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Gay, blasphemous, stabbed to death in a pub in Kent, and definitely not the real author of the plays ascribed to William Shakespeare - but all that aside, who was Christopher Marlowe? Over four hundred years after his death, it’s still a difficult question.

The Elizabethan playwright’s place in the literary canon is secure. Before the Bard of Stratford ever picked up his quill, Marlowe bestrode London’s dramatic world. Dubbed “the Muse’s darling” by peer George Peele, the Victorians commemorated Marlowe with a monument in Canterbury topped by a scantily-clad statue of “the Muse of Poetry”. By bonding the transgressively sensual with the divine and exalted, the Victorian sculptors captured Kit Marlowe’s best work.

Beyond his art, Marlowe stands as an important influence on the making of modernity. “Within the history of modern unbelief,” scholar David Riggs writes, Marlowe represents “the moment when English atheism comes out of the closet and acquires a public face.” In the story of the gay liberation movement, Marlowe played an honoured part, with Derek Jarman (the groundbreaking artist of New Queer Cinema) adapting his Edward II into a 1991 film that forefronted the play’s queer themes. It’s not the thick, obscuring fog of history that conceals Marlowe’s true personality. He was as mystifyingly contradictory to his contemporaries.

Marlowe’s unmarked grave mars his memory; we can’t help but read his biography backwards, shadowed by his violent, premature death. Either he was butchered in a pointless dispute over a bar tab, or dispatched by an assassin commissioned by Elizabeth herself to end his blasphemies. Many believe his murder was the state’s removal of a wildly indiscreet spy; the much revered Elizabethan takes on, in this telling, the dangerous glamour of a character from the world of Ian Fleming or Graham Greene. The riotous drunk, the vulgar heretic, the inconvenient spy: take your pick, because none are definitive.

These ambiguities relate to the final six years of Marlowe’s life. Prior to that, we know a decent amount - Corpus Christi’s records include evidence of Marlowe’s matriculation in 1580, and consistently record his presence (interspersed with long absences) until he left in 1587. These years appear unremarkable. Marlowe dined in college, paid his rent, and sat his exams. However, Marlowe’s time at Corpus Christi helps us take the measure of the man.

Marlowe’s biography and buttery records suggest that the great poet would have been conscious of being a second-class student. The Cambridge of 1580 was not the pilloried bastion of privilege it would become; the University then existed to create a class of reliable clerics and lawyers. Even so, Marlowe had to overcome exceptional odds to make it to university. The son of a struggling shoemaker during an economic downturn, he was the prototypical ‘scholarship boy’. Social exclusion pervaded the life of his less fortunate siblings – his sister Anne was characterised as a “scold, a common swearer, and a blasphemer of the name of God”. Another sister, Dorothy, was excommunicated for “slander” and “fornication”. Marlowe’s chances of becoming respectable were conditional on his eschewing leisure in his youth, attending 13-hour classes at his Canterbury school, six days a week, and this pressure didn’t lessen upon his arrival to university.

Marlowe is listed in Corpus Christi’s record books as first dining in Hall in December 1780, but he didn’t matriculate until the middle of March 1781, and he didn’t pay the college entrance fee until that May. This sort of staggered entrance into college life was unusual, and from it some scholars have concluded that Marlowe must have already been spying for the British state. After all, he had to make ends meet, which leaves the mystery of how he was able to maintain food and board for six months without formally becoming a member of the College, at which point he would have received his scholarship allowance. We don’t have the leap to terrific visions of spycraft to explain how Marlowe managed to support himself through these first six months of university life. It is more probable Marlowe worked as a college labourer, aiding in the construction of Corpus’s new Chapel. Imagine the brilliant young poet, conscious that his talent exceeded that of those around him, sweating over the stones of the college’s Old Court while his peers sauntered past, and we gain an insight into the ambitions and frustrations that must have driven him.

Marlowe’s Cambridge years would have entitled him to take a hostile view of the state. A few decades after Marlowe’s time at Cambridge, Francis Bacon warned King James I of the “seditious” threat grammar schools like those attended by Marlowe posed to the equilibrium of the kingdom, arguing that allowing talented young people to access education created a class of overeducated “idle and wanton people”, “unfit for the vocations” to which Bacon believed they were predisposed. The routine of unbearable discipline mixed with near-constant humiliation that defined the first 23 years of Marlowe’s life did not, as it would have done earlier in the 16th century, permit him entrance to England’s respected classes. Instead, arriving in London in 1587 (his attendance at Cambridge having tapered out after 1584), Marlowe would have been treated with suspicion.

Marlowe’s first two creative works after graduation are explosions of passion from a man eager to escape cloistered living. Virgil, the pastoral and epic poet of Latin antiquity, was considered the respectable choice of idol for an Elizabethan poet on the make, but Marlowe opted for Ovid’s Amores, transgressive poems that celebrate raunchiness. His translation oozes with the cheeky enthusiasm of a youth newly unbound. He followed his Amores with his first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, which, as a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, was a more conventional choice. Marlowe, however, begins the play with a scene of his own invention, between Jupiter, king of the gods, and Ganymede, a Trojan soldier that Jupiter has fallen in love with. Jupiter is keen to indulge his lover, telling him: “I love thee well, say Juno what she will.” Juno, queen of the gods, rebukes her husband and kickstarts the narrative of Aeneas, but it is plain that Marlowe follows her begrudgingly; read as an allegory for the young artist, it is plain that, liberated from oppressive duty, Marlowe now wants to explore passion and pleasure. His more mature works feature several mocking dismissals of academic life. Doctor Faustus begins with Faustus dismissing different professions of learning, declaring: “Physic, farewell.” In Edward II, one character is instructed to “cast the scholar off/And learn to court it like a gentleman.” Marlowe, liberated from the constraints of academic life, writes against the wound that life as a second-class student in Cambridge left. After years of struggle, he concluded that all those years of hard graft were for nothing; it is not enough to be a “scholar”, if one cannot “court it like a gentleman”. Style and sensuality are all.

During the years Marlowe penned masterpieces, he was arrested three times for street fighting and held for two weeks in Newgate Prison. The man who left Cambridge clearly felt he had a lot to prove, and did so artistically and violently. If we accept these outbursts as manifestations of a deeper restlessness and unhappiness, the most natural place to look is in his preceding years of study. The central contradictions of Marlowe’s life – the stylist of staggering beauty versus the violent delinquent – can both be considered to stem from the collision of a brilliant soul with the inequalities of the Cambridge experience.