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Christopher Marlowe
from A History of English Literature

1918

by Robert Huntington Fletcher


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from Chapter VI. The Drama From About 1550 To 1642

CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE, 1564-1593.

Peele and Greene were University men who wrote partly for Court or academic audiences, partly for the popular stage. The distinction between the two sorts of drama was still further broken down in the work of Christopher Marlowe, a poet of real genius, decidedly the chief dramatist among Shakespeare's early contemporaries, and the one from whom Shakespeare learned the most.

Marlowe was born in 1564 (the same year as Shakespeare), the son of a shoemaker at Canterbury. Taking his master's degree after seven years at Cambridge, in 1587, he followed the other 'university wits' to London. There, probably the same year and the next, he astonished the public with the two parts of 'Tamburlaine the Great,' a dramatization of the stupendous career of the bloodthirsty Mongol fourteenth-century conqueror. These plays, in spite of faults now conspicuous enough, are splendidly imaginative and poetic, and were by far the most powerful that had yet been written in England. Marlowe followed them with 'The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus,' a treatment of the medieval story which two hundred years later was to serve Goethe for his masterpiece; with 'The Jew of Malta,' which was to give Shakespeare suggestions for 'The Merchant of Venice'; and with 'Edward the Second,' the first really artistic Chronicle History play. Among the literary adventurers of the age who led wild lives in the London taverns Marlowe is said to have attained a conspicuous reputation for violence and irreligion. He was killed in 1593 in a reckless and foolish brawl, before he had reached the age of thirty.

If Marlowe's life was unworthy, the fault must be laid rather at the door of circumstances than of his own genuine nature. His plays show him to have been an ardent idealist and a representative of many of the qualities that made the greatness of the Renaissance. The Renaissance learning, the apparently boundless vistas which it had opened to the human spirit, and the consciousness of his own power, evidently intoxicated Marlowe with a vast ambition to achieve results which in his youthful inexperience he could scarcely even picture to himself. His spirit, cramped and outraged by the impassable limitations of human life and by the conventions of society, beat recklessly against them with an impatience fruitless but partly grand. This is the underlying spirit of almost all his plays, struggling in them for expression. The Prolog to 'Tamburlaine' makes pretentious announcement that the author will discard the usual buffoonery of the popular stage and will set a new standard of tragic majesty:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.

Tamburlaine himself as Marlowe presents him is a titanic, almost superhuman, figure who by sheer courage and pitiless unbending will raises himself from shepherd to general and then emperor of countless peoples, and sweeps like a whirlwind over the stage of the world, carrying everywhere overwhelming slaughter and desolation. His speeches are outbursts of incredible arrogance, equally powerful and bombastic. Indeed his blasphemous boasts of superiority to the gods seem almost justified by his apparently irresistible success. But at the end he learns that the laws of life are inexorable even for him; all his indignant rage cannot redeem his son from cowardice, or save his wife from death, or delay his own end. As has been said,

[Footnote: Professor Barrett Wendell, 'William Shakespeare,' p. 36.] 'Tamburlaine' expresses with 'a profound, lasting, noble sense and in grandly symbolic terms, the eternal tragedy inherent in the conflict between human aspiration and human power.'

For several other reasons 'Tamburlaine' is of high importance. It gives repeated and splendid expression to the passionate haunting Renaissance zest for the beautiful. It is rich with extravagant sensuous descriptions, notable among those which abound gorgeously in all Elizabethan poetry. But finest of all is the description of beauty by its effects which Marlowe puts into the mouth of Faustus at the sight of Helen of Troy:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Much of Marlowe's strength, again, lies in his powerful and beautiful use of blank verse. First among the dramatists of the popular stage he discarded rime, and taking and vitalizing the stiff pentameter line of

'Gorboduc,' gave it an immediate and lasting vogue for tragedy and high comedy. Marlowe, virtually a beginner, could not be expected to carry blank verse to that perfection which his success made possible for Shakespeare; he did not altogether escape monotony and commonplaceness; but he gained a high degree of flexibility and beauty by avoiding a regularly end-stopped arrangement, by taking pains to secure variety of pause and accent, and by giving his language poetic condensation and suggestiveness. His workmanship thoroughly justifies the characterization 'Marlowe's mighty line,' which Ben Jonson in his tribute to Shakespeare bestowed on it long after Marlowe's death.

The greatest significance of 'Tamburlaine,' lastly, lies in the fact that it definitely established tragedy as a distinct form on the English popular stage, and invested it with proper dignity.

These are Marlowe's great achievements both in 'Tamburlaine' and in his later more restrained plays. His limitations must also be suggested. Like other Elizabethans he did not fully understand the distinction between drama and other literary forms; 'Tamburlaine' is not so much a regularly constructed tragedy, with a struggle between nearly equal persons and forces, artistically complicated and resolved, as an epic poem, a succession of adventures in war (and love). Again, in spite of the prolog in 'Tamburlaine,' Marlowe, in almost all his plays, and following the Elizabethan custom, does attempt scenes of humor, but he attains only to the coarse and brutal horse-play at which the English audiences had laughed for centuries in the Mystery plays and the Interludes. Elizabethan also (and before that medieval) is the lack of historical perspective which gives to Mongol shepherds the manners and speech of Greek classical antiquity as Marlowe had learned to know it at the university. More serious is the lack of mature skill in characterization. Tamburlaine the man is an exaggerated type; most of the men about him are his faint shadows, and those who are intended to be comic are preposterous. The women, though they have some differentiating touches, are certainly not more dramatically and vitally imagined. In his later plays Marlowe makes gains in this respect, but he never arrives at full easy mastery and trenchantly convincing lifelikeness either in characterization, in presentation of action, or in fine poetic finish. It has often been remarked that at the age when Marlowe died Shakespeare had produced not one of the great plays on which his reputation rests; but Shakespeare's genius came to maturity more surely, as well as more slowly, and there is no basis for the inference sometimes drawn that if Marlowe had lived he would ever have equalled or even approached Shakespere's supreme achievement.


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