Christopher Marlowe

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This month marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. Gareth Jenkins celebrates his life and work.

On 30 May 1593 Christopher Marlowe went with two acquaintances to a tavern in south east London. After a long afternoon drinking a fight broke out over who should pay the bill, at the end of which Marlow lay dead of a knife wound.

Thus ended the short life of a poet and dramatist, born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare. His stage hits had wowed London in the late 1580s, around the time of the Spanish Armada. But writing was only one of his careers.

As a student, Marlow had been sent to northern France to spy on English Catholics. Cambridge University had thought he himself was one and had withheld his degree, until overruled by the highest body in the land, the Privy Council.

His services to Protestant England didn't stop him from being investigated at the time of his death for "atheism". One of his "monstrous opinions" was that "the first beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe" - opinions he was said to spread in intellectual and aristocratic circles. He was also accused of sexual deviancy: "All they that love not tobacco and boys were fools."

Among Marlowe's drinking companions on that fatal afternoon was a fellow spy. So Marlow may not have died accidentally but may have been put out of the way for fear of a public scandal.

Tamburlaine the Great was Marlowe's first smash hit. The play, in two parts, is the story of the unstoppable rise of a humble shepherd to being master of the world. The plays appealed because of the relentless energy and drive of Marlowe's "mighty line", a form of blank verse he virtually invented.

What also stirred audiences was that the social outsider should dare to aspire to supreme power, hitherto reserved for the nobly born. The echo with plucky little Protestant England challenging Catholic Spain for world domination may have reassured the authorities.

But Tamburlaine's self-justification would not have. Tamburlaine tells his audience that rebellion is normal. "Nature" itself teaches us to "have aspiring minds", never to rest until we "reach the ripest fruit of all" - power. This is a very new sense of what is "natural", in sharp conflict with the convenient fiction that the existing social order was "natural" and therefore unchallengeable.

Tamburlaine is the first of many "over-reachers" in Marlowe's plays. Faustus, in perhaps the most well-known of Marlowe's plays, also dreams of conquest - but on an intellectually more ambitious scale. Through a pact with the devil, he hopes for power over nature to satisfy his desires.

The climax of his ambition to range over space and time comes when the most beautiful woman of classical history, Helen of Troy, is summoned before him. "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" he muses. "Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss." But Helen is a devilish illusion. There is no immortality of bliss. Time will destroy him, as it does Tamburlaine.

The reality in Marlowe's period was that real knowledge, and therefore command of nature, was as yet a frustrating dream without substance.

Faustus never gets the answers he wants from the devil and his power amounts to little more than playing practical jokes on the pope (good Protestant stuff). The tragic realisation in his final speech, before hell claims him, is that the dream of limitless power ends in horror.

The mismatch between dream and actuality can be grotesque. The ambition of Barabas in The Jew of Malta is the purely mercantile one of reducing all to gold - world conquest is "infinite riches in a little room".

His motivation is pure calculation and if he conforms to the anti-Semitic stereotype the irony of his destruction at the end of the play is that his "noble" Christian enemies outdo him in "Jewish" cunning.

In Edward the Second, Marlowe's one English history play, "wealth" is concentrated in another "little" space, that of intense, erotic friendship between men. Edward's ambition is not power.

Rather he would sacrifice all "to frolic with his Gaveston". This choice enrages the nobles, not so much because they morally disapprove, because Gaveston is a social upstart, threatening, as they see it, the safety of the kingdom.

How we define Marlowe's sexuality is unclear, but the homoeroticism captures a modern sense that love between people should not be subject to convention or calculation.

In his popular love poem Hero and Leander, incomplete at his death, Marlowe says that we do not choose our affections - it is a matter of "fate".

We just fall in love. "Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?"