spy, involved in a dangerous, though not fully understood, ring of secret agents.

At one extreme, Marlowe was a social climber who hobnobbed with the rich and powerful of his day. He was friend to Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the government's secret service. And he knew Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth's favorite at court. At the other extreme, Marlowe had a taste for London low life. He haunted the taverns till dawn in the company of thieves and confidence men.

Marlowe combined a thirst for adventure with wildly speculative opinions. In Elizabethan times, when church attendance was strictly enforced by law, Marlowe was an atheist. Like Faustus, he scoffed openly at established beliefs. He called the biblical Moses "a juggler," or second-rate magician, and referred to Christ as a not-so-pious fraud.

Not surprisingly, when Marlowe died at 29- stabbed through the eye in a tavern brawl- many people saw in his fate the hand of an angry God. But let's start at the beginning.

Marlowe was born in 1564, two months before William Shakespeare, in the cathedral town of Canterbury. He was a shoemaker's son and, in the normal course of events, would have taken up his father's trade. Destiny intervened, however, in the form of a college scholarship. In the sixteenth century, even more than in the present day, college was a way out of a laborer's life. It opened up the path of advancement, presumably within the church.

Today, we think of education as a universal right. But in those days, it was a privilege. The ability to read- which meant the ability to read Latin- was still a rare accomplishment. In fact, under English common law, any man who could read was considered a priest and could claim, if arrested, a right called "benefit of clergy." That meant, if you killed a man and could read, you might go free with a warning. But if you killed a man and couldn't read, you were sure to swing from the gallows.

In the sixteenth century, as you will see in Doctor Faustus, there was still something magical about books and people who could read them. That's why, when Marlowe was offered a scholarship by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he probably jumped at the chance. In 1581 the promising youth left home to attend Cambridge University.

Cambridge fed Marlowe's hungry mind, even while it vexed his spirit. The university library was one of the world's finest. Good books were still scarce and expensive. The shoemaker's household would have had its Bible and some collections of sermons. But the Cambridge library shelves were lined with leather-bound classics, those works of ancient Greece and Rome that the Renaissance found so illuminating. Aristotle's studies of Nature, Homer's magnificent epics, the Roman poet Ovid's frank celebrations of love- they were all there, and Marlowe read them avidly along with maps that showed him the exotic places of the world.

The books and the library were part of the luxury offered by Cambridge. But there was an oppressive side, too, to university life. Cambridge in those years was a training ground for the ministry, its graduates destined to be clergymen or schoolmasters. Piety and sobriety were the virtues promoted in its cold stone halls. Cambridge scholars slept in communal dormitories, took their bread at the buttery (a sort of feudal cafeteria), and wore, by regulation, simple wool caps and gowns. Innocent pastimes like swimming were forbidden and subject to severe punishment. In short, despite occasional high-jinks, the lives of the students were not so different from those of medieval monks.

There was a basic contradiction in all this, a contradiction that lies at the heart of Doctor Faustus. The classics which these young men were reading beckoned them toward the world and the pleasures of the senses. But to stay at Cambridge and to study these books, the young men had to appear to be devout ministers-in-training. As Faustus puts it, they were "divines in show."

A whole generation broke under the strain. They fled the Cambridge cloister and descended on London to earn a precarious living by writing. These were the so-called University Wits. And Marlowe would soon join them, for he, too, was in rebellion against the religious demands of Cambridge.

While studying for his master's degree, Marlowe wrote plays in secret (plays were viewed as the devil's work by the church), and he became involved in some colorful espionage activities. In a flagrant breach of the rules, Marlowe stayed absent for months at a time, traveling on the Continent on some deep business of the Privy Council's. (The Privy Council was a body of advisors to the queen, a sort of unofficial Cabinet.)

The Cambridge authorities moved to expel Marlowe, but a grateful government intervened. The university dons, their arms gently twisted by the Privy Council, awarded Marlowe the highly respected Master of Arts degree in 1587. With two university degrees (a bachelor's and a master's) under his belt, the shoemaker's son was entitled to style himself Christopher Marlowe, gentleman. No small matter in class-conscious England, then or now.

His studies behind him, Marlowe left for London, where he joined the circle of bright and ambitious university renegades: Thomas Nashe, John Lyly, Robert Greene. Marlowe and the rest headed for the theater with a sense of exhilaration. In London of the 1580s, the drama was just springing to life.

The first theaters were being built- the Curtain, the Rose- legitimate places for plays that had previously been performed in innyards. The first acting companies were being formed- the Lord Admiral's Men, the Lord Chamberlain's Men- as the players, frowned upon by the church, sought the service and protection of the great lords.

Marlowe, an innovator, thrived in this stimulating environment. He threw himself into the new theater with enthusiasm. He took lodgings in Shoreditch, the theatrical district on the outskirts of town, and roomed for a while with Thomas Kyd, the author of the popular Spanish Tragedy. Marlowe worked for the hard-headed theater owner, Philip Henslowe, and wrote plays for the Lord Admiral's Men and their great star, Edward Alleyn. In the process, Marlowe's fertile brain and fiery spirit helped give shape and form to what we now call Elizabethan drama.

The main gift Marlowe gave to the theater was its language. As you probably know from your study of Shakespeare, Elizabethan playwrights wrote in blank verse or iambic pentameter. (Iambic pentameter meant that the verse line had five feet, each composed of a weak and a strong syllable.) Marlowe didn't invent blank verse, but he took a form that had been stilted and dull and he breathed fresh life and energy into it. It was Marlowe who made blank verse a supple and expressive dramatic instrument.

When Marlowe arrived in London, he took the theatrical world by storm. He was new to the stage, but within months, he was its master. He was admired, imitated, and envied, as only the wildly successful can be.

His first play was Tamburlaine (1587), the tale of a Scythian shepherd who took to the sword and carved out a vast empire. Audiences held their breath as Tamburlaine rolled across stage in a chariot drawn by kings he had beaten in battle. Tamburlaine cracked his whip and cried, "Hola, ye pampered jades of Asia!" (Jades meant both worn-out horses and luxury-satiated monarchs.) This was electrifying stuff which packed the theaters and made ruthless conquerors the rage of London.

Marlowe had a terrific box-office sense, and he kept on writing hits as fast as his company could stage them. In 1588 came Tamburlaine II and then, probably in 1591, The Jew of Malta, the story of a merchant as greedy for riches as Tamburlaine was for crowns. Gold wasn't good enough for the Jew of Malta. That merchant longed for priceless gems and unimaginable wealth. No warrior, the Jew of Malta's weapons in his battle with life were policy and guile. He set a new style in dramatic characters, the Machiavellian villain. (These villains were named for Nicholas Machiavelli, the Italian author of a cynical guide for princes.)

Faustus was either Marlowe's second or last tragic hero. Some scholars believe Doctor Faustus was written in 1590, before The Jew of Malta. Others date the play from 1592, the last year of Marlowe's life. In either case, Faustus completed the circle of heroes with superhuman aspirations. Where Tamburlaine sought endless rule, and the Jew of Malta fabulous wealth, Faustus pursued limitless knowledge.

Like Tamburlaine, Faustus had a powerful impact on Elizabethan theatergoers. For audiences who flocked to see him, Marlowe's black magician combined the incredible powers of Merlin with the spine-chilling evil of Dracula. We know the thrill of horror that swept through spectators of Doctor Faustus since there are records of performances called to a halt, when the startled citizens of London thought they saw a real devil on stage.

Marlowe's tragic heroes share a sense of high destiny, an exuberant optimism, and a fierce unscrupulousness in gaining their ends. They've been called "overreachers" because of their refusal to accept human limitations. Humbly born, all of Marlowe's tragic heroes climb to lofty heights before they die or are humbled by the Wheel of Fortune.

Did Marlowe share the vaulting ambitions of his characters, their lust for power, riches, and knowledge? In dealing with a dramatist who wears a mask, it's always dangerous to make assumptions. But the slim facts and plentiful rumors that survive about Marlowe suggest a fire-eating rebel who was not about to let tradition stand in his way.

All his life, Marlowe thumbed his nose at convention. Expected to be first a cobbler, then a clergyman, he defied expectations and chose instead the glamorous world of the theater. Lacking wealth and a title- the passports to high society- he nevertheless moved in brilliant, aristocratic circles. In the shedding of humble origins, in the upward thrust of his life, Marlowe was very much a Renaissance man.

Free of the restraints of Cambridge, Marlowe emerged in London as a religious subversive. There are hints of forbidden pleasures ("All that love not tobacco and boys were fools," he quipped) and more than hints of iconoclasm. Marlowe is said to have joined a circle of free-thinkers known as the School of Night. This group, which revolved around Sir Walter Raleigh, indulged in indiscreet philosophic discussion and allegedly in blasphemies concerning the name of God.

Marlowe was blasted from the pulpit, and eventually his unorthodoxy landed him in trouble with the secular authorities. In 1593 he was summoned before the Privy Council, presumably on charges of atheism. (In Elizabethan times, atheism was a state offense with treasonous overtones.) Though Marlowe's death forestalled the inquiry, the furor was just beginning.

Two days after Marlowe was killed, an informer named Richard Baines submitted to the authorities a document concerning Marlowe's "damnable judgment of religion." Baines attributed eighteen statements to Marlowe, some attacking Jesus, others the Bible and the church. A sample comment of Marlowe's was that "if the Jews, among whom Christ was born, crucified him, they knew him best." By implication, they knew what he deserved. The document ends with Baines' charge that Marlowe failed to keep his outrageous opinions to himself, touting them all over London. In addition, Marlowe's sometime roommate, Thomas Kyd, who was also arrested and tortured, accused Marlowe of having written atheistic tracts that were found in Kyd's possession, when his house was searched.

The evidence against Marlowe is suspect or hearsay. But with so much smoke, there may have been fire. Some scholars think that Marlowe leapt at the Faustus story because it gave him a chance to vent his godless beliefs under cover of a play with a safe moral ending. Yet other scholars point to the damnation of Faustus as evidence that Marlowe was moving away from atheism- indeed, that he was moving toward Christianity, even though he never quite arrived there. Was Marlowe beginning to be frightened by his audacity? Was he mellowing with the approach of middle age? Or was God-defiance and a youthful faith in glorious human possibility simply his life-long credo?

These questions have no answers, for Marlowe's life and writing career were cut short in May 1593. After spending a day closeted with secret agents in a Deptford tavern, Marlowe quarreled with one of them- Ingram Friser- over the bill. Marlowe pulled out a dagger and hit Friser over the head with its flat end. In the ensuing scuffle, Friser got hold of the dagger and thrust its point deep into Marlowe's eye. The playwright died of brain injuries three days later, "died swearing" according to the gratified London preachers.

We can only speculate as to what heights Marlowe might have climbed as a dramatist, had he lived. He spent six astonishingly productive years in London. Had Shakespeare, his contemporary, died at the same age, he would have written very few of the plays for which he is loved today.


ECC [Doctor Faustus Contents] []
[Christopher Marlowe quotes]
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of, Inc. is prohibited.

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