Christopher Marlowe was an innovative
writer who was alternately considered an atheist and a devout Christian. His plays reflect this
extraordinary diversity in his beliefs and morals and his inquisitive mind. Marlowe introduced
moral thinking in his plays and was considered to be a man deeply concerned with religion, suffering
and evil. He was born in 1564 in Canterbury, the same year as Shakespeare. Although he was
the son of a shoemaker, Marlowe was a brilliant scholar. He attended King's School in Canterbury
and later Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.
He was awarded a scholarship during his college years, but the grant was meant for men interested in
priesthood. Quite apparently, Marlowe must have drastically changed his career plans after college.
After earning his B.A. and M.A degrees he became a spy for Queen Elizabeth's government. At twenty-three
Marlowe came to London and associated with other recent university graduates who survived by writing
plays and pamphlets.
had several brushes with the law and was accused of making scandalous and seditious speeches.
He got into a street fight and landed in jail. A few days before the case was to be heard, Marlowe
spent the day with some shady acquaintances. Many scholars believe that he died instantly at the
age of twenty-nine from a two-inch dagger wound inflicted above the eye during a fight about the bill
at a tavern on that day. Theories about his death are still circulated.
Although his life was short, Marlowe did succeed in publishing
seven dramatic poems that were tragedies, including Doctor Faustus. His heroes are usually
"overreachers," men who are self-driven by greed and ambition. They fail to recognize their responsibility
to God and their fellow creatures. Many scholars believe that Marlowe's dramatic style showed
Shakespeare what was possible in dramatic poetry and greatly influenced him.
Doctor Faustus is based on an old German folktale.
The real John Faust, or Faustus, was a travelling magician who died about 1540. After death, he
became a legendary figure. People attributed his skills as a magician to a pact that he had made
with the devil. Marlowe transformed this tale into an ambitious scholar at Wittenberg who sells
his soul to the devil to satiate his thirst for power and knowledge. Marlowe's audiences firmly
believed in the existence of the devil, which made the play all the more tragic and horrific.