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Christopher Marlowe (The Kalmar Union)

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Christopher Marlowe
Timeline: The Kalmar Union

Christopher Marlowe
Portrait of Christopher Marlowe

Born: August, 1564
Canterbury, Wessex
Died: 23rd February, 1623
Bury St Edmunds, Anglia
Profession: Playwright, Spy

Marlowe is widely regarded as Anglia's greatest playwright. He is credited with the authorship (or co-authorship) of some 18 complete plays alongside numerous poems.

A close contemporary of Wessex's Shakespeare, Marlowe was born in Canterbury, Wessex in 1564. His parent's Lutheranism was barely tolerated in Kent at that time and after Matilda II was imprisoned in the Tower of Bristol many Kentish Lutherans took the decision to flee. Anglia was largely on its way to fully embracing Lutheranism so Marlowe's family settled in Suffolk, though were perhaps ready to make passage to Flanders (where some of his cousins had gone to) should the situation change.

Attending Hainault College, Cambridge, it is widely believed Marlowe was recruited as a spy by the Lutheran faction at court thanks to his Wessex and Flemish connections. He certainly crossed the Channel several times, was frequently absent from his studies and was arrested twice in Wessex on suspicion of counterfeiting, though no charges could be made to stick. Anyway, after the first performance of The Tragedy of Queen Matilda II he was persona non grata in Wessex and would have been arrested, so any spying duties probably ended there.

Most of Marlowe's plays were first performed by the acting company Earl Norwich's Men in various theatres in Nottingham, Lincoln and Norwich. Some of the less overtly Lutheran ones were performed in Bristol too. Marlowe's connections to the royal court led to several commissions for historical plays; often depicting the folly of Anglia's enemies and promoting the successes of the House of Norfolk and their ancestors. His comedies meanwhile were often set in cities in Europe and were influenced by older plays from Italia and Germany.

His complete works are:

  • Dido, Queen of Carthage - a romance
  • Tamburlaine the Great, Part I - a history
  • Tamburlaine the Great, Part II - a history
  • The Jew of Malta - a revenge tragedy
  • Doctor Faustus - a tragedy based on German tales
  • Amleth or Elsinore - a version of the Danish legend also attempted by several of Marlowe's contemporaries
  • Queen Matilda II - a tragedy, condemning the Wessex royal house and its failure to embrace Lutheranism
  • Sweyn Forkbeard - a history
  • King Charles I - a history
  • William III, Part I - a history
  • William III, Part II - a history
  • Ganyemede - a fantastical comedy
  • The Fool in Winter - a comedy
  • Pyramus & Thisbe - a romantic tragedy set in Ancient Greece
  • Three Men of Genoa - a romantic comedy
  • The Labours of Love - a romantic comedy
  • The Trials of Hercules - a 'tragicomedy'
  • The Lion - a scathing comedy critisising Austria's policy in Bohemia on the eve of the Fifty Years War. It had two performances in Lincoln before being banned. Marlowe refused to write another play after that.

He enjoyed the patronage of King William IV and Queen Anna II, though fell a little out of favour when the Dutch John IV of the House of Leuven ascended the throne. While arguably Shakespeare is the greater dramatist and was more prolific, his work was highly influenced by that of Marlowe, a fact grudgingly admitted by Wessex scholars.

Marriage to Elizabeth Toll produced 6 children of whom 4 survived to adulthood. He died in 1623, probably of great pox.

Legacy

Before the works of Marlowe (and Nashe) and Shakespeare, the differences between Wessexian and Anglian were minor. Wessexian had a sheen of French words but otherwise they were virtually identical. Shakespeare and Marlowe set about redefining their languages. Marlowe avoided overtly French words replacing them with Danish or Dutch words, Shakespeare meanwhile emphasised French words, making up words if none fit his purpose. Once these texts were set out in print and were performed it influenced the language of the street. The 1610 reprint of the Anglian Bible copied Marlowe's exorcism of French (and Latin to some extent) and spread the new words even wider. Nowadays, while the languages are certainly mutually intelligable to a point, they are regarded as separate as say Icelandic and Vinlandic.

Divorced from their context of religious and political propaganda Marlowe's plays continue to be popular and most Kalmar theatres are generally not considered worth their salt until they have put on a credible performance of Doctor Faustus or Hercules. The plays are now also seen as material for films (slightly counter-intuitively as the soundless films can hardly do justice to the plays' dialogue). Many have been a simple filming of the play with intertitles though some pioneering directors are adapting them on a grander scale.

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