Marlowe, like so many of Corpus’ illustrious Old Members was of relatively humble origins. He was the son of a shoemaker in Canterbury and attended Kings School Canterbury as a boy, coming to Corpus, where he received his BA degree, in 1584. Records in the College archive show that he went absent frequently during the latter years of his studies – with such regularity that this put his degree in jeopardy! It seems that he spent a great deal of time in shady operations for the Queen’s Head of Security, Sir Francis Walsingham, infiltrating Continental theological training colleges and mixing with the young Englishmen being trained up as Catholic priests in France, passing on information about security threats to Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant regime.
He may have fought in the wars in the Low Countries after his graduation, but what we do know is that he settled in London in 1587 and began to write plays and verse which were part of the first flowering of the glorious period of English literature which was to include Shakespeare, Sidney and their contemporaries. He cut a very colourful figure in London mixing with the fast set of Sidney, Raleigh, Greene and Nash – his taste in fine clothes and stylishness was the talk of the town. He may still have been in the pay of Walsingham at this time, helping to fund his flamboyant lifestyle by acting as an agent when his services were called upon – this may have been his undoing as he died suddenly and brutally at the age of 29 in a knife fight in a Deptford Public House on May 30, 1593. Although this was reputed to have been a pub brawl it is suspected that the murder had a political motive as he had fallen under suspicion of heresy and his imminent arrest and interrogation may have implicated major politial figures. A portrait of a flamboyantly dressed young man in the College’s possession believed to be of Marlowe, bears the inscription “Quod me nutruit me destruit” – ‘What feeds me destroys me’- an apt epitaph for a man driven to live his life as intensely and self-destructively as Marlowe. Marlowe’s dramatic output is breathtaking; his masterpieces like Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta had a vigour and worldliness hitherto unrivalled on the English stage. His plays were performed by some of the finest actors in London, such as Edward Alleyn, under the Lord Admiral’s Company of Players.
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
Come live with me, and be my love;
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dales and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals
And I will make thee beds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies;
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair-lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy-buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
An if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.
The shepherd-swains shall dance and sing
For they delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.
Photos © Corpus Christi College Cambridge