We don’t really know much about him, beyond the odd scraps in college account books and a note here and there from a friend. We have this portrait, which may not even be Marlowe, though everyone seems to think it is. As Park Honan put it in his excellent biography, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, it fits our sense of the man. We want this to be Kit’s portrait. That direct, knowing gaze, the aloof, yet challenging pose, the tousled hair, and the fine doublet, pricked and studded with expensive buttons. The dates add up; the subject is supposed to be 21 years old. And the motto feels very much like something Marlowe would choose for himself: Quod me nutrit, me destruit, That which nourishes me, destroys me. James Dean could not have said it better.
The portrait was discovered inside a wall at Corpus Christi College, Marlowe’s alma mater. The discovery is a story in itself.
The portrait wasn’t found until 1952, but we’ve had the poetry since Tamburlaine was first performed in 1587. Marlowe took the theatrical world by storm, mere months after leaving Cambridge University with his MA degree in his pocket. It was the most exciting play ever seen. Audacious! Shocking! Amoral! Guns were fired on stage! Poetry of breathless beauty serving up ideas of daring sophistication. Almost atheistic, Tamburlaine sought his own advancement and dared to challenge even the gods.
“Nature, that framed us of four elements
Warring in our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand’ring planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.”
Unfortunately, his plays don’t live for us the way Shakespeare’s do. Marlowe’s characters are too big, too stiff, unnatural. His stories also feel over the top, without the grounding in everyday human experience that keeps Shakespeare alive century after century. Tamburlaine is still the most readable of Marlowe’s plays, though; if you want to read one, read that. You can get his works free on any e-reader you please and read a verse or two a day, just to savor the language. You can also watch a DVD of Edward II performed by the Royal Shakespeare Theater with a very, very young Ian McKellen in the title role. Two thumbs up!
If you’re only going to read one biography, read Park Honan’s (2005) Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy. This is a well-written, insightful, and sympathetic reconstruction of the man’s scantily documented life. But don’t read just one, because the second one is less clearly biographical but heaps more fun. The Reckoning, by Charles Nicholl (1992), looks at the same scanty documentation, but adds lots of information about the period to explore the mystery of Marlowe’s death.
Was he murdered? Was he really a spy? If so, for whom did he work? The Reckoning won the Crime Writer’s Association Non-Fiction Gold Dagger Award in 1992 and richly deserved it. It’s a fascinating book on all counts: an example of historical research, a portrait of the seamy world of Elizabethan intelligence gathering, and underneath all that, a heartfelt plea that the death of a man who could write like Christopher Marlowe should be more than merely an accident.