#1 Christopher Marlowe: Playwright, Criminal and Alleged Government Spy
To celebrate our university’s 50th anniversary we’re doing 50 profiles of local people and places. To kick start our celebration Anne Suslak profiles Christopher Marlowe, one of the most famous playwrights to come from Canterbury.
Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe is probably most famous for not being Shakespeare. He was baptised in Canterbury Cathedral in 1564 and died under mysterious circumstances in 1593. His violent death enabled Shakespeare to rise as the more prominent Elizabethan playwright, leading to the conspiracy theory that Marlowe was a pseudonym used by Shakespeare early in his career. Nevertheless, Marlowe is remembered for his two most famous plays, The Jew of Malta and the Gothic tragedy Doctor Faustus, published posthumously. The play’s most well known line ‘Is this the face which launched a thousand ships?’ is addressed to the mythological figure Helen of Troy. Marlowe published seven plays and multiple poems during his short life. He is rumoured to have lived where the Cathedral Café stands today, although that rumour is unsubstantiated.
In modern popular culture, Marlowe is portrayed by Rupert Everett in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, in which he encourages Shakespeare to write a play called ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter,’ however as usual he is a minor character, overshadowed by his more famous contemporary. Although Shakespeare is more prolific, Marlowe also has a dedicated following with many novels, plays and even a rock musical being dedicated to him.
Marlowe attracted a lot of controversy in his relatively short life. There is a popular belief that he was handpicked as a government spy during his time at Cambridge. He had long, mysterious absences from university and spent suspicious amounts of money on food and drink, more than he could have afforded without an alternative source of income. He was arrested several times for taking part in a deadly quarrel between his neighbours, allegedly counterfeiting coins in the Netherlands and once more, shortly before his death, when a manuscript containing heretical ideas was found and attributed to Marlowe. He was reportedly an atheist, which at the time put him in great danger, leading to a theory that the Queen herself arranged his murder because she believed him to be an enemy of God, and therefore of the state.
Despite his untimely death, Marlowe’s legacy continues. The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and the Marlowe building at the University of Kent are named after him. Kit Harington, the actor who portrays Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, is named after him. There is even a Marlowe Society, which was founded in 1955 by Thomas A Bushnell, who believed that Marlowe survived beyond 1593 and wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. A portrait, believed to be of Marlowe, was discovered in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1952. It shows his facial resemblance to William Shakespeare as well as his lusciously flowing hair. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave at the Church of St Nicholas in Deptford.