[Click on image to enlarge] On 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.

[Click on image to enlarge]Literary 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 theater.

Nothing like 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, Thomas Preston:

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:

Was this 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.

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