Christopher Marlowe, universally recognized as the greatest English poet/dramatist before Shakespeare, was born the eldest son of a Canterbury cobbler. His precocious talent was recognized at an early age, however, and he was accepted on scholarships first by the prestigious King's School Canterbury and then Corpus Christi college in Cambridge as one of its elite "Parker" scholars.
There, Marlowe started the two activities which he would follow for the rest of his life: writing verse and working as a secret agent for the government. The verse was in the form of translations from the classics, including some of Ovid's more erotic works, lyric poetry, and plays in blank verse of a quality never seen before on the English stage.
His work as a government agent nearly cost him his M.A. degree, since he let it be believed that he was planning to join the English College in Rheims, where Roman Catholics were trained and ordained as Catholic priests with the aim of returning to England as subversives, even to engage in plots to assassinate the Queen. Only a letter from the Privy Council
- the most powerful men in the land - ensured that the Cambridge authorities knew it "was not her Majesty's pleasure" that young Christopher be denied his degree just because they were not aware of the "good service" he had been doing on her behalf.
Marlowe's scholarship at Cambridge was intended to prepare him for a life in the church, but his six-and-a-half years there had had quite the opposite effect. By the time he left he'd rejected any form of organized religion
- even claiming (it was reported) there is no God - and headed for London with two plays in his pocket and a boundless (and well- justified) confidence in his own ability.
As luck would have it, his play
Tamburlaine the Great provided a title role which precisely matched the style in which the great actor Edward Alleyn excelled, and the partnership rocketed both of them to "overnight stardom." This led to the stage's first "sequel,"
Tamburlaine Part Two, followed by the still famous
Doctor Faustus, the hugely popular
Jew of Malta, and the uncannily "Shakespearian"
Although secret intelligence work by its very nature usually remains unrecorded, he was at one point working in the Netherlands on anti-Catholic operations involving the counterfeiting of Dutch and English currency. There is also the possibility that he was "planted" by the government as a private tutor to
Arbella Stuart, cousin of the future King James I and second in line to the throne.
In his spare time he gained the reputation of being a "roaring boy," whose outrageous views and acerbic wit won him quite a few enemies and even led to a sword fight on at least one occasion. Most of all, however, he scoffed at people's religion, said that it had been created just to keep men in awe, and that they shouldn't be afraid of "bug-bears and hobgoblins." He was even suspected of having written a book which argued atheism and which was being used by a seditious group who planned to replace the monarchy with an atheist state. A.L. Rowse also called him a "raving homo," although such evidence as there is for this is ambiguous to say the least!
In May 1593, the thought police were closing in, and not even his past "good service" was going to save him. Accused of having been responsible for some "vile heretical conceits" found in playwright Thomas Kyd's rooms, he was hauled before the Privy Council, but released on bail and required to report to them every day until they said otherwise.
The Councillors never did, because on 30th May, at a meeting in Deptford between him and three men all known to be professional liars
- and employed by his patrons both artistic and political - he was killed "in self-defence" by one of them. An inquest was held two days later by the Queen's own coroner, and the body was buried later the same day in the local churchyard
- nobody knows where - and left there to rot. Within a month the killer was pardoned.
But the body wasn't Marlowe's. A substitute corpse had been found, and the whole story told at the inquest was a pack of lies. Marlowe was spirited out of the country and into exile, probably in Italy, staying away for the next two years or so. When the news had grown cold, and when his appearance had changed enough to risk it, he returned, being found safe places to stay incognito amongst the various aristocrats of his acquaintance, or the stately homes of their friends.
Meanwhile he continued to write plays; wonderful plays; plays which he was able to see performed; plays and poems that would be presented as those of the actor and entrepreneur, William Shakespeare.