As the first major Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's contemporary, has achieved the doubtful distinction of being regarded as a ‘pioneer', alongside interesting minor dramatists such as Lyly and Kyd and the other University wits who popularised their learning for theatre and bookstalls. Marlowe's work (c.1587-93) stands apart, not only for his vastly superior force of imagination but also for philosophical depth. He is seen as standing at the end of one tradition and the dawning of another. Marlowe, who was a poet as well as a playwright, abandoned the short jigging rhymed verse in which earlier English plays had been written, and by his superb manipulation of the iambic pentameter prepared the way for Shakespeare's poetic drama. He might even have equalled Shakespeare in reputation had he not been stabbed to death in a tavern brawl at the age of 29 under suspicious and mysterious circumstances.
Christopher Marlowe was born on 6 February 1564 in Canterbury as the eldest son of shoemaker John Marlowe. He entered King's School in 1579 and was elected Queen's Scholar, and then in 1580 Marlowe moved to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and was awarded a scholarship from the foundation of Matthew Parker. However his university career was interrupted by long absences and it is now assumed that he was involved in some mysterious government service abroad as either a secret agent or as a confidential messenger. Marlowe eventually gained his degree but only after intervention by the Queen's Privy Council.
In 1587 Marlowe settled in London and began his career as a playwright by writing Tamburlaine, the heroic epic in two parts of five acts each, which focus on the Mongol warrior, Tamburlaine, whose relentless rise to greatness and power, together with his enormous greed and vanity, culminates in his eventual downfall. It is a sprawling repetitive piece of work that bears the hallmark of Marlowe's inspiration and it was the first notable English play in blank verse earning Marlowe the title of ‘pioneer of English dramatic blank verse and English tragedy'. In 1588 he produced a hero who was not a king and whose tragedy was of a spiritual rather than a material nature. In writing Dr Faustus he made personal and individual the generalising approach of the old Morality play. Marlowe drew on all the usual trappings of religious drama – vices, devils, temptation, sin, damnation and created a play about the inevitable downfall of Faustus as Mephistopheles, the amalgam of Herod in his pride and vanity and of Lucifer in his cunning and two-faced nature, grants him his wishes.
In the powerful Jew of Malta (1589) the Senecan revenge theme takes on a colouring of grotesque satire. This colouring comes from the popular tradition of farce, with its ‘terribly serious, even savage comic humour'. The final play that makes up the quartet of Marlowe's most outstanding plays is Edward II (1592) like the others it centres on a great personality who is destroyed by his own passion and ambition and though his plays are filled with violence, brutality and passion there is also a poetic beauty and dignity in his use of language which raises them to the level of high art.
Of his non-dramatic pieces, the best-known are the long poem Hero and Leander (1598), which was finished by George Chapman, and the beautiful lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.