(This portrait may be of Christopher Marlowe. It was discovered at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1952.)
In the monthly letter of Limited Editions Club, it starts with a forever haunting question: What if….? What if Christopher Marlowe was not killed in a fight in Eleanor Bull’s tavern when he was only 29? What if he lived for a few more decades and wrote more masterpieces? “Playwright” Shakespeare might not even appeared when Marlowe was already a shining star and instead focused on his acting career. Yet, we can never undo the history and we shall return to examine the short yet splendid life of Marlowe.
Baptized on February 26, 1564, two months earlier than his contemporary playwright, William Shakespeare, Marlowe was born to shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife Catherine in Canterbury. The date of his birth is not certain but it is believed to be a few days before his baptism. He first attended The King’s School in Canterbury and then received a scholarship to study in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1584 but later denied of his Master of Arts degree. Rumor has it that the denial was resulted from his frequent absence and a letter from Privy Council ordered Cambridge to grant Marlowe his M.A for his contribution to Her Majesty, in which his absence was justified for his service abroad as a secret agent.
Dido, Queen of Carthage is attributed to Marlowe’s first play but his first great success as a playwright is probably Tamburlaine the Great: Part the First. It was so well-received that he wrote the sequel, Tamburlaine the Great: Part the Second. Marlowe pioneered the use of blank verse in this play, and it was one of the blockbusters in early Elizabethan drama, along with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.
He continues his literal career with more plays: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus tells an old German story in a new dramatized way that spooks the audience in London even in daylight. The corrupted mind of Doctor Faustus echos the dark side of all human beings and we couldn’t help but feel pity for this horrifying story. The Troublesome Reign of Edward the Second took the lead to explore the psychology of the characters rather than displaying historical facts in history drama, foreshadowing the more sophisticated tetralogy of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV Part I, II and Henry V. Other plays like The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris remain more controversial about the authenticity of Marlowe’s work. He also wrote poems, Hero and Leander and The Passionate Shepherd to His Love; and he translated Ovid’s Amores and the first book of Lucan’s Pharsalia.
In the book published by Limited Editions Club, four of Marlowe’s most successful and mature plays were selected:
Tamburlaine the Great: Part the First,
Tamburlaine the Great: Part the Second
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
The Troublesome Reign of Edward the Second