Spy? Brawler? Or heretic? As with other playwrights of the Elizabethan period, little is known about Christopher Marlowe, leading to much speculation about his life and character.

A portrait of a young man aged 21
An anonymous portrait of a young man aged 21, believed to be Christopher Marlowe, in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
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Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 93)

Marlowe was born in Canterbury in 1564, the son of an upmarket shoemaker and a clergyman's daughter. Baptised on 26 February, he was only two months older than Shakespeare, who was baptised on 26 April of the same year.

Secret agent? Marlowe was suspected of being a spy (among many other things) during his university years in Cambridge. Educated at Corpus Christi College, he frequently took leave from lessons and nearly didn't get his degree. It wasn't until The Privy Council intervened on his behalf, commending him for his 'good service' to Queen Elizabeth I, that he was awarded his degree – arousing speculation that Marlowe was operating as a secret agent for Sir Francis Walsingham's intelligence service.

Heretic? In 1593, Marlowe wrote a manuscript that pointed out (what he considered to be) inconsistencies in the Bible, and he fell under the suspicion of heresy. Another contemporary of Shakespeare's, and Marlowe's roommate, Thomas Kyd, was tortured into giving evidence against him. On Sunday 20 May, Marlowe was arrested for the crime of being an atheist – the penalty for which being burned at the stake. He was, however, released on the condition that he reported each day to a court officer.

Brawler? No one quite knows how Marlowe died. On 30 May 1593, Marlowe had dinner with Ingram Frizer, another 'secret' government employee in a lodging place in Deptford. A fight broke out between the two men over the bill, and Marlowe was supposedly stabbed to death by Frizer. Other theories about his death include speculation that Queen Elizabeth I ordered his death four days before he was killed; that he was meeting with three government agents who were paid assassins; and finally, that Marlowe faked his own death and fled the country, later writing plays under a pseudonym – William Shakespeare.

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