Christopher Marlowe’s deal with the devil

March 12, 2023 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

A deal with the devil. It is one of the oldest stories—if not the oldest—in our culture. The concept of “the devil and his due” is deeply embedded in our language and in our thinking. 

When Christopher Marlowe wrote his play, Dr. Faustus, sometime in the 1590s, he brought to modern life this ancient story for the first time in the English language. His source, according to scholars, was a German tale of a scholar who had grown weary and bored with the scientific studies that surrounded him. Dr. Faustus wanted more. He wanted power to control and to change his world.

How would he obtain such power? The only way for humans to gain divine power is through doing a deal with the devil.

The source for Marlowe may have been German folklore, but the idea dates far back into ancient history. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was tempted by the devil, who promised him power to rule the Earth, and to do good. Tempting as it was, Jesus realized that the devil was not the source of true power. He rejected the devil’s offer, even when he was on a high mountain and could see the entire world.

The idea of a “deal with the devil” did not start there, however. It goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, and the first story that we have in Genesis is Adam and Eve doing their deal with the devil. The promise from the devil is that by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, they would know Good from Evil and thus be like God. That deal set humanity on its downward spiral.

Marlowe’s version of the Dr. Faustus legend is an important one in the history of literature. He wrote his play during the time when the belief that spirits, angels, and devils were active on earth was rife among all of the cultures of Western Europe. The power and presence of these supernatural forces was a scary thing, and many writers of Marlowe’s time were reluctant to delve into this area.

Christopher Marlowe, whom many place as an English poet second only to his contemporary Shakespeare, exhibited no such reluctance, either in his writing or in his life.

Marlowe was born in 1564 in Canterbury, England. His father was a shoemaker. When he was 14 years old, he was a scholarship student at the King’s School in Canterbury. Two years later, he was a student at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.

It was at Cambridge where the intrigues that entangled his life began to weave their mysterious webs. Some believe that Marlowe dabbled with Roman Catholicism. Others thought he might have shown homosexual tendencies. Added to all of this mix were the political machinations of Tudor England.

Queen Elizabeth I sat precariously on her throne, caught between domestic rivals and pretenders and an international division between Catholics and Protestants. Those who were loyal to her were often anything other than selfless in their loyalty. Power and position were always at stake in any relationship. Intelligence and espionage seem to be the major social sports.

Marlowe’s literary bent was obvious, but he too sought position and fortune. His age and his talent quickly marked him as a prodigy among the literary elite. He was daring in both his personal relationships and his literary efforts.

Marlowe’s artistic talents were widely known and admired even by those who might have been considered his rivals, including a playwright named William Shakespeare. Marlowe and Shakespeare were almost exact contemporaries in age, and after Marlowe’s death, Shakespeare actually used some of Marlowe’s lines as a tribute to him in some of his plays.

The death of Marlowe in 1593 when he was only 28 years old has been the subject of much speculation for four centuries. Marlowe was stabbed to death after spending most of the day with three of his contemporaries, each of whom had ties to powerful people in the Elizabethan court. It is believed by many people that Marlowe had run afoul of the interests of some of those in power. The story of his death is intriguing. Was it murder or simply a tragic ending to a drunken barroom brawl?

The most thorough, modern examination of Marlowe’s death, the circumstances surrounding it, and the reasons for it, has been done by Charles Nicholl whose book The Reckoning: The Death of Christopher Marlowe is an intriguing look at the artistic genius who undoubtedly made his own deal with the devil. Nicholl has recently been interviewed about Marlowe on the Not Just the Tudors podcast.

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