Born in Canterbury in 1564, the same year as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe was an actor, poet, and playwright during the reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603). Marlowe attended Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University and received degrees in 1584 and 1587. Traditionally, the education that he received would have prepared him to become a clergyman, but Marlowe chose not to join the ministry. For a time, Cambridge even wanted to withhold his degree, apparently suspecting him of having converted to Catholicism, a forbidden faith in late-sixteenth-century England, where Protestantism was the state-supported religion. Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council intervened on his behalf, saying that Marlowe had “done her majesty good service” in “matters touching the benefit of the country.” This odd sequence of events has led some to theorize that Marlowe worked as a spy for the crown, possibly by infiltrating Catholic communities in France.
After leaving Cambridge, Marlowe moved to London, where he became a playwright and led a turbulent, scandal-plagued life. He produced seven plays, all of which were immensely popular. Among the most well known of his plays are Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus. In his writing, he pioneered the use of blank verse—nonrhyming lines of iambic pentameter—which many of his contemporaries, including William Shakespeare, later adopted. In 1593, however, Marlowe’s career was cut short. After being accused of heresy (maintaining beliefs contrary to those of an approved religion), he was arrested and put on a sort of probation. On May 30, 1593, shortly after being released, Marlowe became involved in a tavern brawl and was killed when one of the combatants stabbed him in the head. After his death, rumors were spread accusing him of treason, atheism, and homosexuality, and some people speculated that the tavern brawl might have been the work of government agents. Little evidence to support these allegations has come to light, however.
Doctor Faustus was probably written in 1592, although the exact date of its composition is uncertain, since it was not published until a decade later. The idea of an individual selling his or her soul to the devil for knowledge is an old motif in Christian folklore, one that had become attached to the historical persona of Johannes Faustus, a disreputable astrologer who lived in Germany sometime in the early 1500s. The immediate source of Marlowe’s play seems to be the anonymous German work Historia von D. Iohan Fausten of 1587, which was translated into English in 1592, and from which Marlowe lifted the bulk of the plot for his drama. Although there had been literary representations of Faust prior to Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus is the first famous version of the story. Later versions include the long and famous poem Faust by the nineteenth-century Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as operas by Charles Gounod and Arrigo Boito and a symphony by Hector Berlioz. Meanwhile, the phrase “Faustian bargain” has entered the English lexicon, referring to any deal made for a short-term gain with great costs in the long run.