Foreignness and Freedom in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe

By Abigail Slater
2021, Vol. 13 No. 03 | pg. 1/1


In recent years, questions of racial, religious, and sexual inequalities across classic literature have left many educators and students wondering if the canon of Western works are sufficient in portraying the many diverse peoples that existed during these time periods. As the important work of examining overlooked writings of the marginalized, the following essay aims to shine a light on one already-accepted author within the canon of Western literature.

The plays of Christopher Marlowe have impacted much of literature’s trajectory since the late 16th Century. As Marlowe’s own sexual identity has long been considered to be marginalized, his work showcases main characters who, in the hands of another writer, may have only been given the parts of villains.

From Barnabas’ cunning in The Jew of Malta to Dido’s active wielding of power in Dido, Queen of Carthage, Marlowe’s marginalized men and women literally take center stage as they craft their own narratives. In doing so, they are examples of characters whose stories are not impeded by marginalization, but are instead enhanced by them.

Few writers and dramatists have managed to inspire a persona that is as interesting as that of Christopher Marlowe. Born in Canterbury in the mid-16th century, Marlowe rose to prominence in the theatre community of London through his exceptional plays. Much of his work tackled taboo topics with little regard for political correctness, utilizing characters who explored these themes with unique perspectives previously unseen. Marlowe’s own life was riddled with rumors of espionage and social deviance. These rumors met their final fate at a tavern, where Marlowe saw his bloody end (Meyers, 2). Ultimately, his murder would become another bit of gossip trailing on the coattails of his memory, the motive behind it unclear. The characters he crafted during his career often display these same attributes, contempt for authority and a lack of abidance by the rules being first and foremost. Marlowe’s characters may have deviated from Early Modern norms, but somehow we, as the audience, are still expected to be awed by them. In the case of Tamburlaine, we are even wooed by them. This is most apparent with his foreign heroes, specifically Tamburlaine, Dido, and Barabas. Within these three characters’ narrative structures, I propose that Marlowe used their status as foreigners of England to show humanity within the narrative framework of the “other.”

The concept of “otherness” is in need of a relevant definition. For our purposes, we will operate under the definition provided by Jean-Francois Staszak, a French geographer. “Otherness is the result of a discursive process by which a dominant in-group (“Us,” the Self) constructs one or many dominated out-groups (“Them,” Other) by stigmatizing a difference – real or imagined – presented as a negation of identity and thus a motive for potential discrimination. To state it naively, difference belongs to the realm of fact and otherness belongs to the realm of discourse” (2). To further parse down this definition, here we will be looking solely at foreignness as it falls under the umbrella of the “other,” and how this specific kind of otherness is utilized as both a mode of oppression against our characters in one hand and wielded as a weapon of empowerment for them in the other.

With this working definition, it is important to understand what constitutes the in-group during this time period. We could sit and ponder over characters from various plays for days, but an actor is never speaking to an empty room. Behind all of these characters and their stories are the environments from which they came, namely, Elizabethan England. “Remove the performers and audience, and the theatre becomes something else entirely, and the identity of that something else depends upon, again, the affective forces that work within it” (Bianco, 124). Since we are discussing the narrowed topic of foreignness, the in-group and out-group can both be identified by location. That which is European is sameness, while that which is not European is otherness. Sameness is a strong need within many societies, and Elizabethan England was no exception. When in character, actors were still under pressure to display English cultural indicators of class and gender. “Under Elizabethan stage conditions the dramatic display of artificial persons and actions. Even under the alien contours of an imaginary role, performers did not relinquish all the visible signs of their social and sexual identity” (Weimann and Bruster, 142). From this, we can ascertain that sameness was both culturally ingrained and socially significant, making any kind of otherness that much more obvious to the audience.

Because of our emphasis on foreignness over other kinds of otherness, our cast of characters is narrowed down to a select few; that of Tamburlaine, Barabas, Abigall, and Dido. Here, our focus will remain squarely on them. However, to understand why their otherness benefited Marlowe’s writing, we must first understand the writer himself.

Christopher Marlowe

Marlovian critical scholarship is sparse in scope and imagination, at times. Most often, he is referenced only for his relationship with and influence on Shakespeare’s more famous works. In The Predecessors of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe is listed as the first chapter and is generally assumed to have one of the biggest impacts on Shakespearean writings. Even so, it is not hard to notice that there is something different within Marlowe’s work, a kind of Devil-may-care narrative style that fits seamlessly within his tightly contained and regimented iambic pentameter. Lawrence Danson says it best in his rhetorical analysis of Marlowe’s work: “In our better moments we welcome controversy about Shakespeare because in our better moments we trust Shakespeare: we trust that our controversies testify to Shakespeare’s ability to embrace multitudes. With Marlowe the case is different. Marlowe has from the start failed to inspire trust” (3). This gap in critical theory between Marlowe’s works and Shakespeare’s could, as Danson puts it, be chalked up to the fact that Marlowe was a bit of a wild card in his works. It could also possibly be explained by the career gap that he and Shakespeare shared. Marlowe died at 29, long before being truly immortalized with the kind of fame that his colleague saw.

During his short lifetime, Marlowe was no stranger to conflict. He was frequently in trouble for accusations of homosexuality, atheism, brawling, and other transgressions (Meyers, 9). The literature on Marlowe’s life, in this vein, seems to delight in sharing the legends that surrounded the writer’s close calls with the court. However, his early life and many of his actions are based on critical speculation rather than primary sources. “We know nothing about his family life,” writes Jeffrey Meyers, a Marlovian biographer. “There are no surviving letters, and only one example of his signature, as witness to a will. There are no secret service reports, and his career as a secret service agent remains a mystery. We don't know if he ever spied in Rheims or, if he did, whether he was a crypto-Catholic and double agent.” Marlowe’s life was, in other words, a mystery. An empty canvas upon which anyone could paint anything. Even Marlowe himself did just that, crafting a life as scandalous and rousing as any of his characters’. The scholars and critics after his time have taken up the charge as well.

However, that philosophical blank canvas still existed within the often-rigid bounds of Renaissance England society. Despite the growing social mobility that some enjoyed, a man could only say and do so much before religious piety came calling with expectations of atonement, especially during Elizabeth’s reign (Suzuki). But on the stage, characters were given some measure of exemption from their deeds. They could poke and prod the audience into a feeling of discomfort around norms. “The perceived danger of Marlowe’s plays lies in the magnitude of their affective potentiality; they are defined by their audacity and recklessness, not by their measured constraint. As Smith intimates, how Marlowe’s plays affect their audiences says more about the audiences than about the plays themselves” (Bianco, 1). The further away a character was from their audience, the more freedom they had in what they could say and do. Marlowe was the creator of these plays, but once they went into performance the control was no longer his. He could not force an audience to receive his works in a particular way.

With this overview of Marlowe’s life, we can see how his characters display their own kinds of otherness through a foreign identity. This is especially evident in the characters of Tamburlaine, Barabas, and Dido, whose otherness created a safe boundary within which Marlowe could explore taboo themes.

Tamburlaine, Part 1 and 2

Throughout the literature on Marlowe’s life, most critics seem to be in agreement on one thing: Marlowe wrote what he knew. His characters reflect the social movement that Marlowe wanted within his own life, but may not have been able to obtain. A man in this position might dream of being able to become something as grand as Tamburlaine. The character is based off of Timur the Lame, a 14th Century conqueror. “The young man was lame and was known as Timur Lang, which the Europeans have transformed into Tamerlane. In a few years he had embarked on his spectacular career as world conqueror” (Saunders, 173). However, for many Westerners the concept of a conqueror most often conjures up a different figure: Alexander the Great. Alexander, while also a foreign figure to Marlowe’s country, had likely become so fabled and known over time that he no longer provided the skeletal structure of a man that Marlowe needed for such a character. Timur the Lame, however, was a real figure from much further away, with far less known about his life and rulership. For a writer in need of a blank canvas, Timur posed an excellent candidate.

In his two consecutive plays, Tamburlaine is our central figurehead. His race prevents him from being seen as entirely human, something which he quickly moves to inform the audience. He tells Zenocrate, “I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove/And yet a shepherd by my parentage” (1.2.35-36). While aware of his foreignness, he is never wary of it. His confidence and need for victory are never affected by the things which set him apart. “But now you see these letters and commands/Are countermanded by a greater man…But since I love to live at liberty/As easily may you get the Sultan’s crown/As any prizes out of my precinct” (1.2.21-28). As a man far from home he has this ability to “live at liberty.” He is not beholden to local customs, nor is he anymore stuck under the rule of his homeland. His moral code is solely his, and he lives by it alone.

In spite of Tamburlaine’s arrogance, other characters within the play (and, presumably, the audience) are inclined to view him in a positive light. This is seen in the language used when other characters speak of him throughout the play, in which he is described as being god-like in nature. “On which the breath of heaven delights to play/Making it dance with wanton majesty/His arms and fingers long and sinewy/Betokening valour and excess of strength/In every part proportion'd like the man/Should make the world subdued to Tamburlaine” (2.1.25-30). Even those whom he has oppressed see his strength, such as when a once-confident Mycetes questions the nature of warfare altogether after his defeat. “Accurst be he that first invented war!/They knew not, ah, they knew not, simple men/How those were hit by pelting cannon shot/Stand staggering like a quivering aspen leaf/Fearing the force of Boreas’ boist’rous blasts!” (2.4.1-5). Danson points out that this god-like behavior does not necessarily hearken back to a theological standpoint on Marlowe’s end. “But there is a coherent moral vision in Tamburlaine, however indirectly it is made to emerge; it is neither reductively moralistic nor foolishly Promethean…Clearly the play’s vision does not depend on any last-second retribution” (11, 12). Based on this portrayal, we can assume that in Marlowe’s vision, being less than human puts one closer to being more than human than it does to being human. Within otherness, there can be found power to overstep boundaries without retribution.

Some argue against this, pointing out that Part 2 of Tamburlaine is a reckoning of sorts, the descent of a king who rose too quickly and fell too hard. But a closer inspection of Tamburlaine’s sequel tale shows a different interpretation. Inspired by the Renaissance return to Classical and Roman ideas, Marlowe’s characterization of a man overtaking nations and expanding his land holdings could only have one conclusion. “What daring god torments my body thus/And seeks to conquer mighty Tamburlaine?/Shall sickness prove me now to be a man/That have been termed the terror of the world?” (5. 3.42-44). Like the once-great Roman Empire, what goes up must come down. For Tamburlaine’s final act, our main character does not necessarily see his decline because of a poetic comeuppance; rather, he is simply joining the rankings of every other noteworthy leader and nation by losing grip on his fortune and returning to the earth. Even Alexander the Great, believed by many throughout history to have been a supernatural being, eventually had to meet his maker.

The Jew of Malta

Many critics have pointed out a similar structure within The Jew of Malta. Barabas, the titular character, has a narrative freedom that many heroes do not enjoy simply because of his lower station in life. For instance, early on in the play he delivers this scathing monologue against his Christian neighbors: “Who hateth me but for my happiness?/Or who is honour'd now but for his wealth?/Rather had I, a Jew, be hated thus/Than pitied in a Christian poverty/For I can see no fruits in all their faith/But malice, falsehood, and excessive pride/Which methinks fits not their profession” (1.1.110-116). According to Hunter’s take on the play, Barabas can say something shocking like this without fear of repercussion because, to an Elizabethan audience, he was simply behaving as a stereotypical Jewish man would. “The usual critical attitude to Marlowe’s Jew is that the author (himself an ‘outsider’) has sympathetically identified himself with the powerful and magnetic alien figure in the opening scenes of the play…The natural modern tendency is to see this as a piece of proper racial piety, with Barabas as a sympathetic, though alien, figure honoring his own patriarch” (216).

Rothstein parrots this sentiment, also regarding Barabas. “Most of the parody relates directly to Barabas, establishing his position; he in turn is used by Marlowe to set off and expose the rest of the characters. Barabas bears the stigmata of his Jewishness, his usury, his Machiavellianism, his physical grotesqueness, and also his name” (261). Essentially, Barabas is so different that it renders him invisible, and it is this invisibility that allows him to connive and scheme until he gets what he wants. The “stigmata” of his Jewishness, as Rothstein calls it, means that he has grown up hearing that Jews are nothing more than money-grubbing fiends. So when Barabas wants to be a money-grubbing fiend, there is nothing about his actions that would cause any Christian in the area to believe that he is acting as anything except his own nature. A man from another religion, when put in Barabas’ position, might be criticized for loving money more than their own daughter. “My gold, my fortune, my felicity/Strength to my soul, death to mine enemy!/Welcome, the first beginner of my bliss!/O Abigall, Abigall, that I had thee here too!” (2.1.47-50). But Barabas escapes this moralizing, and is instead considered to be the hero when he finally gets back his fortune in spite of his treatment of his daughter. Rothstein writes that to Barabas, Abigail is another piece of property, another means to an end. “But Abigail pays limited profits. Like the Biblical Abigail, she eventually moves from a liason with a son of Belial to the proper service of the Lord; in doing so, she becomes forfeit property, a replaceable (by Ithamore) sacrifice” (263). Barabas does not feel the need to humanize his daughter, because he does not feel the need to humanize anyone. If flesh and blood is property to him, then Barabas has nothing to lose but his fortune, a recoupable commodity. Marlowe seems to enjoy playing with Barabas’ Machiavellianism, and with his ability to act without restraint.

In one such unrestrained act, Barabas convinces Abigail, to pose as a convert and gain access to the nunnery now taking up residence in his home. “Who’s this? Fair Abigall, the rich Jew’s daughter/Become a nun? Her father’s sudden fall/Has humbled her and brought her down to this” (1.3.1-3). In this scene, Barabas is utilizing his foreignness as a way to fly under the radar of the Christians persecuting him so that he can lay his (literal) trap. A Christian character, no matter their class, could never have crafted the plan’s inverse scenario, in which they converted to Judaism as a cover-up, simply because a European Christian converting to another faith would be outside of expectation and draw too much attention. But Abigail turning to Christianity and away from her father’s perceived heathenism works with the desires of society, and thus does not turn as many heads. This allows her and her father to carry out their plan in secret, aided by their differences rather than hindered by them.

While Barabas does not come across as a character who might receive redemption (or who, if he did receive redemption, would care much for it anyways), Marlowe’s final act in The Jew of Malta gives the audience a choice when Barabas is caught in his own trap. “And, villains, know you cannot help me now/Then, Barabas, breathe forth thy latest fate/And in the fury of thy torments strive/To end thy life with resolution” (5.5.75-78). Barabas dies with an unusual gracefulness typically reserved for more noble characters. He accepts his fate and takes responsibility for the actions that have led him here, all while staying true to his prior beliefs and moral code. “The play as I would read it is skillfully constructed, and effective, if not in stimulating our emotions, then in placing before us the image of a morally crippled world, a complex emblem of unChristian action. That world is not England, for Marlowe is neither cynic nor nihilist, but its unarable land is part of England and Englishmen. Marlowe asks us to laugh at it and leave it to scorn” (Rothstein, 273). Barabas, in the end, is not the bad guy. Instead, he is just one bad guy among many, another self-centered character in a play populated solely by self-centered characters. And yet, we root for Barabas. He is a foreign man stuck in a place that hates him, that denigrates him for his religion and his features, and that is enough to inspire an audience to watch as he struggles to get back what matters to him.

If all of these examples are not convincing enough of Barabas’ freedom, another bit of evidence can be found of the form of Barabas’ speech. Unlike Marlowe’s other plays, Barabas speaks with a tick: He speaks to himself in stage “asides” more often than any other Marlovian character. “(aside) Now will I show myself to have more of the serpent than the dove – that is, more knave than fool” (2.3.34-36). The context here is clear; Barabas can speak to himself because who in the play would waste their time listening to a Jew? He can, quite literally, say whatever he wants, out loud, because of the assumption that no one will be interested enough to hear it. Barabas’ otherness, foreignness, and freedoms are all ingrained into the very form of the play.

Dido, Queen of Carthage

Dido, Queen of Carthage tells the story of a Carthagian queen hit by Cupid’s arrow. She falls in love with Aeneas, who has arrived at her country’s ports after the fall of Troy. In Act 1, Scene 1 his mother, Venus, has guided him here to safety. This very situation immediately puts a spin on traditional gender dynamics within the play; Aeneas, a man, is placed at the mercy of both a goddess and Dido, two women who have the power to either make or break him. From the moment they meet, Dido is in a position of clear authority. “What stranger art thou that eye me thus?” she asks Aeneas, who replies, “Sometime I was a Trojan, mighty queen/But Troy is not. What shall I say I am?” (2.1.74-76). Aeneas then quickly informs her of his lower station, without prompting: “For though my birth be great, my fortune’s mean/Too mean to be companion to a queen” (2.1.88-89). This reversal of power narratives creates a tone that remains for the rest of the play, even when Dido is forcibly smitten with Aeneas and behaving out of character. She may be love-struck, but she refrains from losing her sovereignty.

Once hit with Cupid’s arrow, Dido’s characterization becomes more and more abrasive, especially in her behavior toward Aeneas. She openly lusts after him throughout Acts 3 and 4, “But tell them none shall gaze on him but I/Lest their gross eye-beams taint my lover’s cheeks/Anna, good sister Anna, go for him/Lest with these sweet thoughts I melt clean away” (3.1.71-75). She becomes increasingly reckless, even going so far as to sabotage Aeneas’ return to his home in Act 4. And yet, she remains the sympathetic figurehead of the tale, her authority never being yielded in favor of Aeneas. “The script affirms Dido’s centrality both dramaturgically and linguistically: she is onstage more than any other character and has more and better lines than Aeneas” (Gamel, 618). Because Dido is being affected by the gods meddling in her affairs, the audience can write off much of her behavior as the unfortunate effects of Cupid’s arrow.

This effect can only be the result of gods acting as characters and having a hand in the story; without them, Dido’s play is just the sad descent of a woman who forgot her place. However, Dido’s nationality allows Marlowe to pull from a whole host of Greek and Roman mythological characters, none of whom appear in physical form in his Eurocentric works. Venus, Juno, Ganymede, and Jupiter are personified in Dido, and this peek behind the divine curtain allows the audience to empathize with Dido’s misfortunes and ultimately view her as a heroic character, in spite of her humiliation. In this same vein, Dido’s heritage and its supporting cast of divine characters paves the way for Marlowe to include explicit displays of homosexual characters, a feat which would have been nearly impossible in a Christian tale.

In the opening scene, Ganymede is lying with Jupiter. “What is’t, sweet wag, I should deny thy youth/Whose face reflects such pleasures to mine eyes…Sit on my knee and call for thy content” (1.1.23-24, 28). Dido’s foreignness doesn’t just open up the Pantheon of gods to be called on as characters, it also opens up the varying gender and sexual identities of those characters for imitation where Western deities would never be able to. In regards to Dido, Queen of Carthage’s queer opening, Bianco writes, “What Marlowe imitates in his plays is what traditionally would be discarded or overlooked as immoral, uncivic, and therefore unworthy of imitation” (30). In this space of foreign otherness, Marlowe is free not just to imitate queer behaviors, but to brazenly and fearlessly have them be his opening act.

The Final Act

While there is plenty of critical information on Marlowe’s works, it quickly becomes obvious that he is viewed by a lot of scholars as an asterisk to Shakespeare rather than his own being. Almost every article cited brings up Shakespeare, most often in a compare-and-contrast style where he is pitted against Marlowe. In the moments that Marlowe is given his own critical space, speculation is typically concentrated around his lifestyle and outrageousness. The general census is that Marlowe was an other, writing about other others, trying to centralize himself within the narrative of his own story. Through this, we have received some of literature’s most powerful, commanding characters. A Jew trying to maintain leverage in the only way he knows how. A conqueror trying to hold onto his empire through his children. A man making a deal with the Devil. These works stand on their own, regardless of relation or effect on separate literary history. Scholarship should reflect this, but unfortunately, that area is lacking at the moment.


Barber, C.L. “The Form of Faustus’ Fortunes Good or Bad.” The Tulane Drama Review. Vol. 8, No. 4, Marlowe Issue (Summer, 1964), pp. 92-119.

Bianco, Marcie. The Spirit of Marlowe: Creating An Ethics On The English Renaissance Stage. Rutgers University. New Brunswick, New Jersey. 2012.

Comensoli, Viviana. “Homophobia and the Regulation of Desire: A Pyschoanalytic Reading of Marlowe’s ‘Edward II.’” Journal of the History of Sexuality. Vol. 4, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: Lesbian and Gay Histories (Oct., 1993), pp. 175-200.

Danson, Lawrence. “Christopher Marlowe: The Questioner.” English Literary Renaissance Vol. 12, No. 1 (WINTER 1982), pp. 3-29.

Garber, Marjorie. “Here’s Nothing Writ.” Theatre Journal. Vol. 36, No. 3, Renaissance Re-Visions (Oct., 1984), pp. 301-320.

Gamel, Mary-Kay. “The Triumph of Cupid: Marlowe’s ‘Dido, Queen of Carthage’.” The American Journal of Philology. Vol. 126, No. 4 (Winter, 2005) pp. 613-622.

Hunter, G.K. “The Theology of Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta.’” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 27 (1964), pp. 211-240.

Logan, Terrence P. Smith, Denzell S. The Predecessors of Shakespeare. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1973.

Marlowe, Christopher. Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays. Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey. Penguin Classics. 2003. London, England.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Marlowe’s Lives.” Michigan Quarterly Review. Volume XLII,Issue 3,Summer 2003. Link:

Rothstein, Eric. “Structure As Meaning in ‘The Jew of Malta.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Vol. 65, No. 2 (Apr., 1966), pp. 260-273.

Saunders, J.J. The History of the Mongol Conquests. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia. 1971.

Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Elsevier. 2008.

Suzuki, Mihoko. “Gender, Class, and Social Order in Late Elizabethan Drama.” Theatre Journal. Vol. 44, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 31-45.

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