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The achievement of Christopher Marlowe, poet and dramatist, was enormous—surpassed only by that of his exact contemporary William Shakespeare. Most dramatic poets of the sixteenth century followed where Marlowe had led, especially in their use of language and the blankverse line. The prologue to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587-1588) proclaims its author’s contempt for the stage verse of the period, in which the ”jygging vaines of riming mother wits” presented the ”conceits [which] clownage keepes in pay” instead the new play promised a barbaric foreign hero, the ”Scythian Tamburlaine, Threatning the world with high astounding tearms.” English drama was never the same again.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Marlowe lived his entire life during the Elizabethan era, the time period during which Queen Elizabeth I ruled England and Ireland. The era lasted from 1558 until her death in 1603, and was most notable for two great accomplishments: the rise of British sea superiority, demonstrated by both the British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the extensive oceanic explorations of Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh; and the advancement of English theatre to a popular and enduring art form, demonstrated by the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe.
Marlowe was born in February 1564, about two months before Shakespeare. His father was a prosperous middle-class merchant of Canterbury. Christopher received his early education at King’s School in Canterbury, and at the age of seventeen went to Cambridge, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1584.
The terms of his scholarship allowed for a further three years’ study if the holder intended to take holy orders, and Marlowe appears to have fulfilled this condition. But in 1587 the University at first refused to grant the appropriate degree of Master of Arts. The college records show that Marlowe was away from Cambridge for considerable periods during his second three years, and the university apparently had good reason to be suspicious of his whereabouts. Marlowe, however, was not without some influence by this time: Archbishop Whitgift, Lord Burghley, and Sir Christopher Hatton were among members of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council who signed a letter explaining, ”Whereas it was reported that Christopher Morley was determined to have gone beyond the seas to Reames and there to remaine . ..he had done her Majestie good service, & deserved to be rewarded for his faithfull dealinge.”
The reference to ”Reames” makes everything clear. The Jesuit seminary at Rheims was the refuge of many expatriate English Roman Catholics, banished from Queen Elizabeth’s newly Protestant realm, who were thought to be scheming to overthrow the English monarch. It is likely that Marlowe was sent to Rheims on some sort of espionage mission as part of greater efforts to foil Elizabeth’s Catholic foes.
Wild Years in London
In 1587 Marlowe went from Cambridge to London. For the next six years he wrote plays and associated with other writers, among them the poet Thomas Watson and the dramatist Thomas Kyd. He soon became known for his wild, bohemian ways and his unorthodox thinking. In 1589, for example, he was imprisoned for a time in connection with the death of a certain William Bradley, who had been killed in a violent quarrel in which Marlowe played an important part. He was several times accused of being an “atheist” and a “blasphemer,” most notably by his fellow playwright Thomas Kyd. These charges led to Marlowe’s arrest in 1593, but he died before his case was decided.
Marlowe’s career as a poet and dramatist spanned a mere six years. Between his graduation from Cambridge in 1587 and his death in 1593 he wrote only one major poem (Hero and Leander, unfinished at his death) and six or seven plays (one play, Dido Queen of Carthage, may have been written while he was still a student). Since the dating of several plays is uncertain, it is impossible to construct a reliable history of Marlowe’s intellectual and artistic development.
Dido, Queen of Carthage
For what was probably his first play, Marlowe took from the Roman poet Virgil the account of Dido’s passion for Aeneas, the Trojan hero shipwrecked on the Carthaginian coast after the destruction of Troy, and added a subplot of the unrequited love of Anna, Dido’s sister, for one of Dido’s suitors, whose name—Iarbus—is mentioned only infrequently in Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid. Virgil’s hero is a man of destiny, ordained by the gods to sail to Italy and there establish the Roman race, the true descendants of the Trojans. The interlude with Dido is only a part of the divine plan. Aeneas must not allow himself to be detained in Carthage, even though his departure is a tragic catastrophe for the Queen. Virgil’s gods are always in control of the action.
Marlowe introduces the gods at the beginning of his play, daringly presenting them as a bunch of rather shabby immortals subject to very human emotions: Venus is anxious for the welfare of her shipwrecked son, Aeneas; Juno is jealous of Venus and irritated by her husband’s infidelities; and Jupiter is besotted with a homosexual passion for Ganymede. This is a grotesquely “domestic” comedy, which might seem to endanger the tragic stature of the play’s heroine and the epic status of its hero, since both Dido and Aeneas are at the mercy of such deities. The character of Aeneas has provoked varying reactions in critics of the play (one sees him as ”an Elizabethan adventurer”; another adopts the medieval view in which he is the betrayer of Troy; and for yet another he is the unheroic ”man-in-the-street” who has no desire for great actions). Dido, however, is unambiguously sympathetic. At first a majestic queen, she becomes almost inarticulate as she struggles with a passion that she does not understand. Her grief at Aeneas’s departure brings back her eloquence, and then, preparing for death, she achieves the isolated dignity of a tragic heroine.
Tamburlaine the Great
Based on the historical fourteenth-century Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, Tamburlaine the Great, a two-part play, was first printed in 1590 but was probably composed several years earlier. The famous prologue to the first part announces a new poetic and dramatic style: ”From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,/ And such conceits as clown age 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./ View but his picture in this tragic glass,/ And then applaud his fortunes as you please.” The play itself is a bold demonstration of Tamburlaine’s rise to power and his single-minded, often inhumanly cruel exercise of that power.
The Jew of Malta
Although written sometime between 1588 and 1592, The Jew of Malta was not printed until 1633, but it was frequently performed by The Admiral’s Men in the years immediately following Marlowe’s death. The recorded box-office receipts testify to its popularity. The chief figure, the phenomenally wealthy merchant-prince Barabas, is one of the most powerful figures of Elizabethan drama. Unlike Tamburlaine, who asserts his will openly and without guile, Barabas is shrewd, devious, and secretive. Yet Barabas is also a sympathetic character in that, at the beginning of the play, he is a man more sinned against than sinning: the victim of prejudice, his fault lies in his Jewishness—and the Knights of Malta are prepared to use religion as a cloak for theft when they take the Jews’ property to pay the Turks. Barabas discloses their hypocrisy: ”Preach me not out of my possessions.” The prologue is delivered by a historical figure easily recognized by Marlowe’s contemporary audiences: Niccolo Machiavelli, Italian political mastermind and author of The Prince.
Doctor Faustus, which is generally considered Marlowe’s greatest work, was probably also his last. Its central figure, a scholar who feels he has exhausted all the conventional areas of human learning, attempts to gain the ultimate in knowledge and power by selling his soul to the devil.
In the last act of the play, he twice conjures up the spirit of Helen of Troy—the first time for the benefit of his scholar friends, who have requested to see ”the admirablest Lady that ever lived.” The second time is for his own delight and comfort; he asks for Helen as his ”paramour.”
The second appearance of Helen calls forth from Faustus the most famous lines that Marlowe ever wrote:
Was this the face that Launcht a thousand ships, And burnt the toplesse Towers of Ilium? Sweet Hellen make me immortall with a kisse: Her lips sucke forth my soule, see where it flies.
The high point comes in the portrayal of the hero’s final moments, as he awaits the powers of darkness who demand his soul.
Audience enthusiasm for Marlowe’s works reflect important elements of Elizabethan culture. Though the Italian Renaissance had already passed, the same interest in classical subjects is found in Dido, Queen of Carthage and Doctor Faustus. At the same time, these classical and historical subjects were counterbalanced by moments of humor that might be described as “low” or inappropriate in tone. This reflects the wide-ranging audiences that were drawn to the theater during this time; England had steadily grown more prosperous under Elizabeth’s rule, and even lower-class citizens frequented the theater for an evening’s entertainment. Aside from historical and classical subjects, many of Marlowe’s works reflected events and concerns of the Elizabethan era; The Massacre at Paris, for example, depicted the events of the 1572 Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (a wave of Catholic mob violence against Protestants in France resulting in tens of thousands of deaths), which mirrored the ongoing tensions between Catholics and Protestants within England.
A Violent Death
The circumstances of Marlowe’s death first came to light in the twentieth century with the discovery of the original coroner’s report in the Public Record Office in London. The report tells of a meeting at the house of Mrs. Eleanor Bull in Deptford—not a tavern, but a house where meetings could be held and food supplied. On May 30, 1593 Marlowe spent the whole day there, talking and walking in the garden with three “gentlemen.” In the evening there was a quarrel, ostensibly about who should pay the bill, ”le recknynge”; in the ensuing scuffle Marlowe is said to have drawn his dagger and wounded one of his companions. The man, Ingram Frizer, snatched the weapon and ”in defense of his life, with the dagger aforesaid . . . gave the said Christopher then and there a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then and there instantly died.”
Despite the unusual wealth of detail surrounding this fatal episode, there has been much speculation about the affair. It has been suggested, for example, that the deed was politically motivated and that Frizer (who was subsequently judged to have acted in self-defense) was simply acting as an agent for a more prominent person.
Works in Literary Context
In many ways, Marlowe’s plays typify attitudes in Renaissance England. The intellectual and aesthetic rebirth known as the Renaissance began in Italy during the fourteenth century and, in the next two centuries, spread new ideas throughout Europe. Three aspects of Renaissance culture—Humanism, Individualism, and the New Science— figure as prominent themes in Marlowe’s play. Rejecting medieval social and religious attitudes, Renaissance Humanists privileged individual over collective values. Humanism encouraged people to realize their happiness and potential in this, the material world, rather than focusing solely on eternal happiness in the afterlife.
Although a number of English dramatists before Christopher Marlowe had achieved some notable successes in the field of comedy, none had produced a first-rate tragedy. It was Marlowe who made the first significant advances in tragedy. In each of his major plays he focuses on a single character that dominates the action by virtue of his extraordinary strength of will. Marlowe’s thundering blank verse, although for the most part lacking the subtlety of Shakespeare’s mature poetry, proved a remarkably effective medium for this kind of drama.
Critics tend to agree that Marlowe’s innovation in verse was the first and most influential predecessor to the stylistic achievements of the era. It was Tamburlaine the Great that made this powerful verse style famous. Marlowe stresses in the prologue to Part I that it is his intention to depart from the ”jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,” or unsophisticated rhymes like those of a mother giving silly advice in the form of a jig, of his predecessors. Instead, Marlowe wanted to create a work of high philosophical ambitions and powerful, ”astounding” verse.
The poetic tool Marlowe uses for his ”mighty line” is blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is a meter with five beats of two-syllable units called iambs. This style, adapted from Greek and Latin heroic verse, was developed in Italy before Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, introduced it in England. Marlowe was perhaps the chief innovator to instill blank verse with emotional force and rhythmic eloquence, and he was also influential in skillfully suiting his characters’ temperaments to the nature of their lines.
Works in Critical Context
Within three or four years of his death, Marlowe’s career was being cited by contemporary moralists as a classic illustration of the workings of divine retribution against a blasphemous atheist. In 1597, for example, Thomas Beard recognized in it ”a manifest signe of Gods judgement …in that hee compelled his owne hand which had written those blasphemies to be the instrument to punish him, and that in his braine, which had devised the same.” But he was also recognized as a remarkable dramatic genius who, if he had lived longer, was on track to have rivaled the likes of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Contemporary poet Michael Drayton observed in him ”those brave translunary things That the first poets had.” This early appreciation has extended over the years, so that now most critics—sharing the benefits of hindsight—would agree with A. C. Swinburne that Marlowe was ”the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse.” According to Havelock Ellis, ”Marlowe’s place is at the heart of English poetry”; and T. S. Eliot even predicted ”the direction in which Marlowe’s verse might have moved… [which was toward]… intense and serious and indubitably great poetry.”
Although Shakespeare was able to bring his art to an ever higher level, most dramatic poets of the sixteenth century followed where Marlowe had led, especially in their use of language and the blank-verse line. English drama was never the same.
Although Doctor Faustus was a staple production for The Admiral’s Men for several years after its creation, it was also a divisive work that some sources suggest was not that popular with Elizabethan audiences. It prompted Puritan author William Prynne, in his 1632 attack on Elizabethan theater known as Histriomastix, to proclaim that the production was sinful enough to cause actual demons to materialize onstage. The play, like many of Marlowe’s works, was virtually forgotten through the eighteenth century, though it was rediscovered and appreciated by later scholars. William Hazlitt, in a lecture from around 1820, states that the play, ”although an unequal and imperfect performance, is [Marlowe’s] greatest work. Faustus himself is a rude sketch, but it is a gigantic one.” In 1908, poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne praised the play, stating that ”in dramatic power and positive impression of natural effect it is . . . certainly the masterpiece of Marlowe.” Writing in 1971, scholar Gamini Salgado confirmed the lasting impact of the work, stating that ”the action and spectacle have retained undiminished their capacity to hold an audience enthralled.”
- Bakeless, John E. The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942.
- ”Christopher Marlowe (1564—1593).” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Edited by James E. Person. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993, pp. 325-402.
- Kuriyama, Constance Brown. Hammer or Anvil: Psychological Patterns in Christopher Marlowe’s Plays. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1980.
- Leech, ed. Marlowe: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Prentice Hall, 1964.
- Levin, Harry. The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952.
- Weil, Judith. Christopher Marlowe: Merlin’s Prophet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
- Grantley, Darryll. ”The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe.” Yearbook of English Studies (2002): 271.
- Hamlin, William. ”Casting Doubt in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 41.2 (Spring 2001): 257.
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