VI. CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE: 1564–93

The dramatists did not fare so well as the actors. They sold their plays outright to one of the theatrical companies for some four to eight pounds; they retained no rights to the manuscript, and usually the company prevented publication of the text lest it be used by a rival troupe. Sometimes a stenographer would record a play while it was being acted, and a printer would publish from this report a pirated and garbled edition, which brought the author nothing but hypertension. Such editions did not always bear the author’s name; hence some plays, like Arden of Faversham (1592), have survived centuries of anonymity.

After 1590 the English stage was alive with plays of some moment, though only a few exceeded a day’s run. John Lyly graced his comedies with charming lyrics; the fairy enchantments of his Endymion prepared for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Robert Greene’sFriar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589?), dealing with the marvels of magic, may have exchanged ideas with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1588? 1592?). Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1589?) told a bloody tale of homicide, leaving hardly anyone alive at the end; its success inspired the Elizabethan playwrights to rival the generals and the doctors in shedding blood. Here, as in Hamlet, we have a ghost demanding revenge, and a play within a play.

Christopher Marlowe was christened just two months before Shakespeare. Son of a Canterbury shoemaker, he might have missed a university education had not Archbishop Parker given him a scholarship. During his college years he was engaged as a spy by Sir Francis Walsingham to check on plots against the Queen. His study of the classics unsettled his theology, and his acquaintance with Machiavelli’s ideas gave his skepticism a cynical turn. Moving to London after receiving his M.A. (1587), he shared a room with Thomas Kyd, and joined the freethinking circle of Raleigh and Harriot. Richard Barnes, a government agent, reported to the Queen (June 3, 1593) that Marlowe had declared that “the first beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe … that Christ was a bastard … that if there be any good religion, then it is in the Papists, because the service of God is performed with more ceremonies … that all Protestants are hypocritical asses … that all the New Testament is filthily written.” Furthermore, said Barnes, “this Marlowe … almost in any company he cometh, persuadeth men to atheism, willing them not to be afraid of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and His ministers.”50 For good measure Barnes (who was hanged in 1594 for a “degrading” offense) added that Marlowe defended homosexuality.51 Robert Greene, in his dying appeal to his friends to reform, described Marlowe as given to blasphemy and atheism.52 And Thomas Kyd, arrested on May 12, 1593, stated (under torture) that Marlowe was “irreligious, intemperate, and of cruel heart,” accustomed to “jest at the divine Scriptures” and “gibe at prayers.”53

Long before these reports were made to the government, Marlowe had written and staged powerful dramas hinting at his unbelief. Apparently Tamburlaine the Great was composed in college; it was produced in the year of his graduation, and its exaltation of knowledge, beauty, and power reveal the Faustian temper of the poet.

Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend

The wondrous architecture of the world,

And measure every wandering planet’s course,

Still climbing after knowledge infinite,

And always moving as the restless spheres,

Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest

Until we reach the ripest fruit of all.54

The two plays about Timur are crude with immaturity. The characterization is too simplified—each person is one quality; so Tamburlaine is pride of power, and the pride is rather the conceit of a collegian swollen with undigested novelties than the calm self-confidence of a victorious sovereign. The story runs on rivers of blood, obstructed with improbabilities. The style inclines to bombast. What, then, made this play the greatest success, so far, of the Elizabethan stage? Presumably its violence, bloodshed, and bombast, but also, we may believe, its heresies and its eloquence. Here were thoughts more boldly ranging, images more deeply felt, phrases more aptly turned, than the Elizabethan stage had yet heard; here were scores of those “mighty lines” that Jonson was to praise, and passages of such melodious beauty that Swinburne thought them supreme in their kind.

Quickened with acclaim, Marlowe wrote with all the intensity of his spirit his greatest play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588?). Medieval ethics, perhaps recognizing that “the joy of understanding is a sad joy,”55 and that “in much wisdom is much grief,”56 had branded the unchecked lust for knowledge as a great sin; yet medieval aspirations had braved this prohibition, even to calling upon magic and Satan for the secrets and powers of nature. Marlowe represents Faustus as a learned and famous physician of Wittenberg who frets at the limits of his knowledge, and dreams of magic means that will make him omnipotent:

All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command …

Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,

Resolve me of all ambiguities,

Perform what desperate enterprise I will?

I’ll have them fly to India for gold,

Ransack the oceans for orient pearl,

And search all corners of the new-found world

For pleasant fruits and princely delicates;

I’ll have them read me strange philosophy,

And tell the secrets of all foreign kings.57

At his call Mephistophilis appears and offers him twenty-four years of limitless pleasure and power if he will sell his soul to Lucifer. Faustus agrees, and signs the contract with blood from his cut arm. His first requisition is the fairest maid in Germany to come to be his wife, “for I am wanton and lascivious”; but Mephistophilis dissuades him from marriage and suggests instead a succession of courtesans. Faustus calls for Helen of Troy; she comes, and he swells into ecstasy.

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss….

O, thou art fairer than the evening air

Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars …

The final scene is rendered with great power: the despairing appeal to God for mercy, for at least a term to damnation—”Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, a hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!”—and the disappearance of Faustus, on the stroke of midnight, in a fury of clashing, blinding clouds. The chorus sings his epitaph—and Marlowe’s:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,

And burnéd is Apollo’s laurel-bough.

In these plays Marlowe might have purged his own passions for knowledge, beauty, and power; the catharsis, or cleansing effect, that Aristotle ascribed to tragic drama could better purge the author than the audience. In The Jew of Malta (1589?) the will to power takes the intermediate form of greed for wealth, and defends itself in the Prologue spoken by “Machiavel”:

Admired I am of those that hate me most.

Though some speak openly [publicly] against my books,

Yet they will read me, and thereby attain

To Peter’s chair; and when they cast me off,

Are poison’d by my climbing followers.

I count religion but a childish toy,

And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

Barabas the moneylender is again one quality personified, greed raised to hatred of all who hinder his gains, an unpleasant caricature redeemed by majestic vices.

I learn’d in Florence how to kiss my hand,

Heave up my shoulders when they call me dog,

And duck as low as any barefoot friar,

Hoping to see them starve upon a stall.58

Contemplating his jewels, he thrills at their “infinite riches in a little room.”59 When his daughter recovers his lost money bags he cries out, in a confusion of affections anticipating Shylock, “O my girl, my gold, my fortune, my felicity!”60 There is a power, almost a fury, in this play, a sting of epithet and force of phrase, that lead Marlowe now and then to the very verge of Shakespeare.

He came still closer in Edward 11 (1592). The young King, just crowned, sends for his “Greek friend” Gaveston, and lavishes kisses, offices, and wealth upon him; the neglected nobles rise and depose Edward, who, driven to philosophy, calls to his remaining comrades:

Come, Spencer, come, Baldock, come sit down by me;

Make trial now of that philosophy

That in our famous nurseries of arts

Thou suck’dst from Plato and from Aristotle.

From this well-constructed drama, this poetry of sensitivity, imagination, and power, these characters distinctly and consistently drawn, this King so mingled of pederasty and pride and yet forgivable in his young simplicity and grace, it was but a step to Shakespeare’s Richard II, which followed it by a year.

What would this twenty-seven-year-old dramatist have accomplished had he matured? At that age Shakespeare was writing trifles like Love’s Labour’s Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and A Comedy of Errors. In The Jew of Malta Marlowe was learning to make every scene advance an orderly plot; in Edward II he was learning to conceive character as more than a single quality personified. In a year or two he might have purged his plays of bombast and melodrama; he might have risen to a broader philosophy, a greater sympathy with the myths and foibles of mankind. His distorting defect was lack of humor; there is no genial laughter in his plays, and the incidental comedy does not, as in Shakespeare, serve its proper function in tragedy—to ease the hearer’s tension before lifting him to greater tragic intensities. He could appreciate the physical beauty of women, but not their tenderness, solicitude, and grace; there is no vivid female character in his plays, not even in the unfinished Dido, Queen of Carthage.

What remains is the poetry. Sometimes the orator overcame the poet, and declamation shouted “a great and thundering speech.”61 But in many a scene the lucid verse flows with such vivid imagery or melody of speech that one could mistake the lines for some Shakespearean stream of fantasy. In Marlowe blank verse proved itself as the English drama’s proper vehicle, sometimes monotonous, but usually varied in its rhythm, and achieving a seemingly natural continuity.

His own “tragical history” was now suddenly closed. On May 30, 1593, three government spies, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres, and Robert Poley, joined the poet—perhaps himself still a spy—at dinner in a house or tavern in Deptford, a few miles from London. According to the report of William Danby, coroner, Frizer and Marlowe “uttered one to the other divers malicious words for the reason that they could not … agree about the payment” for the meal. Marlowe snatched a dagger from Frizer’s belt and struck him with it, inflicting some superficial cuts. Frizer seized Marlowe’s hand, turned the weapon upon him, and “gave the said Christopher then and there a mortal wound over his right eye, of the depth of two inches … of which the aforesaid Christopher Morley then and there instantly died”; the blade had reached the brain. Frizer, arrested, pleaded self-defense, and he was released after a month. Marlowe was buried on June 1, in a grave now unknown.62 He was twenty-nine years old.

He left, besides the Dido, two fragments of high excellence. Hero and Leander is a romantic version, in heroic couplets, of the story Musaeus had told, in the fifth century, of the youth who swam the Hellespont to keep a tryst. “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is one of the great Elizabethan lyrics. Shakespeare made handsome acknowledgments to Marlowe by putting snatches of that poem into the mouth of Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor (III, i), and by a tender reference in As You Like It (III, v):

Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,

“Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?”

—which is line 76 of Hero and Leander.

Marlowe’s achievement was immense in its brief moment. He made blank verse a flexible and powerful speech. He saved the Elizabethan stage from the classicists and the Puritans. He gave their definite forms to the drama of ideas and that of English history. He left his mark on Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, in Richard II, in love poetry, and in a tendency to magniloquent rhetoric. Through Marlowe, Kyd, Lodge, Greene, and Peele the way had been opened; the form, structure, style, and material of the Elizabethan drama had been prepared. Shakespeare was not a miracle, he was a fulfillment.


I. A story not sufficiently verified relates that when a bottle of water was offered to the wounded Sidney, he handed it to a dying soldier nearby, saying, “Thy need is greater than mine.” (Fulke Greville, Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney.)27

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