Dr Faustus

By Christopher Marlowe

Biography and Background

Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564 in Canterbury, Kent. His life has been the subject of much speculation and has fascinated scholars through the centuries. He attended King's School, Canterbury, and then Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. While still a student he travelled abroad for the Government, probably as a spy for Walsingham. He left Cambridge for London in 1587 and started to earn a living as a playwright. His first play, Tamberlaine the Great, and its sequel, Tamberlaine the Great, Part II, were immediate hits. The hero is a brutal murderer, and his ruthless politics anticipates the pride and ambition of Faustus that would follow.

Marlowe's friends were young men like himself, with similar interests, and included the playwright Thomas Kyd, who wrote the first revenge tragedy for the English stage, the hugely influential The Spanish Tragedy. Marlowe mixed amongst criminals and spies, intellectuals and men of politics. As well as plays he composed lyric poetry, translated Ovid's Amores and Lucan's Pharsalia, and wrote Hero and Leander, an epyllion (a short narrative poem or 'little epic' fashionable in the 1590s).

At the time of his death from a knife wound, in Deptford, London in 1593, Marlowe was said to have expressed atheistic views. Certainly his religious sympathies have aroused debate. Some have believed him to be a member of the puritan movement; its emphasis on free speech resonates with the idea that he infiltrated the Catholic Jesuit community at Rheims in France when working for Walsingham's secret service. However, he has also been seen as a Catholic sympathizer, and that in France he became a double agent. There were numerous spy networks run by the nobility, and dissent and conflict coursed through political connections. Richard Baines, a Government informer, wrote of Marlowe: "almost into every company he cometh he persuades men to Atheism, willing them not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both god and his ministers". He claimed Marlowe to have remarked that "all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools". Under arrest, Kyd also made accusations against Marlowe. Obviously this evidence cannot be relied upon - it is speculation and could have been the invention of enemies wishing to discredit Marlowe and his friends. However, the notion that Kit Marlowe was an atheist has clung persistently to his reputation, leading some to argue that Faustus is a version of the author himself. Admittedly the play explores the problems of belief, and puts the existence of God under stress, but he is not absent from the play. He may be revengeful and terrifying, but Doctor Faustus still points to his presence.

Marlowe's death, arising either from self-defence or murder, has been linked with Baines' accusations and the rumours that were brewing. He was invited to eat at an inn in Deptford. Two witnesses reported an argument between the playwright and a man called Ingram Frizar, resulting in a knife-wound to Marlowe's eye. Critics have been sceptical of the way in which this has been explained away as accidental. Hotson and Nicholl have seen Marlowe's death and the subsequent tarnishing of his reputation as too convenient. On the other hand, J. B. Steane in his introduction to Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays (Penguin, 1969), believes that though accounts may be exaggerated, they are rooted in fact: "…atheist or rebel or not, we have to acknowledge that there is no single piece of evidence that is not hearsay - only that there is a good deal of it, that it is reasonably consistent, and that on the other side there is no single fact or piece of hearsay known to us that will rank as evidence against it". Christopher Marlowe produced seven major plays in six years, and at the time of his death he enjoyed prestige among the most highly- regarded playwrights of the day. Simon Shepherd, in his introduction to Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre (Harvester, Brighton, 1984) conveys the impact of this for English literature: "I would suggest that had he lived Marlowe might well have produced a set of texts of an artistic quality that would rival if not excel Shakespeare's".