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
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