10 Facts About Christopher Marlowe

A stone in memory of Christopher Marlowe at Kings School, Canterbury
A stone in memory of Christopher Marlowe at Kings School, Canterbury
John K Thorne, Flickr // Public Domain

Christopher Marlowe is more than a footnote in William Shakespeare’s life, even though that’s the position he’s most often relegated to, especially in fiction. It’s obvious why: Shakespeare is the most famous English playwright, and Marlowe is merely one of the most famous English playwrights. Plus, since Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare's, he ends up bursting onto the scene in cameo appearances during tales focused on the Bard.

The other reason? We simply don’t know that much about him.

Born in 1564, Marlowe led a brief, extraordinary life even before you get to all the mythology and conspiracy theories that have grown up surrounding him. He offered a memorable poetic voice that paved the way for Shakespeare while crafting stories of outsized personalities forever flying too close to the sun (or the Devil).

Here are 10 facts about a man we should know more about.

1. Christopher Marlowe achieved a lot in a short time.

Rupert Everett was almost 40 when he portrayed Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love, but Marlowe only lived to age 29. Marlowe built on the work of Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville among others, and his unrhymed, iambic pentameter—specifically the wildly popular and oft-imitated Tamburlaine the Great—represented an evolution in style that became an accepted structure in Renaissance English theatre. It’s what Shakespeare used, and what you probably learned about in high school literature class.

2. Christopher Marlowe wasn’t going to graduate Cambridge until the government intervened.

A portrait of an unknown 21-year-old man said to be Christopher Marlowe, discovered at Cambridge in 1952
A portrait of an unknown 21-year-old man said to be Christopher Marlowe, discovered at Cambridge in 1952
Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1587, Marlowe had the Elizabethan equivalent of too many absences from his master’s program at Cambridge University, and there were rumors that he was preparing to go to France to become a Catholic priest. Cambridge officials considered refusing to award his degree, but the Privy Council (Queen Elizabeth’s advisers) sent them a letter denouncing the rumor and explaining that Marlowe had been operating to “the benefit of his country” and had done “her Majesty good service.”

3. Christopher Marlowe might have been a spy.

The "good service" he was doing for Her Majesty? The Privy Council never explained. Nevertheless, the secretive work, the religious nature of the rumors during an era when England persecuted Catholics, and the fact that Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, often recruited young men attending Cambridge, have created the foundation for the theory that Marlowe was part of a spy network. At the very least, Marlowe did some undisclosed work for the government, which got him a helping hand that explained his school absences.

4. Christopher Marlowe was arrested for counterfeiting coins in Holland.

In 1592, about five years after the wild success of Tamburlaine, Marlowe was arrested for counterfeiting coins in the Dutch town of Vlissingen. This was a crime punishable by death, but Marlowe seems to have walked away with no, or very light, punishment. Naturally, some think this supports the idea that Marlowe worked as a spy.

5. Christopher Marlowe translated ancient poetry.

In addition to his plays (he wrote at least four, and some say seven), Marlowe also wrote poetry—"The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and "Hero and Leander" most notably. In the former, a shepherd woos a lover by glorifying nature, and the latter retells a Greek myth where a man swims a narrow sea to reach the woman he loves. Marlowe also translated ancient works, including the first book of the Pharsalia, a Roman epic by Lucan about Caesar facing Pompey the Great in battle, and Ovid’s books of love poetry, Amores.

6. Christopher Marlowe was arrested for holding heretical views.

In 1593, the English government had a largely welcoming attitude to Protestant immigrants, so authorities were livid when anti-immigrant tracts began being posted on the streets of London. One that was judged to "exceed the rest in lewdness" alluded to two of Marlowe’s plays and was signed “Tamburlaine.” As part of a sweep targeting suspicious characters, authorities arrested and then tortured Marlowe’s friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd, who asserted that an unorthodox religious tract found in his room belonged to Marlowe. A warrant was issued, and Marlowe presented himself to the Privy Council, who told him to check in with them every day with them until further notice. He died 10 days later.

7. Christopher Marlowe's death inspired conspiracy theories.

The official story is that Marlowe was killed on May 30, 1593 while arguing about money in a boarding house with an associate named Ingram Frizer, and that very well may be the truth. But the strange circumstances around the event are numerous: Marlowe had been arrested for being an "atheist" only 10 days prior but received no real punishment for it; Frizer (and the two other men there) had all been employed by spymaster Walsingham; and even contemporaries doubted the plausibility of the coroner’s report. The list of people who apparently might have had cause to want Marlowe dead is long (right up to the queen herself), but the most fanciful theory is that the whole event was faked so that Marlowe could escape a very real death if convicted for religious heresy.

8. Christopher Marlowe pushed against anti-LGBT bigotry in his work.

Some scholars think Marlowe may have been gay, but (like so many other elements of his life) there is no conclusive evidence. However, there is concrete evidence that he treated same-sex relationships differently than other writers of the time. In other work of the same period, gay characters were usually villains, but Marlowe wrote about Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gaveston with humanity and beauty in Edward II. Some experts believe the play upheld conventional views on gay relationships by “punishing” Gaveston with death and killing Edward II in a way that evokes sodomy, but, even if so, Marlowe still covered the topic throughout the play with greater complexity and consideration than his contemporaries.

9. Westminster Abbey installed a window memorializing Christopher Marlowe in 2002.

The Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey is home to the graves of over 100 poets and writers, starting with Geoffrey Chaucer, who was buried there in 1400. Marlowe is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Nicholas's Church in Deptford, London, but shares a memorial in the form of a window at Poet's Corner with Elizabeth Gaskell, Oscar Wilde, and more. The space was donated by The Marlowe Society, who included a question mark next to his death date.

10. Shakespeare paid tribute to Christopher Marlowe in verse.

There would be no Shakespeare without Marlowe. Honoring the young trailblazer after his death, Shakespeare included one of Marlowe’s lines from Hero and Leander in As You Like It (“Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?”) and had a character possibly allude to Marlowe’s killing. There are also nods in Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Of course, Shakespeare’s highest homage came in how often he echoed Marlowe’s poetic style and dramatic themes. (Though definitely not written by Shakespeare, there’s also a 1981 rock ‘n’ roll musical tribute to Marlowe that’s set in the 16th century but somehow also included miniskirts.)

A Colorful History of Paintball

kadmy/iStock via Getty Images
kadmy/iStock via Getty Images

Having spent a month arguing with no end in sight, Charles Gaines and Hayes Noel decided to resolve their conflict the old-fashioned way. They agreed to a gun duel at 20 paces.

It was the late 1970s and Gaines, a writer and fly fisherman best known for authoring Pumping Iron, a book later turned into a documentary that helped usher Arnold Schwarzenegger to superstardom, had been verbally sparring with his friend Noel about who would be better-equipped as a survivalist. Gaines believed someone with outdoors skills like himself would excel. Noel, a Wall Street stockbroker, thought his urban instincts would prove superior.

After going back and forth like this while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, Gaines returned home to New Hampshire and spotted something in an agricultural catalog. It was the Nel-Spot 007, a gun powered by carbon monoxide (CO2) gas and used to mark trees or cattle using a gelatin ball filled with oil-based paint. Gaines thought it would make for an interesting combat simulator. Instead of testing survivalist skills with ammunition, they could test it with globs of paint.

After getting the guns, Gaines and Noel engaged in a duel that Gaines won—this according to Gaines—and also crept around in the woods hoping to snipe the other, a situation which both men later said they had gotten the upper hand in.

These conflicting narratives failed to settle their argument, and so the two friends decided a bigger, more involved experiment was in order. Purely by accident, they created the game of paintball in the process.

A person playing paintball is pictured
PogodakPB/iStock via Getty Images

Weapons that shoot projectiles using compressed air are nothing new. In the 1940s, Britain’s commercial freighter ships used steam-powered cannons to launch grenades at enemy aircraft. When they were bored, the sailors used the cannons to shoot potatoes or beer bottles instead. Much later, sports teams would adopt T-shirt cannons powered by the same principle to dispense apparel to fans in the upper decks.

The idea to use CO2 for paint came from the Nelson Paint Company in the 1960s. Hoping to assist foresters with marking trees that weren’t easily accessible on foot, the distributor marketed the Nel-Spot 007, which shot the gelatin balls with a resounding splat. Farmers also used them to indicate cattle that had been bred. (Because the paint was used for marking, the guns were and typically are still called paintball markers, not paintball guns.)

By the time Gaines became aware of the device in 1979 or 1980, it still had no practical use outside of agricultural purposes. Along with Noel and another friend, a ski shop owner named Bob Gurnsey, the trio decided to arrange a combat simulator using the Nel-Spot 007. The duel had proven that being hit with the paintballs resulted in no serious injury. (Gaines reportedly tried it on his wife, Shelby, as well, who reported that “It didn’t hurt much.”) Gurnsey developed a rudimentary set of rules for the competition, which would see the three men and nine other competitors attempt to capture flags from four stations in a 100-acre field in Henniker, New Hampshire, a site not far from Gaines’s home. The object would be to grab the flags and head for a premarked exit without being shot.

In order to maintain the central conceit of their debate, Gaines and Noel tried to recruit a cross-section of personalities for the event. There were outdoorsmen like a forester and Vietnam veteran along with would-be urban tacticians like a trauma surgeon and an investment banker. All were armed with the Nel-Spot 007, goggles, camouflage, paintballs, CO2 cartridges, a compass, and a map.

People playing paintball are pictured
JackF/iStock via Getty Images

The competition was held on June 27, 1981. For two hours, the men stalked around the premises, lurking behind foliage and doing their best to seize the flags without being bombarded by paintballs. Gaines grabbed two flags before getting into a stand-off with a Green Beret, who was holed up in an abandoned woodshed. The trauma surgeon wound up shooting nearly half of the dozen players by himself. But in the end, it was the forester, Ritchie White, who emerged the victor, utilizing a stealth strategy that allowed him to covertly grab all the flags and get out without firing a single shot.

Did the event resolve the debate between Gaines and Noel? Not really. But they were having too much fun to care. So was Bob Jones, a participant and writer for Sports Illustrated who published a story on the competition in 1981. Along with other coverage from TIME and Sports Afield, Gaines, Noel, and Gurnsey were inundated with letters and requests for more information about the rules of the game and the necessary equipment.

Sensing a business opportunity, the three formed the National Survival Game, a business devoted to the burgeoning recreational activity. Gurnsey continued to refine the rules while the others assembled kits consisting of the Nel-Spot 007 and the paintballs. Gaines was able to negotiate a deal with the Nelson Paint Company to license the guns and ammo for non-agricultural purposes.

Soon, they were licensing the National Survival Game brand to franchisees, who opened paintball fields and held organized competitions. By 1982, the National Survival Game was promoting a World Championship, and enthusiasts were modifying the weapons to include pump-action loading, larger magazines, and automatic firing. Because other organizations besides National Survival Game were popping up, the more generic name of paintball was introduced. More importantly, the paint became water-based rather than oil-based for easier clean-up.

While paintball exploded in popularity throughout the 1980s, not everyone was on board. In New Jersey, the guns were considered firearms due to their ability to shoot projectiles at velocity. To acquire a paintball marker, one needed a firearms permit. And even if you had one, you might still leave yourself open to legal problems if you used it to “shoot” at another human being.

The issue wasn’t resolved until 1988, when a paintball enthusiast named Raymond Gong sued the state’s attorney general and Monmouth County prosecutor John Kaye to remove the weapons from the New Jersey Gun Control Act. Judge Alvin Milberg asked for a demonstration and watched as a human target was hit roughly a dozen times without suffering injury. The defense also proved the CO2 cartridge used in a paintball marker was not the equivalent of a cartridge used in a real firearm, a term used to describe ammunition. Gong won and was able to open his own paintball field.

Gaines sold his share in National Survival Game early on, leaving the business to Noel and Gurnsey. The activity has since grown far beyond their initial ambition to settle a friendly debate, with players spending upwards of $169 million annually on equipment. Despite the inherently aggressive nature, it doesn’t seem to be particularly risky, with just 0.2 injuries reported per 1000 participants. While not quite as popular as it was in the early 2000s, there’s still plenty of demand to demonstrate survival skills with one well-aimed paintball.

How Accurate Are Punxsutawney Phil's Groundhog Day Weather Predictions?

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

On Sunday, February 2, people all across the country will tune in to the biggest spectacle of the season. That’s right—this weekend, Punxsutawney Phil will crawl forth from his tiny tree trunk abode and tell us whether or not to expect six more weeks of winter.

Considering that the legendary groundhog has been predicting the weather since the first Groundhog Day in 1887, it seems safe to assume that he’s gotten pretty good at it by now. The stats, however, indicate that practice doesn’t always make perfect when it comes to mid-sized meteorological rodents. As Live Science reports, the Groundhog Club’s records show that Phil has predicted more winter 103 times, and an early spring just 19. Based on data from the Stormfax Almanac, that means Phil’s accuracy rate is an abysmal 39 percent.

If you only look at weather records dating back to 1969, which are more reliable than earlier accounts, Phil’s job performance review gets even worse: those predictions were correct only 36 percent of the time.

Almost starting to feel sorry for an apparently lousy employee who only has to work for a few minutes each year? According to meteorologist Tim Roche at Weather Underground, Punxsutawney Phil is much more successful when he doesn’t see his shadow.

“Out of the 15 times that he didn’t see his shadow and predicted an early spring, he got it right seven times,” Roche told Live Science. “That’s a 47 percent accuracy rate.”

While Phil is far from infallible, human meteorologists are, too. As National Weather Service meteorologist David Unger told Live Science, “If our forecasts are about 60 percent accurate or higher, then we consider that to be a good estimate.”

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