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$ Of the life of Christopher Marlowe - the most distinguished of the dramatists who immediately preceded Shakspere-nothing is known except its beginning and its end. After we have traced him from school to college, and from thence to London, he disappears in the crowds of the metropolis, where he seems to have spent his few remaining years in the service of the stage. 54.78
Christopher, or, as he is familiarly called by his contemporaries, Kit Marlowe, was the son of John Marlowe, a shoemaker, and was born at Canterbury in February, 1563-4. He received the elements of his education at the King's School in that city, and was afterward placed at Benet (Corpus Christi) College, Cambridge, where he matriculated as a pensioner on the 17th March, 1580-1. There were scholarships in the gift of the King's School, but it does not appear that Marlowe obtained admission to the University as a scholar; and as it is unlikely that his father's circumstances were sufficiently prosperous to bear the expenses of his' collegiate course, we must infer that the cost was defrayed by the assistance of some rich friend or patron of the family. This conjecture is strengthened by Marlowe's Latin verses to the memory of Sir Roger Manwood, who resided in the neighborhood of Canterbury, and was munificent in the dispensation of his bounties. To that gentleman Marlowe was, probably, indebted for the completion of his education,
He passed through the University with credit, taking his gree of A.B. in 1583, and that of A.M. in 1587. Whatev might have been the views of his friends with respect to h settlement in life, Marlowe early relinquished all intention on entering any of the professions which usually close the visto of a collegiate course. Before he had acquired his last Univers
closed be affairs,
At all e
honor, he had already closely connected himself with the theaters. His first play, Tamburlaine the Great,* was brought out previously to 1587, and, if the following statement may be relied upon, his appearance as a dramatist was only the sequel to former relations with the stage as an actor.
Christopher Marlowe,” says Philips, “a kind of second Shakspere (whose contemporary he was), not only because, like him, he rose from an actor to be a maker of plays, though inferior both in fame and merit; but also because in his poem of Hero and Leander he seems to have a resemblance of that clear and unsophisticated wit which is natural to that incomparable poet.”+
There is an error of some magnitude in this passage. Marlowe was not the contemporary, but the predecessor of Shakspere; and it is a still wider departure from truth to describe him as a second Shakspere, meaning thereby a follower who nearly equaled his master. The strict observance of chronology, as far as it can be fixed, is indispensable to the history of what is loosely called the Elizabethan drama. The whole period it occupied was about half a century; and, considering how much was accomplished within that time, every step of the progress, and each individual's share in it, becomes of importance. Yet there is hardly any portion of our literary annals in which greater confusion prevails; and Peele and Massinger, Kyd and Webster, Greene and Ben Johnson, who were really distant from each other, are commonly mixed up together, as if, instead of forming an interlinked series, they were all writing simultaneously. It might be a question of minor biographical interest, whether Marlowe was a little before Shakspere, or Shakspere a little before Marlowe; but it is a question of a very different order of interest, whether the weighty versification of Tamburlaine preceded or followed the delicate melody of the Midsummer Night's Dream. Dates are here essential to enable us to trace the course of our dramatic poetry from its source to that point where the stream is at its full. Marlowe is close to the spring. To him is ascribed, on apparently valid grounds, the first use of blank verse in dramatic composition; and we must, therefore, treat chim as a poet who struck out a path for himself, and not as a i follower of Shakspere. Indeed, it may be said that Marlowe had * First printed in 1590.
* On author
closed his account not only with the stage, but with all human affairs, before Shakspere was known as an original dramatist. At all events, it is certain that the first notice we have of Shakspere was published only a few months before the death of Marlowe, and that it does not recognize him even as a maker of plays of his own, but as an adapter of the plays of others, including some of Marlowe's amongst them.
Philips is so careless in his statements that he sometimes vitiates a fact by his mere manner of presenting it; as, for instance, when he says that Marlowe “rose from an actor to be a maker of plays.” There was a tradition in his time, which is still preserved in an old ballad, that Marlowe had been upon the stage. It was known also that Shakspere was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's company; but there is no authority whatever for the assertion that they had been actors before they became dramatists. The reverse is much more likely to be true of Marlowe. The ballad which refers to his stage career is not, perhaps, a very safe authority in itself, having been written soon after his death, for the express purpose of exposing the irregularities and errors of his life and opinions; but upon this single point, supported by Philips, it may be credited. The doggerel is precise in its allegations, and affirms not only that Marlowe had been a player, but tells us at what theater he played :
“He had also a player been
Upon the Curtain stage,
When in his early age." The Curtain seems to have been the favorite theater for experiments in those days, where aspirants passed through their novitiate before they were admitted to the honors of the Blackfriars or the Globe. It was here Ben Jonson, some years afterward, made his first appearance as actor and poet, and amongst its still later celebrities was
The apologetic Atlas of the stage."* The Curtain was under the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor, and stood near the playhouse called the Theater, in Shoreditch.
* Ohoice Drollery, Songs, and Sonnets. 1656. Thomas Heywood, the author of The Apology for Actors.