Have you ever wondered why so much controversy still surrounds the life, works and death of Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)? His legend has become all the more mysterious in the centuries since he lost his life in a barroom brawl. Or did he die? Perhaps, he lived on to give us the great works of Shakespeare, or perhaps some other plays. And, if these historical stories about his life are not fantastic enough, modern retellings have helped to keep our imaginations alive.
In Christopher Marlowe: A Literary Life, Lisa Hopkins tries to sort fact from fiction to create a more realistic picture of this literary master: his life, his adventures, his works, and even his death. By presenting the history of the Marlowe controversy, along with more modern interpretations of his life and work, Hopkins contributes to serious discussion. She explains that writings about Christopher Marlowe have ranged "from the nonsense of the authorship conspiracy theorists to brilliant explorations of his individual works or his career as a whole." This book is an attempt to cover all of these areas, starting with an overview of his canon, moving to his early life and education, discussing the creation of his works, then touching upon the "afterlife" of his works.
Hopkins explores the depth of Marlowe's writing. Even though he only lived for a short time, the few works we have from him are innovative in form and genre. "To some extent," Hopkins says, "all of Marlowe's theatre can be seen as probing and testing what society will and will not tolerate, particularly in the specific arenas of religious dissidence, lack of conformity to the norms of heterosexuality, and unwillingness to accept constituted authority." The subject matter of his plays can't be surprising, really, especially considering the dramatic life he led outside of the theatrical realm. Historical evidence suggests that he played the part of a spy. And outside of these daring escapades, "he was associating with men who constituted risky and sometimes violent company."
The life he led was violent, so it's not a shocker that his death was far from natural. Some theorists say his death by stabbing might have related to his work as a spy, while others believe it had something to do with his religious beliefs (or unbelief). Hopkins writes, "Dying in odd circumstances, which we will perhaps never fully understand, he was buried hugger-mugger in a location we can no longer precisely identify."
With the mystery of his life, and the uncertainty of the circumstances surrounding his death, it seems fitting that we don't even know where he was buried. There's more than a little tragedy in his dying so young, and with so few works to make up his canon. Hopkins says, "With him died attitudes toward religion, sexuality and society, which we are unlikely ever to be able to reconstruct in their original complexity." The few works he did leave us are in "a hopeless muddle."
If his works were incomplete or muddled, at least we have them. We also have the legends that have been passed down to us through literature and legend. He is always a part of the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; and what little we know of his life has become the subject for countless bits of fiction.
Perhaps most notable among the recent fictionalized Marlowe characters is his appearance in "Shakespeare in Love." As Lisa Hopkins explains, "Rupert Everett's benevolent and more successful Marlowe acts as role model to the young Shakespeare, buying him drinks and helping him to think of a better plot for his projected play... before dying in a brawl in a Deptford pub."
Of course, as with any fictionalization, the movie takes liberties with some of the facts literary scholars hold to be true. Hopkins writes, "Though the film makes no pretensions to historical accuracy, it does include some interesting pretensions to historical accuracy, it does include some interesting suggestions: "Doctor Faustus," we are told, is an early work, while Marlowe has just finished writing "The Massacre at Paris "on the day of his death."
In spite of the years that have intervened to separate us from any concrete answers to the Marlowe legend, we still look for answers. Every historical bit of paper is examined. Perhaps, we'll discover some unknown manuscript that will answer all of our questions.
Hopkins writes, "Perhaps the ultimate fascination of Marlowe... is the ways in which he defies easy assimilation into the modern world and retains his mystery."