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The Man Who Brought Poetry into English Drama
on 18 September 2015
Christopher Marlowe is a controversial figure in the history of English literature. His mysterious death in a tavern brawl in Deptford, in May 1593, has been the subject of much speculation as to whether he was the victim of a political assassination or whether he may have been a “man who knew too much” about the activities of Queen Elizabeth’s government. (One theory is that he was a spy in the service of that government). He has the reputation today of having been both a homosexual and an atheist, although there is little direct evidence as to either his religious views or his sexuality. Most of what evidence exists is contained in a document known as the “Baines libel” and, even bearing in mind that the word “libel” did not have quite the same meaning in Elizabethan English that it bears today, its author, one Richard Baines, was so clearly hostile to Marlowe that he must be regarded as an unreliable witness.
This volume contains all of the seven plays which are today attributed to Marlowe, or six if the two parts of “Tamburlaine the Great” are regarded as a single play. Unlike some editions of Marlowe’s collected plays it only prints the so-called “A-text” of “Doctor Faustus” as the editors Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey take the view that this better represents the author’s intentions than does the longer “B-text”, which includes extra material added by other writers after Marlowe’s death. The editors also provide a glossary of unfamiliar words, a list of mythological, historical and geographical names and textual notes.
Marlowe is sometimes thought of as a predecessor of Shakespeare, although in terms of their chronological ages this is not really accurate. Both were born in the same year, 1564, Marlowe being the elder by only two months. In other respects, however, there is greater justification for regarding Marlowe as a sort of Shakespearean John the Baptist, as their literary careers only overlapped by about a year. The first reference to Shakespeare as a playwright comes in 1592 and Marlowe was to die the following year. Shakespeare scholars refer to the years 1584-1592 as the “lost years” as we have no idea what Shakespeare was doing during this period. In the case of Marlowe, however, although there is much more we would like to know about his early life, we do know one thing he was doing during these years- writing most of the plays which were to make him famous.
There can be no doubt that Marlowe was an influence on Shakespeare; his “The Jew of Malta”, for example, can be seen as prefiguring “The Merchant of Venice”. There are also many similarities between Marlowe’s only English history play, “Edward II”, and Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” trilogy which also deals with civil war and with the downfall of a weak monarch at the hands of arrogant, power-hungry nobles. In this case, however, the influence might conceivably have been the other way round, as both works were written around 1592 and we cannot be sure which came first. “Edward II”, however, did act as an influence upon a later Shakespeare play on a similar theme, “Richard II”.
It has even been suggested that Marlowe might have been the author of Shakespeare’s plays, although in my view such an idea cannot hold water, and not only for the obvious reason that there is no evidence to support, and plenty to refute, the theory that he might have survived that fateful brawl in Deptford. The two men might have grown up in the same Elizabethan England, but mentally they inhabited quite different worlds. This was partly due to differences in their education. Marlowe was a university man, a scholar of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and this is reflected in his writings which are steeped in a knowledge of the classics; “Doctor Faustus”, for example, contains numerous quotations in Latin and Greek as well as references to academic philosophy. Even Tamburlaine seems remarkably well versed in Greek mythology for a man who started life as an Uzbek shepherd. Shakespeare, who was famously said to have “little Latin and less Greek”, never went to university; he did make reference to classical authors, but mostly those like Plutarch and Ovid who would have been available to him in translation. Marlowe, by contrast, translated classical texts into English himself.
A more important difference lies in the two men’s world views. To put it plainly, Shakespeare’s plays suggest a belief in a moral order in the universe, whereas Marlowe’s do not. Some examples will make it clear what I mean. Shakespeare wrote two plays about the rise and fall of a tyrannical usurping monarch, “Richard III” and “Macbeth”. The protagonists of both plays are presented as unnatural monsters, men whose villainy represents an overthrow of the natural order, and their adversaries, Richmond and Malcolm, are shown as fighting to restore that order, a task in which they both ultimately succeed. Marlowe too wrote a historical play about a tyrant, but deals only with his rise, not his fall. Tamburlaine, a man with far more blood on his hands than either Macbeth or Richard, is presented as an irresistible force of nature, part of the natural order of the universe rather than a disturber of it. He is finally overcome only by old age, not by any human enemy.
The line “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king” actually appears in “Hamlet”, where it is ironically put in the mouth of another usurper, Claudius, but it also seems to express Shakespeare’s attitude to royalty in his history plays; Richard II and Henry VI may be fallible men who make mistakes, yet in each case their overthrow is presented as something ominous, threatening disaster to the realm. Marlowe’s Edward II, by contrast, merely proves to be the losing party in an amoral power-struggle, as does his enemy Mortimer when Edward III proves to be a more astute player of the game than his father.
There are certainly similarities between “The Jew of Malta” and “The Merchant of Venice”. Both plays are set in the Mediterranean area and both have as their protagonist a Jewish merchant and moneylender who is seeking revenge against his enemies. There are, however, also equally significant differences. Shakespeare’s play is set within a firm moral framework established first by Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech and then by Portia’s “quality of mercy”. Shylock is today generally played on the stage not as an anti-Semitic caricature but as a dignified figure who has been the victim of prejudice and bigotry and whose downfall comes because he cannot resist the temptation to retaliate against one of his tormentors. There is no comparable moral framework in Marlowe’s play, and there would be no point in trying to play as anything but a villain his barbarous anti-hero Barabbas, a man seeking bloody revenge not just against one individual but against the entire Christian community, even those members of it who have never wronged him.
“Dido and Aeneas”, based on Virgil's Aeneid and possibly written in collaboration with Thomas Nashe, was probably Marlowe’s first play. It is unusual among his plays in that the main force motivating the characters is heterosexual love; in all the others the main driving force is either hatred or the desire for power in one form or another. It is officially a tragedy, and ends with a chain of suicides provoked by disappointed love, but it must be said that Marlowe’s treatment of his subject-matter is often more flippant in tone than one might expect. The play opens with Jupiter fondling his favourite Ganymede, a scene which has contributed to speculation about Marlowe’s own sexuality, as has the relationship between the king and Gaveston in “Edward II”.
“The Massacre at Paris” is an early example of a play based on current, or nearly current, events. (Shakespeare, by contrast, never wrote about any historical period more recent than the reign of Henry VIII, a monarch who came to the throne around a hundred years before the play which bears his name was written). It is an account of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the French Wars of Religion, written from a highly anti-Catholic position. The hero is Henry of Navarre, so it was presumably written before his conversion to Catholicism, and the villain the Duke of Guise. In reality Guise appears to have been a fanatical Catholic, but here he is depicted as a religious unbeliever who makes a false show of piety in order to conceal his true intention, which is to seize the throne of France for himself. Despite Marlowe’s reputation for atheism, those characters in his plays who express contempt for religion are generally shown as villainous; other examples include Faustus and Machiavelli, his name significantly anglicised to “Machevil” (“make evil”), who speaks the prologue to “The Jew of Malta”.
“Doctor Faustus” is probably Marlowe’s best-known play today, and is the earliest dramatic version of the German legend about the scholar who sold his soul to the Devil. It has been described as consisting of “a beginning, a muddle and an end”; the opening and closing scenes, depicting Faustus’s bargain with Mephistopheles and his eventual damnation, are powerfully written, but the intervening scenes often descend into farce. Marlowe never wrote a pure comedy, but this is probably the closest he comes.
Marlowe was part of the great renaissance of English literature which took place in the late sixteenth century; other members include not only Shakespeare but also Spenser, Sidney, Ralegh and Donne. Apart from creating dramatic plots with strongly-drawn protagonists, his great achievement was to bring poetry, as opposed to mere verse, into English drama. The verse in the earliest English verse dramas such as “Gorboduc” is often little more than doggerel, and even in something like Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy” it is little more than serviceable. Marlowe’s grand rhetorical speeches showed that dramatic verse could be great poetry in its own right.