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And its influences on the works of Christopher Marlowe

DECEMBER 12, 2016

Ms. Bauman - Waxahachie Global High - ENGL2322.64

There is no question nor doubt that Christopher Marlowe's plays were a product unique to

the time in which he lived in. Marlowe lived in England under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it

was a time of change; England continued to grow into one of the most powerful, and influential

nations in Western Europe. In order for us to better understand Elizabethan society and how the

culture and political happenings of the era affected Marlowes writing, it is crucial that we

understand the events that occurred before the Elizabethan age.

The reign of Henry VIII is an important predecessor to the Elizabethan age, seeing as

how a number of important events occurred during Henry's time as king that directly affected the

society of England under Elizabeth. When Henry VIII first took the throne in June of 1491,

England was a predominantly Catholic nation, and Henry himself was a devout believer in the

denomination. His belief was so strong, that he published a collection of papers titled, In

Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which brutally exposed the work of Martin Luther as


During this time, Henry had married Catherine of Aragon, who gave birth to a son in

1511; sadly, the child died after six weeks. In 1516, Catherine later gave birth to a daughter

whom she fondly named Mary, all attempts to produce a male heir only resulted in tragic

miscarriages and stillbirths. Henry became convinced that he was being punished by God for

Catherine, so he sought an annulment of the marriage so that he could marry Anne Boleyn

instead, who just so happens to be one of Catherines maid. Pope Clement VII refused to grant

Henry a divorce, so for five long years Henry's desire for separation and remarriage consumed

the entirety of English politics. The England masses favored Henry's argument, as there was

already a developing anti-papal sentiment due to the heavy taxes imposed by the Church. The

matter reached its peak, in 1533 Parliament passed an act which denied any authority held by the

pope, and established Henry as the head of the Church of England. Shortly after the break from

the papacy, Henry's divorce from Catherine and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn was

finalized, Anne gave birth to a daughter named Elizabeth. Henry, still seeking a male heir,

accused Anne of incest, witchcraft and adultery, had her promptly executed by means of

decapitation by sword. After Annes death, he married Jane Seymour who died giving birth to a

very sickly son named Edward; Henry remarried thrice more, but his only living heirs would be

Princesses Mary, Elizabeth, and Prince Edward.

Upon Henrys death, the throne was taken over by Edward VI, who was a devout

Protestant, sadly Edward died in 1553 three months before his sixteenth birthday. Following his

death, his half-sister Mary took the throne; who, unlike Edward was a Catholic, and wanted to

rebuild Englands relations with Rome. Her devotion to Catholicism resulted in the persecution

of hundreds of Protestants who refused to return to the Roman church, earning her the nickname

"Bloody Mary". She married prince Philip of Spain, which unsettled the citizens of England, as

they feared England would become a puppet of the Spanish Empire. Eventually, that connection

to Spain drove England into war with France, which resulted in the loss of the wealthy port of


Mary died without producing an heir, so her half-sister Elizabeth took the crown in 1558

under extremely grave circumstances. As the war with France waged on, the country was

essentially bankrupt and in a state of panicked economic depression, which only worsened by the

peoples religious division. Elizabeth held onto the Anglican faith, which was created by her

father Henry, resulting in the Parliament renewing the crowns supremacy of the church. This

notion was rejected by the Bishops who had served under the reign of Bloody Mary, and set

England on course for a second split from the papacy. Elizabeth's refusal to keep England as a

Catholic nation resulted in her dismissal by Pope Pius V in 1570. Parliament established a law

making Catholicism a crime against the state, and in 1585 a new law was passed making it illegal

for a Catholic priest to be in England.

Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564, the same year as William Shakespeare. His

father worked in Canterbury, England as a cobbler, ensuring a somewhat comfortable

upbringing. Christopher was one of many children to be born into their middle-class household,

although his family was not prosperous enough to enjoy any real affluence. After attending the

King's School on a scholarship, shortly after his graduation, Marlowe attended Cambridge

University on scholarship, earning both his BA in 1584, and his MA in 1587. During his 3 years

at Cambridge, Marlowe began work as a secret service agent for Queen Elizabeth. After the

completion of his MA, Marlowe lived on the border of London, frequently travelling in and out

of the city, working as a dramatist.

When Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587 to write for the stage, he managed to finish both

parts of his Tamburlaine before the end of the year. David Riggs notes that Tamburlaine

"challenged the limits of public behavior", which earned him a superb standing amongst more

contemporary playwrights such as Shakespeare. His plays were of astonishing quality for such a

young man only in his twenties, he constantly produced crowd-pleasing spectacles that left the

audience in awe. Throughout the six years leading up to his early death, Marlowe continued to

attain success through works such as Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and The Massacre at

Paris. This only further complicates our picture of Marlowe, and the connection between the

author and his work.

Marlowe's works have been seen as atheistic and blasphemous; but also understood as

traditional and of Christian belief. Although, it is significant that the young poet is also a man

who went to school in order to take Holy Orders, and serve his country in espionage missions.

Such a colorful and strange personality cannot help but appear from Marlowe's work. It is

profitable to see Marlowe's plays from the perspective of his life rather than dwell upon the way

his works were intended; for English audiences who did not know much when it came to his life.

When looking at three of Marlowe's most famous plays, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of

Malta, and The Massacre at Paris, some reoccurring themes can be found which directly

correlate to the time and place in which they were written. Perhaps one of the most common

elements in these works, is a constant anti-Catholic sentiment. For example, In Act 3, Scene 3 of

Doctor Faustus, a scenario is set with an invisible Faustus, who is taking part of a banquet for the

Pope. Throughout the scene, the invisible Faustus steals the meat and wine from the table, and

flicks the Pope on the ear which causes quite a stir at the feast. In Act 3, Scene 6 of The Jew of

Malta, Barabbas sends a vat of poisoned rice porridge to the local convent; all the nuns,

including Barabbas' own daughter, are poisoned and die a tragic death.

The entire work of The Massacre at Paris has to do with a group of French Catholics

murdering their Protestant countrymen, at the end of the play, the French king lies dying after

having been viciously stabbed by a friar that belonged to the Catholic church. The message that

Marlowe was trying to send out, is that the Catholics are cruel murderous animals who would

turn on their own kind if it benefited them in any way. During the kings final moments, he

denounces the papacy and proclaims his newfound friendship to Queen Elizabeth. When looking

at English history, the battle between the Catholics and Protestants was not always what it

seemed to be about, in fact, in many ways it was a struggle for political power. For England to be

Catholic meant that the authority of the crown was given over to the papacy. The political issue

spilled over into a socioeconomic question as well, if the English people lived in a Catholic

society, they would be forced to not only pay the countrys imposed taxes, but also the taxes

passed by the local cardinals. This would result in economic hardships and an overall decline in

the productivity of society in whole, and cause a recession. There are two significant reasons

why Marlowe might have chosen to express anti-Catholic messages in his writing, the most

obvious being the fact that at the time of his work, Elizabeth was busy restoring the country to

the Protestant ways that her father, Henry VIII had established. As discussed earlier, to be a

Catholic in England at this time could carry a heavy price of either jail time, or even death.

Another common theme found in two of Marlowe's more well-known plays is the idea of

social mobility: which was the idea that someone could move out of the class you were born into.

Doctor Faustus is a prime example of this, the opening chorus describes Faustus as a man who

studied at Wittenberg and became a doctor. Faustus' lust for knowledge pressures him to trade

his soul to Lucifer in hopes of gaining more social power, knowledge, and money. Throughout

the play, Faustus never seems to be satisfied with the bargain he won, seeing as how his powers

are mostly used to procure the great poets of the past, or the greatest thinkers leading up to that


The Jew of Malta gives us another instance of social mobility. In Act 1, Scene 2,

Barabbas is brought to the main court of Malta to assist in paying off the large debt Malta owes

to the Turks; Barabbas does not agree to help, resulting in his fortune being forcibly taken from

him. Due to his deceitfulness, Barabbas manages to recover his lost fortune, and goes about

exacting his revenge upon those who robbed him. As the play continues, Barabbas becomes a

greedy murderer who changes his loyalties between his home country and their adversaries

depending on which side he believes will benefit him the most. The social mobility of Barabbas

is seen in the ability of an outsider and lower class person such as a Jew living in that time

period, to amass a fortune by fitting trading ships. The fact that he is called to appear at court

demonstrates that because of his unseemly wealth, Barabbas was seen on a somewhat equivalent

level with the nobility, although an anti-Jewish sentiment is still apparent. Nevertheless, the

message is that it is possible for virtually anyone to improve his social rank, whether it be by

selling your soul to the devil, or by having an insane amount of wealth.

In both plays, the characters that seek to improve their social rank come to gruesome

ends; Doctor Faustus ends with Faustus refusing to repent and being dragged to Hell. Whereas

The Jew of Malta ends with the nobility of Malta betraying Barabbas to his own scheming

devices, resulting in his own untimely death. It is possible that in both of these plays, Marlowe

was making a comment on the economic and social traps that the elite could find themselves in

during this time period. As the gentry climbed the social ladder, certain expectations emerged;

the gentility were expected to offer hospitality, and to entertain the royal family when the Queen

went about the country.

Throughout the plays, Marlowe shows that ambition such as that could ultimately be self-

defeating, and ruin what you already have. Social mobility and anti-Catholic views were two of

the most widespread themes of the Elizabethan era, they were issues that not only affected

politics, religion, economics, but also society as a whole. As the son of a shoemaker who

managed to obtain an MA, Marlowe was a prime example of social mobility. These plays could

not have been written in any other time period, as they are comments on the society in which

Marlowe lived.


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