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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VII. Marlowe and Kyd

§ 2. Marlowe’s life and early literary work

Of the life of Christopher Marlowe, son of a Canterbury shoemaker and a clergyman’s daughter, there is little on record. To some of his contemporaries, and, unfortunately, to later biographers, interest in his personality has been confined to an exaggerated tale of blasphemy and evil living; above all, to his death at the early age of twenty-nine in a tavern brawl at Deptford, by the hand of a “bawdy serving-man,” named Archer, or Fraser, or Ingram. The recent elucidation of the facts of the poet’s career at Cambridge has happily diverted attention from the sordid ending and adjusted the balance of the scanty biography. In this short career there must, of necessity be little available to the antiquary; and yet we know as much of the man Marlowe as of the man Shakespeare, or, indeed, of any of the greater Elizabethans, Jonson excepted.

Marlowe proceeded from the King’s school at Canterbury to Bene’t (now Corpus Christi) college, Cambridge, about Christmas, 1580. He was in residence, with occasional breaks, till 1587, when he took his master’s degree, following on his bachelor’s in 1583–4. There is evidence that, soon after 1587, he had fallen into disfavour at the university, and was already settled in London. He had probably been there for some time before the production of Tamburlaine in that year or the next. The interval between graduation and the appearance of this play is ingeniously filled in for us by Collier. We must, however, treat the ballad of The Atheist’s Tragedie, which describes Marlowe’s actor’s life and riot in London, as one of Collier’s mystifications, and, together with it, the interpolation in Henslowe’s diary (fol. 19 v.) about “addicions” to Dr. Faustus and a “prolog to Marloes tambelan.” Cunningham’s suggestion that the young poet sought adventure as a soldier in the Low Countries, as Jonson did later, may be correct; but it must be proved on other grounds than his “familiarity with military terms.” It is useless to speculate on the causes of the Cambridge quarrel and his alleged restlessness. Malone’s view that Marlowe had become heretical under the influence of Francis Kett, fellow of Bene’t, was based on a misconception of Kett’s doctrine. If Kett resigned his fellowship in 1580, it would be hard to prove any association between him and Marlowe. The only extant piece which, with some show of reason, may be ascribed to this early period is the translation of Ovid’s Amores (Certaine of Ovid’s Elegies), which was printed posthumously, c. 1597. As an interpretation of the text, it does not reach even the indifferent level of Elizabethan scholarship, but it conveys the sensuous quality of the original. Marlowe’s early choice of this subject and of another in the same vein (said by Warton to have been The Rape of Helen by Coluthus, non-extant) has many parallels in contemporary literature; but it has greater value as a commentary on the later work of the poet who, unlike Shakespeare, was not allowed time to outlive his youthful passion. We might find in the eighteenth elegy (Ad Macrum) of the second book of his Ovid a motto for his coming endeavour, when, sitting “in Venus’ slothful shade,” he says:

  • Yet tragedies and sceptres fill’d my lines,
  • But, though I apt were for such high designs,
  • Love laughëd at my cloak.
  • If, later, he forsook the shade for the “stately tent of war,” it was because his passion had been transformed, not because he had grown old.