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.)

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
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Carsule tent from Mogics.
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50 Surprising Facts About America's Founding Fathers

Hulton Archive/National Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/National Archive/Getty Images

George Washington. Alexander Hamilton. Benjamin Franklin. John Adams. These men and several more continue to stand as some of the most influential figures of the United States of America, drafting the Declaration of Independence and helping to define the ideology and ambition of the free world.

More than 200 years later, their philosophies continue to inform, educate, and inspire. If you're aware of their significance but might be a little short on details, we've assembled a laundry list of facts, trivia, and lesser-known information about this formidable group.

1. The Founding Fathers probably never heard the phrase "Founding Fathers."

Tight shot of the famous signature of John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence that was signed on July 4th, 1776.
smartstock/iStock via Getty Images

The term wasn't coined until 1916, when then-Senator Warren G. Harding was giving a speech at the Republican National Convention. Harding's phrase included men who fought in the American Revolution and drafted the Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence.

2. John Hancock has become synonymous with personal signatures.

The most likely reason: His name takes up six square inches on the Declaration of Independence, a massive piece of real estate compared to the rest of the signees. Sam Adams, for example, needed just 0.6 square inches. No one knows for sure why Hancock used such broad strokes, although it's possible he didn't realize the document would eventually need 56 signatures.

3. The signatures on the Declaration of Independence were kept secret.

Not too many people could crack jokes at Hancock's expense over it because the signatures were kept secret for some time owing to the fact that there was fear of reprisal from the British. At the time the Declaration was signed, British armies were stationed nearby, and the potential to be hung for treason was large enough to keep quiet about it.

4. John Hancock was more famous for being a smuggler.

John Hancock
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hancock often brought over goods like glass, paper, and tea in secret to avoid excessive British taxation.

5. The British had a price on John Hancock's head.

Hancock's smuggling practices led to the British wishing to see his head mounted on the proverbial stake. Hancock was actually said to be a little irate about that British resentment. He thought the 500 British pound price on his head was insultingly low.

6. Thomas Jefferson was given the job of writing a rough draft of the DECLARATION Of Independence.

Washington D.C. The Jefferson Memorial, a presidential memorial dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States and one of the most important of the American Founding Fathers
Joaquin Ossorio-Castillo iStock via Getty Images

Such semantics probably weren’t on Thomas Jefferson’s mind when he prepared the Declaration. Considered the best writer of the group, it was Jefferson who was charged with writing a rough draft of the document.

7. Thomas Jefferson's initial draft of the Declaration of Independence called for an end to slavery.

Jefferson later took this part out because he felt the document wouldn’t be approved by delegates in states like Virginia and South Carolina.

8. Thomas Jefferson kept bears as pets (for a short time).

A pair of grizzly bears
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER, AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Jefferson can also lay claim to having the most unusual "pets" of any president on White House grounds. A military captain gifted Jefferson with two grizzly bears in 1807. Jefferson knew the animals were too ferocious to be kept, but until he could pass them over to a handler in Philadelphia, they remained on the grounds for two months. Jefferson kept them caged on the front lawn.

9. Thomas Jefferson also had mastodon bones.

Those bears weren't Jefferson's only experiment with imposing creatures. He once had the bones of a mastodon sent to him in the White House and devoted time to an attempt to reconstruct it. He was actually a bit obsessed with mastodons.

10. Thomas Jefferson told a slave he would free him if he learned French cooking.

Just before Jefferson was appointed minister to France in 1785, he took a trip to the country and quickly fell in love with its cuisine. In a rather cringe-inducing deal, he told his slave, James Hemings, that he would free him if Hemings would learn the art of French cooking and then pass it on to a Jefferson employee. Jefferson kept his word, although Hemings stayed in France for several years and didn't become a free man in the U.S. until 1796.

11. Thomas Jefferson was a prolific writer.

Jefferson liked to write nearly as much as he liked to eat. The third president wrote an estimated 19,000 letters in his lifetime, keeping a copy of each correspondence for himself. Oddly, he never wrote to his wife.

12. Thomas Jefferson frequently wrote to Abigail Adams.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After Jefferson became minister to France, he maintained a close relationship with both John Adams and John's wife, Abigail. Despite gender equality being a rare concept at the time, Jefferson thought Abigail to be every bit as insightful as anyone and kept a lengthy mail correspondence with her.

13. John Adams wasn't a fan of the vice presidency.

John Adams became vice president in 1789 with Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief, but the role seemed to insult him. Adams called it the "most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived."

14. John Adams was a fan of William Shakespeare.

An illustration of John Adams at a writing desk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When he wasn't condemning his own job, Adams was an ardent admirer of William Shakespeare. With Thomas Jefferson, Adams even visited Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1786. Adams liked it; Jefferson thought they were overcharged for the tour.

15. John Adams brought Satan to the White House.

When Adams took the presidential office in 1797, he brought with him two dogs: One was Juno, and the other was named Satan.

16. John Adams was the first president to live in the White House.

The White House in Washington DC - official residence of the President of the United States of America.
lucky-photographer iStock via Getty Images

Adams was the first president to take up occupancy in the White House, but construction delays kept him off-premises until 1800; he was in office only five more months after moving in. That also means Juno and Satan were the first dogs to live in the White House.

17. John Adams wanted the presidency to keep some of the splendor of royalty.

Adams's lost bid for reelection may have had something to do with his somewhat pompous view of the office. He often lobbied for the president to be referred to as "his highness."

18. John Adams created the United States Marine Band.

Adams couldn't have been too much of a miser, though. In 1798, he formed the United States Marine Band, the oldest active professional music group in the country.

19. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day. And it gets weirder.

sparklers in front of an American flag
nu1983/iStock via Getty Images Plus

In a strange bit of coincidence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died the same day: July 4, 1826. It was also the 50th anniversary of American independence.

20. Benjamin Franklin didn't believe in free will.

While all of the Founding Fathers are renowned for pushing the idea of liberty and independent choice, Benjamin Franklin apparently came to the idea a little late. In 1725, when he was just 19 years old, Franklin self-published a pamphlet titled A Dissertation Upon Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, which argued that humans didn't actually have free will and weren’t responsible for their behavior. Maturity prevailed, however, and Franklin later burned almost every copy of the booklet he could find.

21. Benjamin Franklin wanted to rearrange the alphabet.

Ben Franklin's eccentricity wasn't limited to that strange philosophy. He once had a plan to rearrange the English alphabet by eliminating the letters C, J, Q, W, X, and Y, declaring them redundant. It didn't katch on.

22. If you're reading this while watching a sunrise, you might have Ben Franklin to thank.

A more reasonable Franklin contribution: bifocals, which he invented in order to both see from a distance and read text up close without having to switch lenses.

23. Ben Franklin didn't think very highly of the bald eagle.

A close-up of a bald eagle's head.
photosvit/iStock via Getty Images

Continuing his role as America’s most eccentric Father, Franklin also advocated for the turkey to be the nation's official bird. He once dissed the bald eagle, calling it a bird "of bad moral character."

24. Ben Franklin (sarcastically) thought highly of flatulence.

Franklin also authored a text titled "Fart Proudly," a mocking essay intended to irritate the Royal Academy of Brussels, an institution he felt was too focused on impractical science. In it, he advocated for a breakthrough in making toots more pleasant-smelling. (He never sent it.)

25. Ben Franklin bathed without water.

Franklin's unique perspective extended to personal hygiene. He often opted for what he dubbed an "air bath" over a cold water bath, wandering around nude in his quarters for a half-hour each morning while reading or writing.

26. John Adams and Ben Franklin once argued about a window.

Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia
rabbit75_ist iStock via Getty Images

Franklin and John Adams made for a bit of an odd couple. Forced to spend the night together in a hotel while traveling in 1776, the two argued over whether the window should be open or closed. Adams believed night air could lead to colds; Franklin, obviously fond of a little breeze, dismissed the notion as nonsense and advocated for fresh air. (Franklin won: The window stayed open.)

27. Most of Philadelphia came to Ben Franklin's funeral.

When Franklin died in 1790, roughly 20,000 people attended his funeral—two-thirds of Philadelphia’s population at the time.

28. Ben Franklin and George Washington both had big egos.

Franklin was told by friends early in his life that he should start to consider humility a virtue, while Washington reportedly had to corral his predilection for arrogance.

29. George Washington's famous hairdo wasn't a wig.

George Washington and his generals
kreicher/iStock via Getty Images

While Washington may have curbed his ego, he still made time to look good. His famous white 'do was not a wig, but his actual hair, powdered white and carefully styled each morning.

30. George Washington had a tree-shaking temper.

While he looks out at you from the $1 bill with total calm, Washington could unleash a hellacious temper if you caught him on the wrong day. Leading the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, Washington used so much profanity that General Charles Scott, who witnessed the event, said he cussed "until leaves shook on the trees … never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since."

31. George Washington helped ensure the presidency would be a short-term gig.

Later in life, Washington's newfound modesty helped usher in a significant principle of the U.S. presidency. Despite the public's desire for him to run for a third presidential term—which he would've won with ease—Washington elected to leave after two terms so he could resume being a regular citizen, avoiding the kind of long-term rule associated with monarchs.

32. George Washington gave up the presidency to make whiskey.

Once he returned to private life in 1797, Washington opened a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon, which quickly became the largest whiskey distillery in America.

33. George Washington wasn't optimistic the Constitution would last.

Close-up of the Constitution.
jaflippo/iStock via Getty Images

Before taking on the presidency, Washington was wrapped up in the Constitutional Convention, a gathering of minds intended to elaborate on the famous document that would provide concise guidelines for future lawmakers. But Washington was unsure whether it would have any lasting impact. Walking with a friend just before the convention came to a close in 1787, he said, "I do not expect the Constitution to last for more than 20 years."

34. George Washington suffered from a host of medical problems.

In fact, it was Washington himself who didn't last that long. Plagued by a series of ailments including malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and diphtheria, the Founding Father died in 1799 at age 67. Suffering from a severe sore throat, he asked doctors to bleed him. They did, with five pints being removed from his body in a single day.

35. Alexander Hamilton begged George Washington to let him fight.

Ink drawings of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on either side of George Washington.
Campwillowlake iStock via Getty Images

Washington's onetime assistant, Alexander Hamilton, had a heartier constitution. Relegated to writing Washington’s letters, Hamilton pleaded with the then-general to let him see some action on the battlefield. Hamilton faced the British in the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and came away with a victory.

36. Alexander Hamilton was the subject of the country's first political sex scandal.

Alexander Hamilton’s health was also robust enough to carry on an affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, while serving as U.S. treasury secretary in 1791. When her husband threatened to go public with the scandal, Hamilton wrote and circulated a pamphlet detailing his side of the story. The Reynolds Affair became the country's first major political sex scandal.

37. The Reynolds Affair was wrapped up by Alexander Hamilton's nemesis.

In an odd footnote, when Maria Reynolds later sued her husband for divorce, her lawyer was Aaron Burr.

38. Alexander Hamilton launched the Coast Guard.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill
Professor25/iStock via Getty Images

Beyond setting up the country's banking and financial systems, Alexander Hamilton was also concerned with protecting America’s coastlines. To help suffocate smuggling and enforce tariff laws, Hamilton organized a marine service; it later became known as the United States Coast Guard.

39. Alexander Hamilton's son died in a duel defending his father's good name.

Dueling was part of the Hamilton family long before Alexander's fateful encounter with Aaron Burr. Three years prior, Hamilton's son Philip challenged a lawyer named George Eacker to a pistol fight after Eacker was overheard criticizing his father. Eacker shot Philip, who died the next day.

40. Alexander Hamilton probably acted as a lawyer in the country's first murder trial.

In 1799, Hamilton's life gained one of its most interesting footnotes. As a practicing lawyer in New York, Hamilton teamed with future dueling foe Aaron Burr in what is believed to be the United States' first murder trial on record. After the body of Elma Sands was discovered, a grand jury indicted her boyfriend, Levi Weeks, for the crime. The wealthy Weeks enlisted Hamilton, Burr, and Henry Livingston for his defense. He was acquitted, though public opinion largely declared him guilty.

41. Alexander Hamilton also founded a newspaper.

Hamilton founded another cultural touchstone—the New York Post—in 1801. Then titled the New York Evening Post, it’s one of the longest continually published newspapers in the U.S. When he felt like opining, Hamilton would dictate articles to editor William Coleman.

42. The Federalist Papers went a long way in shifting public opinion on independence.

Hamilton, however, had used his own hand to author the Federalist Papers, a series of essays sent to newspapers in the 1780s to rally support for ratifying the Constitution. Hamilton used the pseudonym Publius, collaborating with James Madison and John Jay.

43. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton hated each other.

There was little love lost between treasury secretary Hamilton and fourth president James Madison, who frequently sparred with over economic strategy. Onetime friends, their acrimony set the tone for Madison’s tenure in office.

44. James Madison's wife was a celebrated hostess.

Said to be shy and reserved, Madison apparently had a counterbalance in wife Dolley, who entertained the whole of Washington. At the time, the city was not exactly a hotbed of partying, and her lavish affairs helped endear congressional members to the idea of Madison as president.

45. James Madison is our tiniest president.

To date, Madison remains our smallest president at 5 feet, 4 inches and 100 pounds.

46. There's a $5000 bill with James Madison's face on it.

James Madison's portrait on US money.
johan10/iStock via Getty Images

Madison is also the president to grace the little-known $5000 bill, part of a series of high-value denominations printed between 1928 and 1945. The bills were mainly used to settle large transactions between banks.

47. Another vice president's wife wrote a book on James Madison.

Although Madison had two vice presidents die in office, he had better luck with future VP Dick Cheney: The former vice president’s wife, Lynne, wrote a well-received biography of Madison in 2014.

48. Sam Adams was a child prodigy.

An illustration of Sam Adams
stocksnapper/iStock via Getty Images

While all of the Fathers had formidable intellects, Sam Adams had quite an early start. He was admitted into Harvard College at age 14 and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1740.

49. Sam Adams wasn't exactly a brewer.

In terms of Founding Father extracurricular activities, Sam Adams is frequently credited with being a beer brewer. That's not really true, though. Adams' father did make malted barley that was sold to breweries, and his son inherited the business and became known as a "maltster." But politics soon dominated Adams' time, and the business fell by the wayside.

50. You can drink at a pub where the Founding Fathers hung out.

Adams may not have been a brewmaster, but like a lot of Founding Fathers, he didn't mind pulling up a chair at a pub. You can enjoy a beer at the same location as Founding Fathers Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Adams. The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston is said to have been the preferred watering hole of the men—a place where politics could be discussed without the hassle of sobriety.