Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
Rejecting a clerical career, Marlowe moved to London and began a six-year career as a dramatist, producing the two parts of Tamburlaine the Great (c. 1587), Dr. Faustus (c. 1588) (in which appear the famous lines, “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss! Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!”), The Jew of Malta (c. 1589) (in which appears the line, “I count religion but a childish toy, and hold there is no sin but ignorance”), and Edward II (c. 1592).
To Algernon Charles Swinburne Marlowe was “the most daring and inspired pioneer of all our literature.” He was arguably the most talented playwright in England next to William Shakespeare, who was born in the same year, and had he lived beyond age 29 he might have equaled or even surpassed the Bard.
The playwright had little regard for religion. Marlowe, Walter Raleigh and others formed a private circle of Rationalists, which clerical critics called “Raleigh’s school of Atheism.” Freethought usually grows when free discussion is allowed, and although it was widespread among educated elites, in Elizabethan England skepticism was still a crime that could be punished severely: Marlowe’s friend Francis Kett was burned for heresy in 1589.
He became an agent of statesman Sir Francis Walsingham in the secret service of Elisabeth I — though he did serve time on at least two occasions for killing an opponent in fights. It is assumed by some scholars that Marlowe’s death in Eleanor Bull’s tavern on 30 May 1593 was not a simple dispute over a bill that accelerated under the fuel of drink. It is possible that he was murdered for political reasons. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave. His killer, Ingram Frizer, pleaded self-defense, so the Queen pardoned him.
A week before his death, the Privy Council had ordered Marlowe’s arrest on charges of Atheism, blasphemy, subversion and homosexuality.
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