Marlowe is believed to have written all his poems and translations as a young man studying at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He was born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare, and was the son of a shoemaker.

Ovid’s elegies are about the pleasures and pains of love, often cheerfully erotic and comic. In the ‘Fifth Elegy’ of Book One, Marlowe captures the sensuality of Ovid’s writing, touched with beauty and delicacy. His heroic couplets wittily render the balance and poise of the original; the result is a marvellous celebration of sexual love.

‘Hero and Leander’ reworks the tragic story of Hero’s longing for Leander, the priestess of Aphrodite: he is drowned while swimming to her at night across the Hellespont and she then in despair throws herself into the sea. The first of the extracts recorded here describes an earlier swim across the Hellespont and Hero’s wrestles with Neptune, presented as an elderly paedophile. The second brings Hero at last to Leander and describes sexual passion with delight, but also with notes of farce, embarrassment and regret.

‘The  Passionate Shepherd to his Love’ was among the best known of Elizabethan lyrics and was endlessly imitated, parodied and answered, well into the seventeenth century. A garbled version of one stanza appears in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Marlowe seems to have turned to writing plays near the end of his time at Cambridge. Dr Faustus, from which the speech recorded here is taken, was written in the last year of his short life. It illustrates the extraordinary mastery of the blank verse line he had achieved by the time of his death.

It has been said that Marlowe’s temperament seems to have been violent, even criminal. After Cambridge, he was employed by the Privy Council as a foreign intelligence agent. In 1589 he was involved in a street fight in which the poet T. Watson killed a man. Early in 1592 he was deported from the Netherlands for attempting to issue forged gold coins. In 1593 he was arrested at the house of Sir Thomas Walsingham and summoned to the Privy Council to answer charges of blasphemy arising from evidence given by his playwright rival, Thomas Kyd. His supporters, however, argue that he was framed, and his name blackened, by his enemies.

There is no dispute however (except by people who believe his death was faked and that he went on to write the plays of Shakespeare) that on 30 May 1593, aged twenty-nine, he was killed by an acquaintance, Ingram Frizer, in a Deptford Tavern after a quarrel over the bill.

Recording commissioned by the Poetry Archive, used here with kind permission of the reader.

Poems by Christopher Marlowe

The Passionate Shepherd to his Love - Christopher Marlowe - Read by Ian McKellen
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love - Christopher Marlowe - Read by Andrew Motion
In summer’s heat and midtime of the day - Christopher Marlowe - Read by Simon Armitage

Books by Christopher Marlowe

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