Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
Marlowe, poet and dramatist, and consummate warrior was born at Canterbury educated at King’s College; a “top of the line” scholar with both B.A. and M.A. from Cambridge. No hardship or sorrow in this young life. No excuse for the angry pursuit of combative behavior, disrespect of the church, lust, passion and all other types of violence and vulgarity. Was it part of the era after all Marlowe was testing the law, both civil and religious, but wasn’t it Elizabeth who trumped her nemesis, Mary, Queen of Scots in an equally vicious manner? Marlowe’s blank verse drama Tamburlaine was produced in 1587 and a year later his tragedy Dr. Faustus. Then came The Jew of Malta, and Edward the II. In his poetry we see a completely different Marlowe. In the six sestiads of Hero and Leander and the lyric The Passionate Shepherd, which was introduced in The Jew of Malta, there is love, tenderness and devotion. This “other side” if we may call it that, delivered not in the original hexameter but in the rhymed pentameter couplet the most endearing translation of Ovid’s Amores. Marlowe explains:
The Elizabethan literary era lacked expressive adjectives - Marlowe took care of that by introducing double barelled adjectives. “In ages and countries where mechanical ingenuity has but few outlets Marlow added the imaginitive “double barreled adjective.”
In any case, by the age of twenty-nine Marlowe lay dead on a bar room floor the result of a stabbing “in defence of his life, with the dagger aforsaid of the value of 12d. 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”. It was only God’s justice say the moralists “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.” It could have been a self-destruct act after all, he was about to be tried by the Church for heresy. Years later Freud posited that life has two primary instincts - life and death - and that life appears as sex and love while death appears as aggression and destruction.
Marlowe openly attacked society and the existing social order as an obsession and so the protagonists of his great plays were likewise obsessive in “the exercise of will in pursuit of selfish objects”. First there was the acclaimed dramatic masque, a tale of a self-proclaimed ruler, a Machiavellian egocentric, Tamburlaine the Great. It is believed to be the retelling of the Mongol conqueror a descendant of Genghis Khan although some critics liken it more to a study of the Black Prince, Edward III. Tamburlaine is bold, defiant, undaunted, and ambitious all rationalized as “heroic virtue.” One wonders would it have been so successful had it not been written in blank verse. It was the choice of blank verse that set the direction for Shakespearean drama and the whole of Renaissance theater and for the next 100 years.
His next hero, Dr. Faustus, was also obsessed. He wanted to dominate the world through knowledge and he turned to necromancy to gain this knowledge. What began as a dramatic tragedy turns into a morality play. The protagonist Faustus agrees to sell his soul to the Mephistophiles, who is acting as agent for Lucifer, in exchange for knowledge. When it was time for Faustus to fulfill his part of the bargain and give up his soul to Mephistophiles, he had second thoughts. Enter a tale of good versus evil as Marlowe provides a new character, an angel representing good, who tries to persuade him to return to the flock. Faustus struggles with his grandiose visions and engages in a number of tricks to extricate himself from the bargain but in a last desperate evasion he opts for another request. The request is for Helen of Troy who, to Faustus, represents true beauty. Unfortunately she turns out to be just another disguised demon “only Paragon of excellence is in truth a succuba”.
Audiences were spellbound - not quite sure of what might happen if the contract is renounced. For according to Christian theology, then and now, Faustus has committed the one sin for which there can be no forgiveness. “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”
Faustus embraces Helen with a kiss “her lips suckes forth my soule” and is now totally possessed by the devil. In Scene twelve the character An Old Man enters. This character pleas for the soul of Faustus; that he renounce the contract:
And after a rebuke the Old Man closes the scene with:
The Epilogue is given by the Chorus and poses a take-off on the question “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul.”
We move on to the romantic tragedy The Jew of Malta - here Marlowe introduces another unrepentant villain in Barabas his obsession - money. The Prologue is given by Macchiavelli:
Finally there is Edward the Second, his obsession? Personal pleasure. Most critics regard this as his finest play some regard it as semi-autobiographical. Unfortunately Edward, like the other pseudo heroes, had resolute will but not the magic of Faustus; not the power of Tamburlaine nor the money of the Jew. He could not even accept the end when it was inevitable he cries:
Our first characteristic is passion, tenderness, affection, beauty.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“In felicity of thought and strength of expression he was second only to Shakespeare himself.” Thomas Heywood
“He first, and he alone, guided Shakespeare into the right way of work, his music, in which there is no echo of any man’s before him, found its own echo in the more prolonged, but hardly more exalted of Milton’s.” Swinburne The Age of Shakespeare
“The leading motive which pervades his poetry may be defined as L’Amour de l’Impossible the love or lust of unattainable things...” John Addington
“We are never weary of admiring the gigantic powers that dared to express the tempest and whirlwind of unrestrained passion.” Minto
“His verse is mighty; his passion intense; the outlines of the plots are large...this simplicty and certainty of purpose which strikes us first in Marlowe.” John Addington
Our second characteristic is unrighteousness, disrespect, wickedness, amorality.
“KING EDWARD. “Where are those perfumed gloves thich late I sent
POTHECARIE. See where they be my Lord, and he that smilles but to them, dyes.” Edward II
“ITHIMORE: Yes, Sir, the proverb saies, he that eats with the devil had need of a long spoone, I have brought you a Ladel.”...
BARABAS: Stay, first let me stirre it
“MACHIAVEL: Though some speak openly against my books,
“A god is not so glorious as a king:
“Who,from a Scythian Shephearde by his rare and wonderfull Conquests, became a most puissant and mightye Monarque, and for his tyranny, and terrour in Warre was termed, The Scourge of God.” Introduction to Tamburlaine the Great
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“Marlowe’s characters are not so much human beings...as types of humanity, the animated moulds of human lusts and passions.” Symonds
“...strange compound of sublimity and rant...There is no mistaking his heaven-defying energy nor is Ishmaelitish strut and swagger...” Symonds
“To such a height does he frequently accumulate terrific and monstrous events, deeds of violence, enormities and crimes, that no corresponding catastrophe nor adequate punishment can be devised for them.” Ulrici
“Sometimes Marlowe employs the horrible with high dramatic and moral aim implied in Arristotle’s famous definition of tragedy.” Hazlitt
Our third characteristic is portrayal of the horrible, macabre, scandalous, and ungodly.
KING EDWARD: How fast they run to banish him I love.
KING EDWARD: Treacherous Warwick? Traitorous Mortimer?
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“Marlowe was fond of catering to that passion for heroics and horrors.” Minto
“The Jew of Malta is an incarnation of the deveil himself.”
“A man who thirsted lawlessly for pleasure and forbinnen things.” Addington
“Marlowe seems to have felt that he must exhibit the will of his hero not only triumphant over his enemies, but in opposition to the power of death, nature, and even of God himself.”
“Marlowe was fond of dallying with interdicted subjects.” Lamb
“Heaven has had little hand in this story; instead, the hand of the pessimistic atheist Marlowe leaves its prints everywhere.” Atchity
Our fourth characteric is misery, woe, torment, and sadness.
EDWARD II. O would I might addicate! But heavens and earth conspire
KING EDWARD: “Within a dungeon England’s king is kept,
Comments from critics, colleagues and himself.
...aside from his touching and loyal love for Gaveston he has no redeeming qualities, the extremity of his suffering gives him a nobility that is not destroyed even by his anguish...Marlowe has constructed one of the most harrowing death scenes to be found in Elizabethan drama...and the pathos of Edward’s intense emotional suffering elevates the play beyond the level of historical chronical...” Schaber
“Men of easy unvaried lives, who have never had to fight with poverty and slander, the alice of fortune or the malice of men, cannot be dramatists.” Marlowe
“The death of Edward II, in Marlowe’s tragedy is...heart-breaking distress and the sense of human weakness, claiming pity form utter helplessness and conscious misery is not surpassed by any wrier whatever.” Hazlitt
“The final soliloquy ... as a representation of mental agony and despair, is only equalled, in the whole range of the world’s poetry by the speech of Satan to the Sun in Paradise Lost.” Courthope
We close with these lines from Bullen’s The Atheists Tragedie