Born the same year as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe was, like him, one of the foremost dramatists of the Elizabethan era.

EdwardiiquartoBorn in Canterbury the son of shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife Catherine in 1564 (he was baptised on 26th February and likely to have been born a few days before), Marlowe attended the King’s School in the city and went on to study at Corpus College in Cambridge, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in 1584 and a Master of Arts in 1587. It is believed that at around this time, he was also working secretly for the government of Queen Elizabeth I, although what the nature of that work was remains unknown.

While Marlowe’s first play was Dido, Queen of Carthage, he first found theatrical success in 1587 with Tamburlaine the Great, later followed with a second part. His other four plays included The Jew of Malta, Edward the Second, The Massacre at Paris about the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, and Doctor Faustus.

The plays served as key works for the Admiral’s Men, the company of Edward Alleyn who performed many of the key roles in the plays, and who is strongly associated with the Rose Theatre  – indeed it was here that Tamburlaine the Great, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus premiered (you can see our earlier post on the theatre here).

Marlowe, who is known to have lived in Shoreditch, also completed other works included poetry and translations and while there is little evidence about his personal life, there is much speculation including that he was, as aforementioned, a spy as well as a carouser (he is known to have frequented taverns in London including Ye Olde Cock in Fleet Street), a homosexual and/or a heretic. It has also been suggested he was a tutor to noblewoman Arabella Stuart.

It is known that he was arrested in 1592 in Flushing in The Netherlands for counterfeiting coins and was sent back to England but no further action was taken.

His death is one of the big mysteries of his life. A warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest over some heretical tracts which were found in the lodgings of his colleague Thomas Kyd (who when questioned apparently implicated him) and he appeared to answer to the Privy Council on 20th May, 1593. They weren’t sitting and he was apparently instructed to appear daily until further notice. He was dead 10 days later.

The exact circumstances of his death remain a matter of speculation. It is often said he died in a drunken brawl with one early source suggesting this was over a homosexual love affair and another, more recent, theory suggesting he even faked his own death to avoid being executed for heresy (an extrapolation of this theory goes that after his fake death he continued writing plays under the name of William Shakespeare but this is generally deemed fairly far-fetched). The official account recorded at the time was that he was stabbed to death in a brawl over payment of a bill with men at a house in Deptford.

He was buried in an unmarked grave at St Nicholas’ Church in Deptford. There is a memorial window to him in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. A gift of the Marlowe Society, it was unveiled in 2002 and controversially included a question mark after the generally accepted date of his death. There is a portrait, dated 1585,  generally believed to be of Marlowe at Cambridge.

PICTURE: Title page of the earliest known edition of Edward II (1594)/Wikipedia

Often noted as the second greatest English dramatist of his generation (after that Shakespeare guy), the playwright Ben Jonson stands tall in his own right as one of the leading literary figures of the late 16th and early 17th century.

Born in 1572, Jonson was educated at Westminster School in London and possibly went on to Cambridge before he started work as a bricklayer with his stepfather and later served as a soldier, fighting with English troops in The Netherlands.

It was on his return to London that he ventured into acting – among his early roles was Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie – and by 1597 he was employed as a playwright.

While one of his early play-writing efforts (The Isle of Dogs, co-written with Thomas Nashe) led to a term of imprisonment in Marshalsea Prison in 1597 (he was also briefly imprison about this time for killing another actor in a duel, escaping a death sentence by pleading “benefit of the clergy”), the following year – 1598 – the production of his play Every Man In His Humour  established his reputation as a dramatist. Shakespeare, whom some suggest was a key rival of Jonson’s during his career – is said to have been among the actors who performed in it.

Further plays followed including Every Man Out Of His Humour (1599), his only tragedy Sejanus (1603), the popular Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) and it was during these years, particularly following the accession of King James I in 1603, that he became an important figure at the royal court).

His political views continued to cause trouble at times – he was again imprisoned in the early 1600s for his writings and was questioned over the Gunpowder Plot after apparently attending an event attended by most of those later found to be co-conspirators – but his move into writing masques for the royal court – saw his star continue to rise.

All up he wrote more than 20 masques for King James and Queen Anne of Denmark including Oberon, The Faery Prince which featured the young Prince Henry, eldest son of King James, in the title role. Many of these masques saw him working with architect Inigo Jones, who designed extravagant sets for the masques,  but their relationship was tense at times.

In 1616 – his reputation well established – Jonson was given a sizeable yearly pension  (some have concluded that as a result he was informally the country’s first Poet Laureate) and published his first collection of works the following year. Noted for his wit, he was also known to have presided over a gathering of his friends and admirers at The Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil’s Tavern at 2 Fleet Street (Shakespeare was among those he verbally jousted with).

Jonson spent more than a year in his ancestral home of Scotland around 1618 but on his return to London, while still famous, he no longer saw the same level of success as he had earlier – particularly following the death of King James and accession of his son, King Charles I, in 1625.

Jonson married Anne Lewis – there is a record of such a couple marrying at St Magnus-the-Martyr church near London Bridge in 1594 – but their relationship certainly wasn’t always smooth sailing for they spent at least five years of their marriage living separately. It’s believed he had several children, two of whom died while yet young.

Jonson, meanwhile, continued to write up until his death on 6th August, 1637, and is buried in Westminster Abbey (he’s the only person buried upright in the abbey – apparently due to his poverty at the time of his death).

For an indepth look at the life of Ben Jonson, check out Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson: A Life.