(from The Oxford Companion to English Literature)
Marlowe, Christopher (1564-93), son of a Canterbury shoemaker, educated at the King’s School, Canterbury, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He became a BA in 1584, and MA, after some difficulty in 1587. Though of excellent classical attainments, as his writings make clear, he seems to have been of a violent and at times criminal temperament. It is not clear whether visits he made to the Continent related to espionage. In 1589 he was involved in a street fight in which the poet T. Watson killed a man; an injunction was brought against him by the constable of Shoreditch three years later. Early in 1592 he was deported from the Netherlands fro attempting to issue forged gold coins. On 30 May 1593 he was killed by one Ingram Frizer (as Hotson discovered) in a Deptford tavern after a quarrell over the bill; Marlowe was at the time under warrant to appear before the Privy Council on unknown charges. Kyd and another friend, Richard Baines, testified after his death to his blasphemy and outrageous beliefs.
The Tragedie of Dido, Queen of Carthage, published in 1594, may have been written while Marlowe was still at Cambridge, and in collaboration with Nashe. Part I of Tamburlaine was written not later than 1587, and Part II in the following year; it was published in 1590. The next plays may have been The Jew of Malta, not published until 1633, and Edward II, published in 1594. The highly topical Massacre at Paris, which survives only in a fragmentary and undated text, and Dr Faustus, published 1604, may both belong to the last year of Marlowe’s life. At various times he translated Ovid’s Amores, published without date as All Ovids Elegies, together with some of Sir John Davies’s ’Epigrammes’; wrote two books of an erotic narrative poem Hero and Leander, wich was completed by G. Chapman and published in 1598; made a fine blank verse rendering of Lucans First Booke, Book 1 of Lucan’s Pharsalia; and wrote the song ’Come live with me and be my love’, published in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) and England’s Helicon (1600), with a reply by Ralegh. In spite of his violent life Marlowe as an admired and highly influential figure: within weeks of his death Peele paid tribute to him as ’Marley, the Muses darling for thy verse’. Shakespeare’s early histories are strongly influenced by Marlowe, and he paid tribute to him in As You Like It as the ’dead shepherd’. Jonson referred to ’Marlowes mighty line’, and among others who praised him were Nashe, Chapman, G. Harvey, and Drayton. There are many modern editions of his plays and poems: the Revels Plays editions of the plays are to be recommended, and in the same series, Millar Maclure’s edition of the Poems (1968).
Marlowe added nothing to dramatic technique except that he determined the victory of blank verse. HIs merit is that in his short career he set the stage on fire with the flame of his passion. Less versatile than the other prominent playwrights of his day, less able than they to conceive of multitudinous feelings distinct from his own emotions, less quick than some to catch the scenic side of things, surpassed not only by the masters, but also by mediocre playwrights, as an architect of drama and constructor of supple and nimble dialogue, without any sense of the comic or sense of humour or aptitude to draw a woman, Marlowe yet possessed a supreme quality which enabled him at once to lift drama to the sphere of high literature. He was a great poet, a lyrical, personal, violently egoistical poet, who carried with him his own unique conception of man and life. In spite of his atheism, he foreshadowed Milton from afar; a little of him was in the Byron who wrote Cain, a little in Shelley. His exclusiveness produced intensity, and the English stage was in great need of intensity. Grace, wit, and fancy had been scattered on it, mingled indeed with faults of every kind, but never hitherto had it known this dash, this vehemence, animating a whole play, this rapid march, as to victory, by which drama inspires the conviction hat thus to move is to be alive.
It is, after all, a mistake to suppose that every work written for the stage must have specially dramatic qualities. To give an audience an impression of greatness, to cause them to tremble with enthusiasm and feel the rush towards an end—any end: this does as well. The fact is proved by Marlowe’s work as by part of Corneille’s. His immediate success and his powerful influence are unquestionable. Even when his plays had come to seem extravagant they remained popular. They first made the English public feel the pride of strength, and persuaded or deluded English drama into the belief that it equalled the sublimity of the ancients. As did the Cid, Marlowe’s plays, for all their lack of patriotism, made hearts swell with a new national pride. His characters, out of scale and unnatural as they are, can dispense with probability because they have the breath of life. Their passionate declaiming co-operated with the triumph over the Armada, one year after Marlowe’s first play, and the pride in distant conquests , to make English hearts drunk and giddy with triumphant strength. Together with the discoveries of the great seafarers, these figures on the stage enlarged, in men’s minds, the bounds of the possible. These plays were a paean to the infinity of military power, of knowledge and of wealth. The subjects Marlowe borrowed, the heroes he moulded, were no more than his mouthpieces, voicing his exorbitant dreams. Like him they sought the infinite and like him were never sated.
Dido Queene of Carthage, The Tragedie of, written by Marlowe and Nashe, possibly while they were at Cambridge together. It was performed at unknown dates by the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, and published in 1594. It is closely based on Virgil’s Aeneid (Bks 1, 2, and 4), depicting Dido’s failure to persuade Aeneas to stay with her in Carthage and her subsequent suicide.
Marlowe ... wrote a Dido, which was finished by Nashe and in which he dramatized the fourth book of the Aeneid. This play is less sombre in colour than his earlier work, but is marred in places by the worst lapses of taste.
Tamburlaine the Great, a drama in blank verse by Marlowe, written not later than 1587, published 1590. It showed an immense advance on the blank verse of Gorboduc and was received with much popular approval. The material for it was taken by the author from Pedro Mexia’s Spanish Life of Timur, of which an English translation had appeared in 1571.
Pt I of the drama deals with the first rise to power of the Scythian shepherd robber Tamburlaine; he allies himself with Cosroe in the latter’s rebellion against his brother, the king of Persia, and then challenges him for the crown and defeats him. Tamburlaine’s unbounded ambition and ruthless cruelty carry all before him. He conquers the Turkish emperor Bajazet and leads him about, a prisoner in a cage, goading him and his empress Zabina with cruel taunts till they dash out their brains against the bars of the cage. His ferocity is softened only by his love for his captive Zenocrate, the daughter of the soldan of Egypt whose life he speares in deference to the pleadings of Zenocrate when he captures Damascus.
Pt II deals with the continuation of his conquests, which extend to Babylon, whither he is drawn in a charion dragged by the kings of Trebizond and Soria, with the kings of Anatolia and Jerusalem as relay, ’pampered Jades of Asia’ (a phrase quoted by Pistol in Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV, II.iv); it ends with the death of Tamburlaine himself.
From Legouis and Cazamian’s History of English Literature:
Tamburlaine, in its two parts, of which the first appeared in 1587 and the second in 1588, astonished the public with quite other reasons than The Spanish Tragedie. Its author was Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), a young man of twenty-three, who had just left Cambridge. He was entirely without experience of the stage, but he compensated for this lack by the extraordinary spirit of defiance and revolt which animated his dramatic work. Novel though Arden of Feversham and The Spanish Tragedie were, they were plays which bore the imprint of the traditional morality. From beginning to end they denounced and condemned crime; their murders cried out for vengeance. But the new playwright dared to claim admiration for the most bloodthirsty of men, to make of him a sort of demigod.
Nothing is more characteristic of Marlowe than his choice of his first hero. He had read a translation of Tamerlane’s life by the Spaniard Pedro Mexia and another life of him by Perondinus of Florence. His imagination was inflamed by the story of the career of this unmatched adventurer who from a mere shepherd became the most powerful man in all the world. There was no need to invent: to follow hisory was enough. What were Alexander and Caesar beside this fourteenth-century Tartar, the conqueror of Persia and Muscovy who laid Hindustan and Syria waste, vanquished the Ottomans, and died at last as he was fllinging himself upon China at the head of two hundred thousand warriors? What cruelty did not seem mildness beside his, who strangled a hundred thousand captives before the walls of Delhi, and set up before Baghdad an obelisk built of ninety thousand severed heads? What symbol could strike more terror than the white tents and banners which stood, in sign of friendship, before a town on the first day of one of Tamerlane’s sieges, the red tents and the second flags which were there on the second day, in sign of pillage, and the banners and tents, all black, which beset it on the third dey, in sign of extermination?
All this was so grandiose that Marlowe was dazzled. The man capable of so prodigious a destiny, of such unbridgled contempt for human life, seemed to him a superior being, a superman to whom the petty rules of morality did not apply. His Tamburlaine massacres wholesale, women and children as well as men, laughs at the blood he sheds, imprisons the vanquished Emperor Bajazet in a cage, has his chariot drawn by kings whom he insults, burns a town in honor of the funeral of his wife, Zenocrate, and all the while remains entirely admirable, outside and above human judgment. He is the despiser of men and gods. Marlowe endows him with the boundless arrogance of an emancipated virtuoso and philosopher of the Renascence. Tamburlaine is the great victor, the conqueror of the world. Therefore he is in the right.
Marlowe transfigures him, not by omitting or weakening any of his atrocities, but by exalting them. He sees in him the triumph of the will to power and thinks that nothing could be finer. To glorify his Tamburlaine he goes to the romances of chivalry in search of heroes moved by an unbridled appetite for glory, and there finds the poetry a mere exterminator would lack. Like those extravagant knights, Tamburlaine is capable of extraordinary love. He lays the earth at the feet of his Zenocrate and when death takes her from him he threatens heaven with his rage.
This play, which is simply Tamburlaine’s life divided into scenes, expresses the strange ardours of a young scholar who had cut himself irrevocably adrift from all restraint. A libertine in both senses of the word, Marlowe prided himself on his paganism, his rebellion, not against the dogma of the Trinity only, but against the very spirit of Christianity. His ideal was the man freed from all morality who seeks the maximum of strength and enjoyment by way of impiety, sensuality and crime. What he could not declare to the public directly, he makes his Tamburlaine proclaim upon the stage. It was to the quest of the impossible that he himself aspired, and Tamburlaine is vowed to it at his first meeting with Zenocrate. She has come to him, all dishevelled and disconsolate, to ask him to pardon her father, the Sultan of Egypt. At this moment the man who had, an instant before, slaughtered the suppliant virgins of Damascus and had their corpses hoisted on pikes, utters the most lyrical of all appeals to absolute beauty, a cry of grief because he knows and declares that what he calls upon is beyond his reach.
The like exaltation had already been felt by Tamburlaine at the thought of being king. on the precedent of Jupiter, who ousted his father Saturn from the throne in order to reign himself, Tamburlaine regards ambition as the spontaneous act of human nature:
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres.
The same wild rapture is sustained through ten acts, for two dramas are consecrated to this one hero Tamburlaine, who is almost always on the stage and by himself is nearly the whole of either play. It is appalling to reflect on the task of Alleyn, the actor who created the part and ho had to utter all this character’s declamatory violence and repeated lyrical tirades. Nothing could be less dramatic or more monotonous: the same theme and same tone of passionate emphasis recur endlessly. It is true that, to captivate the sight, there are some scenes which haunted men’s memories: Bajazet dying of hunger in his cage while a banquet is served to Tamburlaine, who tenders him a mouthful or two on the pint of his swor; Bajazet, at the end of his endurance, braining himself against the iron bars which imprison him; his wife, Zabina, seized by madness when she sees him dead and taking her own life; above all that famous spectacle of Tamburlaine, whip in hand, drawn by two kings harnessed to his chariot to whom he cries:
Holla, ye pamper’d jades of Asia!
What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?
It was never necessary to parody Tamburlaine: to mention it was enough. On the whole, its spectacular extravagances are dispersed, but the declamation is continuous. That men listened to this play from end to end can be exclaimed only by suppposing that the fire in the heart of the young poet caught his audience. They too must have been in a state of half-delirious exalatation. The distraught rhetoric is sustained by verse of which the unfailing sonority was as new as the subject. Marlowe began his career with a superb contempt for the popular rhymesters. He makes blank verse, hitherto without brightness or ring, thunder and echo through his play like a drum that never ceases. Other heroes, from the Herod of the mysteries downwards, had already uttered fearful blasphemies and unending rodomontade, but they had had to express them in slight stanzas or frail couplets. The verse for which men had been waiting, completely formed verse, now sounded on the stage for the first time. It was a thing too enchanting to be withstood. The wits might mock at this ’spacious volubilitie of a drumming decasyllabon,’ at this ’bragging blank verse,’ but, whether they would or no, they had soon, in deference to the public, themselves to beat the drum as well as they could.
Jew of Malta, The, a drama in blank verse by Marlowe, performed about 1592, not published until 1633.
The grand seignior of Turkey having demanded the tribute of Malta, the governor of Malta decides that it shall be paid by the Jews of the island. Barabas, a rich Jew who resists the edict, has all his wealth impounded and his house turned into a nunnery. In revenge he indulges in an orgy of slaughter, procuring the death of his daughter Abigail’s lover among others, and poisoning Abigail herself. Malta being besieged by the Turks, he betrays the fortress to them, and, as a reward, is made its governor. He now plots the destruction of the Turkish commander and his force at a banquet by means of a collapsible floor; but is himself betrayed and hurled through this same floor into a cauldron, where he dies. The prologue to the play is spoken by ’Machevil’, and Barabas is one of the prototypes for unscrupulous Machiavellian villains in later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. His praise of gold and precious stones as ’Infinite riches in a little roome’ is often quoted.
Marlowe never again found a plot which gave him so much scope [as Dr. Faustus], but even in The Jew of Malta (1589) he sometimes reveals his lyrical power. He was doubtless led to write this melodrama by the success of The Spanish Tragedie and other tragedies of atrocious vengeance. His Jew, Barabas, is unjustly deprived of his goods by Christians, and by an extraordinary series of crimes avenges himself on them, and also, becoming a monomaniac, on mankind in general. Obliged to use cunning to attain his object, he is Machiavellism incarnate. His crimes must have made the hair of audiences stand on end. They accumulate until, having first delivered Malta to the Turks and then the Turks to the Christians, he falls into a cauldron of boiling water into which he had schemed to throw his last enemies.
There is only one other character who counts in this play, and he is yet more terrible, the Moorish slave Ithamore who is Barabas’s tool and and incarantion of the lust of extreme cruelty.
This melodrama opens grandly, and before the Jew becomes a criminal maniac he has, like Tamburlaine, dignity and greatness. Enormously rich, we see him first in his counding-house, with heaps of gold before him, a poet intoxicated by the immensity of his own wealth and the immense power which is its consequence. As he enumerates the countries whence his treasures come, his exaltation has a mystical greatness. Something of this remains to him when he hears the governor’s order that half his estate and that of the other Jews shall be confiscated to pay the tribute to the Turks, and when only he of all his co-religionists keep his pride, remaining indignant and inflexible. It has often been said that Shakespeare dared to defy contemporary prejudice by attracting sympathy intermittently to Shylock. Yet Shakespeare’s Shylock is as avaricious as he is cruel, and ridiculous through his avarice. The only true rehabilitation of the Jew is that which Marlowe attempted in his first act, where the haughty, intrepid Barabas, facing the hypocritical governor, is really a splendid figure. That he subsequently appears as a frenzied wretch is of little consequence. For a time the poet identified himself with the Jew, who may even, by the very enormity of his later crimes, have retained the strange sympathy of his creator.
Edward II, a tragedy in blank verse by Marlowe probably first performed 1592, published 1594.
It deals with the recall by Edward II, on his accession, of his favourite, Piers Gaveston; the revolt of the barons and the capture and execution of Gaveston; the period during which Spenser (Hugh le Despenser) succeeded Gaveston as the king’s favorite; the estrangement of Queen Isabella from her husband; her rebellion, supported by her paramour Mortimer, against the king; the caputure of the latter, his abdication of the crown, and his murder in Berkeley Castle. The play was an important influence on Shakespeare’s Richard II.
Marlowe was also able, before he died at the age of twenty-nine, to write the best of the tragedies on national history which preceded Shakespeare, his Edward the Second, first acted in 1592.
Whether because Marlowe’s genius had developed, or because the exigencies of historical drama obliged him to self-effacement, this play has qualities which are properly dramatic and are found in none of its predecessors. The lyrical declamation is under a new restraint. The tirades are shorter and the dialogue is better distributed in speeches. The blank verse is less strained and more pliable, nearer to the tones of human voice. Progress in character-study is also evinced, over a numerous and diversified cast.
The subject is the veracious history of a king who is dominated by his favourites, first Gaveston and then young Mortimer. Mortimer reaches an understanding with Queen Isabella, who becomes his mistress. The betrayed king is cast into prison and put to death by the order of the two accomplices, who are in their turn executed by their victim’s son.
Edward II stands for sentimental weakness, the royal baseness which cowardice can make bloodthirsty. In Mortimer, with his unbridled ambition, Marlowe returned to one of his favourite types, and it is Mortimer who connects the play with its predecessors.
Except the death of Faustus, nothing in Marlowe’s plays is more poignantly pathetic than the scene of the murder of Edward II in Killingworth Castle by two ruffians. The end of the bad king is so miserable that he becomes an object of pity.
Edward the Second is better constructed than Marlowe’s other plays, free from his habitual extravagance, less inhuman and less removed from the normal drama of the time. But it shows the author’s dramatic weakness the more clearly because of its very merits. This tragedy has not the lucidity necessary to character-drawing, to the weaving of a plot, and to the distribution of sympathy. it also lacks variety and dramatic progression. Of the plays developed to natinal history, it was, until Shakespeare, the most artistic, but a long distance separates it fromm the least of Shakespeare’s historical dramas. The spirit of patriotism necessary to work of the kind does not breathe in it, possibly because Marlowe, a rebel against the religion and morality of his fellow-countrymen, did not share their political passions either. Again in this play, he shows himself in revolt against the common morality, when, with lyrical exaltation, he paints the unnatural love of Edward II for his favourite Piers Gaveston.
Massacre at Paris, The, a play by Marlowe written c. 1592. The undated first edition (c. 1593/4) describes it as having been acted by the Admiral’s Men. It is a short and poor text, probably representing a mangled version of what Marlowe wrote. A single leaf surviving in manuscript used to be thought to be a forgery by J. P. Collier, but is nowe considered to be a genuine contemporary copy of part of a scene.
The play deals with the massacre of Protestants in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s day, 24 Aug. 1572 (an event witnessed by P. Sidney, who was staying in Paris at the time). Its most memorable character is the Machiavellian Duke of Guise, whose high aspiring language seems to have influenced Shakespeare in his early history plays. The massacre is depicted in a series of short episodes, a notable one being that in which the rhetorician Ramus is killed after a verbal onslaught by the Guise on his emendations of Aristotle. The Guise himself is eventually murdered at the behest of Henry III, dying on the lines:
Vive la messe! Perish Hugenots!
Thus Caesar did go forth, and thus he died.
whose relationship to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (II.ii. 10, 28, 48) has not been satisfactorily explained. Leaping over 17 years, the play concludes with the murder of Henry III and the succession of the (then) Protestant Henry of Navarre. It is difficult to tell whether the frequent comic effect of the play is authorially intended or is the result of the incompleteness of the text. Ed. H. J. Oliver (1968).
...an unfinished play, The Massacre at Paris, on the massacre of St. Bartholomew, a subject which gave Marlowe his fill of horrors and attracted him by the boundless ambition of the Duke of Guise whom he made his hero...
Dr Faustus, The Tragical History of, a drama in blank verse and prose by Marlowe, published 1604 and , in a radically different version known as the B-text’, 1616. The earliest known performance waas by the Lord Admiral’s Men in 1594. It is perhaps the first dramatization of the medieval legend of a man who sold his soul to the devil, and who became identified with a Dr. Faustus, a necromancer of the 16th cent. The legend appeared in the Faustbuch, first published at Frankfurt in 1587, and was translated into English as The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Marlowe’s play follows this translation in the general outline of the story, though not in the conception of the principal character, who from a mere magician becomes, under the poet’s hand, a man athirst for infinite power, ambitions to be ’great Emperor of the world’.
Faustus, weary of the sciences, turns to magic and calls up Mephistopheles, with whom he makes a compact to surrender his soul to the devil in return for 24 years of life; during these Mephistopheles shall attend on him and give him whatsoever he demands. Then follow an number of scenes in which the compact is executed, notable among them the calling up of Helen of Troy, where Faustus addresses Helen in the well-known line: ’Was this the face that launched a thousand ships . . . ’ The anguish of mind of Faustus as the hour for the surrender of his soul draws near is poignantly depicted. Both in its end and in the general conception of the character of Faustus, the play thus differs greatly from the Faust of Goethe.
The madcap was in truth a great poet whose very extravagance was justified because it expressed his nature. He produced play after play, all continuations of his first. They were perhaps less purely the expression of his temperament, but they gained by his increasing knowledge of the stage, which did not prevent them from being stil mainly lyrical and oratorical. He was, however, leading a life of intense dissipation which hardly ever left him time to produce a complete work like Tamburlaine. He became the improviser who flings a couple of powerful scenes into a botched play.
Such was the composition of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588), for which he drew on one of the most fruitful of legends, but merely built an admirable framework about scenes hardly written, and clowning which reads as though the actors had been invited to fill it in as they chose.
Once more faithful to the custom of his country’s stage, Marlowe divided the German legend of Faust, as he had read it, into scenes. His forceful egoism is projected into the character of the necromancer who vows himself to the devil in return for sovereign knowledge and sovereign power, and who is thus able for twenty-four years to satisfy his appetites. They are poor and coarse enough in the legend, leading him mainly to play practical jokes on the great ones of his day, the pope and the cardinals, and to make poor wretches the butt of his magic. Marlowe takes little interest in these distractions, which he barely outlines. But when Faustus evokes the spirits of the past and obtains a vision of the Greek Helen, the poet, imagining her supreme beauty, is rapt to incomparable lyricism.
Retribution follows: Faustus has to keep his bargain with Lucifer, and tremblingly awaits death and hell. Marlowe, the atheist, alone in a Christian world, must also, at times, have felt to the full the horror of his denials and his blasphemies. He was too near faith to be indifferent. The very vehemence of his professions of impiety was a sign that his emancipation was incomplete. He shook his fist at heaven and feared at the same moment that heaven might fall and crush him. The last scenes of Faustus are among the most pathetic and most grandiose in Renaissance drama. They stand by themselves, distinct from all the rest of the drama. They are insurpassable, even by Shakespeare. Marlowe, incapable of a complete masterpiece, yet had genius to reach, here and there, the sublime beauty which had no degrees. When Goethe took the same legend for the basis of one of the chief accomplishments of modern poetry, he could not eclipse the poignant greatness of his forerunner’s scenes. He, who deid not know how the impious tremble, could not recapture that anguish of horror.
Hero and Leander, the tragic history of Leander’s love for Hero, the priestess of Aphrodite: he is drowned while swimming to her at night across the Hellespont, and she then in despair throws herself into the sea. This story has been made the subject of poems by Marlowe and T. Hood, and of a burlesque by T. Nashe in his Lenten Stuffe.
Passionate Pilgrim, The, an unauthorized anthology of poems by various authors, published by Jaggard in 1599, and attributed on the title-page to Shakespeare, but containing only a few authentic poems by him.
England’s Helicon, a miscellany of Elizabethan verse, published in 1600, with additions in 1613, edited by H. E. Rollins (1935). It is the best collection of lyrical and pastoral poetry of the Elizabethan age, and includes pieces by Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, R. Greene, T. Lodge, Ralegh, Marlowe, and others.
El Shakespeare de Victor Hugo