Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, the most popular Elizabethan dramatist of his day, died on May 30, 1593, after being stabbed in the head during a fight with one of his friends, Ingram Frizer. Marlowe was only 29.
Marlowe’s career as a playwright had a mercurial start and a magnificent but brief run. In less than six years he wrote six plays that were both popular with audiences and also admired and imitated by his contemporaries.
Along with Thomas Kyd (author of The Spanish Tragedy) Marlowe was among the first Elizabethan playwrights to use blank verse. Marlowe was also an important influence on William Shakespeare (who was born in the same year as Marlowe).
Marlowe’s first play Tamburlaine, written when he was only 23, was a hit and he quickly wrote Tamburlaine The Great Part II.
He went on to write four more plays before his death, all successful, and two now considered classics, The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus, the first play to dramatize the German legend of a man selling his soul to the devil.
As with Shakespeare and other Elizabethans, there are only sparse written records of Marlowe’s life. Luckily, the coroner’s report into his death was discovered in 1925.
On the night of his death Marlowe was dining with Ingram Frizer and two other friends in a private house. Frizer and the two other guests testified to the coroner’s jury that at the end of the evening Marlowe and Frizer quarreled over the bill (“the Reckoning”) and that Marlowe grabbed Frizer’s knife.
The men fought and Frizer got control of the knife and stabbed Marlowe just above his eye, piercing his brain and killing him instantly.
Frizer went on trial and pleaded not guilty due to self-defence. He was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth I.
Both Marlowe and Frizer seem to have played some role in spying on suspected dissenters and heretics for the Queen’s government in the past. Frizer was a wealthy businessman with a shady reputation but strong allies at the Royal Court.
Marlowe had also lately become bolder in his defense of atheism which had led to his arrest and constant surveillance by agents of the Crown.
There were rumours and wild stories at the time that Marlowe had been stabbed in a drunken brawl in a pub, had been stabbed by a man whom he had made homosexual advances on, was stabbed by a jealous husband, or that Queen Elizabeth herself had ordered his assassination.
The wildest story about what happened on May 30, 1593, supposes that Marlowe faked his own death, to avoid a heresy trial, and then went into exile where he secretly wrote the plays we now ascribe to William Shakespeare.
Perhaps the persistence of this myth among fringe anti-Stratfordians shows the high regard many hold for Marlowe’s own genius as a playwright.