CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE, English dramatist, the father of English tragedy, and instaurator of dramatic blank verse, the eldest son of a shoemaker at Canterbury, was born in that city on the 6th of February 1564. He was christened at St George's Church, Canterbury, on the 26th of February, 1563/4, some two months before Shakespeare's baptism at Stratford-on-Avon. His father, John Marlowe, is said to have been the grandson of John Morley or Marlowe, a substantial tanner of Canterbury. The father, who survived by a dozen years or so his illustrious son, married on the 22nd of May 1561 Catherine, daughter of Christopher Arthur, at one time rector of St Peter's, Canterbury, who had been ejected by Queen Mary as a married minister. The dramatist received the rudiments of his education at the King's School, Canterbury, which he entered at Michaelmas 1578, and where he had as his fellow-pupils Richard Boyle, afterwards known as the great Earl of Cork, and Will Lyly, the brother of [John Lyly] the dramatist. Stephen Gosson entered the same school a little before, and William Harvey, the famous physician, a little after Marlowe. He went to Cambridge as one of Archbishop Parker's scholars from the King's School, and matriculated at Benet (Corpus Christi) College, on the 17th of March 1571, taking his B.A. degree in 1584, and that of M.A. three or four years later.
Francis Kett, the mystic, burnt in 1589 for heresy, was a fellow and tutor of his college, and may have had some share in developing Marlowe's opinions in religious matters. Marlowe's classical acquirements were of a kind which was then extremely common, being based for the most part upon a minute acquaintance with Roman mythology, as revealed in Ovid's Metamorphoses. His spirited translation of Ovid's Amores (printed 1596), which was at any rate commenced at Cambridge, does not seem to point to any very intimate acquaintance with the grammar and syntax of the Latin tongue. Before 1587 he seems to have quitted Cambridge for London, where he attached himself to the Lord Admiral's Company of Players, under the leadership of the famed actor Edward Alleyn, and almost at once began writing for the stage.
Of Marlowe's career in London, apart from his four great theatrical successes, we know hardly anything; but he evidently knew Thomas Kyd, who shared his unorthodox opinions. Nash criticized his verse, Greene affected to shudder at his atheism; Gabriel Harvey maligned his memory. On the other hand Marlowe was intimate with the Walsinghams of Scadbury, Chiselhurst, kinsmen of Sir Francis Walsingham: he was also the personal friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps of the poetical Earl of Oxford, with both of whom, and with such men as Walter Warner and Robert Hughes the mathematicians, Thomas Harriott the notable astronomer, and Matthew Royden, the dramatist is said to have met in free converse. Either this free converse or the licentious character of some of the young dramatist's tirades seems to have sown a suspicion among the strait-laced that his morals left everything to be desired. It is probable enough that this attitude of reprobation drove a man of so exalted a disposition as Marlowe into a more insurgent attitude than he would have otherwise adopted. He seems at any rate to have been associated with what was denounced as Sir Walter Raleigh's school of atheism, and to have dallied with opinions which were then regarded as putting a man outside the pale of civilized humanity.
As the result of some depositions made by Thomas Kyd under the influence of torture, the Privy Council were upon the eve of investigating some serious charges against Marlowe when his career was abruptly and somewhat scandalously terminated. The order had already been issued for his arrest, when he was slain in a quarrel by a man variously named (Archer and Ingram) at Deptford, at the end of May 1593, and he was buried on the 1st of June in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Deptford. The following September Gabriel Harvey referred to him as "dead of the plague." The disgraceful particulars attached to the tragedy of Marlowe in the popular mind would not seem to have appeared until four years later (1597) when Thomas Beard, the Puritan author of The Theatre of God's Judgements, used the death of this playmaker and atheist as one of his warning examples of the vengeance of God. Upon the embellishments of this story, such as that of Francis Meres the critic, in 1598, that Marlowe came to be "stabbed to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival of his in his lewde love," or that of William Vaughan in the Golden Grove of 1600, in which the unfortunate poet's dagger is thrust into his own eye in prevention of his felonious assault upon an innocent man, his guest, it is impossible now to pronounce.
We really do not know the circumstances of Marlowe's death. The probability is he was killed in a brawl, and his atheism must be interpreted not according to the ex parte accusation of one Richard Baines, a professional informer (among the Privy Council records), but as a species of rationalistic antinomianism, dialectic in character, and closely related to the deflection from conventional orthodoxy for which Kett was burnt at Norwich in 1589. A few months before the end of his life there is reason to believe that he transferred his services from the Lord Admiral's to Lord Strange's Company, and may have thus been brought into communication with Shakespeare, who in such plays as Richard II and Richard III owed not a little to the influence of his romantic predecessor.
Marlowe's career as a dramatist lies between the years 1587 and 1593, and the four great plays to which reference has been made were Tamburlaine the Great, an heroic epic in dramatic form divided into two parts of five acts each (1587, printed in 1590); Dr Faustus (1588, entered at Stationers' Hall 1601); The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta (dating perhaps from 1589, acted in 1592, printed in 1633); and Edward the Second (printed 1594). The very first words of Tamburlaine sound the trumpet note of attack in the older order of things dramatic:
"From jigging veins of riming mother wits|
And such conceits as clownage 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."
It leapt with a bound to a place beside Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, and few plays have been more imitated by rivals (Greene's Alphonsus of Aragon, Peele's Battle of Alcazar) or more keenly satirized by the jealousy and prejudice of out-distanced competitors. With many and heavy faults, there is something of genuine greatness in Tamburlaine the Great; and for two grave reasons it must always be remembered with distinction and mentioned with honour. It is the first play ever written in English blank verse, as distinguished from mere rhymeless decasyllabics; and it contains one of the noblest passages, perhaps indeed the noblest, in the literature of the world, ever written by one of the greatest masters of poetry in loving praise of the glorious delights and sublime submission to the everlasting limits of his art. In its highest and most distinctive qualities, in unfaltering and infallible command of the right note of music and the proper tone of colour for the finest touches of poetic execution, no poet of the most elaborate modern school, working at ease upon every consummate resource of luxurious learning and leisurely refinement, has ever excelled the best and most representative work of a man who had literally no models before him and probably or evidently was often if not always compelled to write against time for his living.
The just and generous judgment passed by Goethe on the Faustus of his English predecessor in tragic treatment of the same subject is somewhat more than sufficient to counterbalance the slighting or the sneering references to that magnificent poem which might have been expected from the ignorance of Byron or the incompetence of Hallam. Of all great poems in dramatic form it is perhaps the most remarkable for absolute singleness of aim and simplicity of construction; yet is it wholly free from all possible imputation of monotony or aridity. Tamburlaine is monotonous in the general roll and flow of its stately and sonorous verse through a noisy wilderness of perpetual bluster and slaughter; but the unity of tone and purpose in Doctor Faustus is not unrelieved by change of manner and variety of incident. The comic scenes, written evidently with as little of labour as of relish, are for the most part scarcely more than transcripts, thrown into the form of dialogue, from a popular prose History of Dr Faustus, and therefore should be set down as little to the discredit as to the credit of the poet. Few masterpieces of any age in any language can stand beside this tragic poem — it has hardly the structure of a play — for the qualities of terror and splendour, for intensity of purpose and sublimity of note. In the vision of Helen, for example, the intense perception of loveliness gives actual sublimity to the sweetness and radiance of mere beauty in the passionate and spontaneous selection of words the most choice and perfect; and in like manner the sublimity of simplicity in Marlowe's conception and expression of the agonies endured by Faustus under the immediate imminence of his doom gives the highest note of beauty, the quality of absolute fitness and propriety, to the sheer straightforwardness of speech in which his agonizing horror finds vent ever more and more terrible from the first to the last equally beautiful and fearful verse of that tremendous monologue which has no parallel in all the range of tragedy.
It is now a commonplace of criticism to observe and regret the decline of power and interest after the opening acts of The Jew of Malta. This decline is undeniable, though even the latter part of the play (the text of which is very corrupt) is not wanting in rough energy; but the first two acts would be sufficient foundation for the durable fame of a dramatic poet. In the blank verse of Milton alone — who perhaps was hardly less indebted than Shakespeare was before him to Marlowe as the first English master of word-music in its grander forms — has the glory or the melody of passages in the opening soliloquy of Barabbas been possibly surpassed. The figure of the hero before it degenerates into caricature is as finely touched as the poetic execution is excellent; and the rude and rapid sketches of the minor characters show at least some vigour and vivacity of touch.
In Edward the Second the interest rises and the execution improves as visibly and as greatly with the course of the advancing story as they decline in The Jew of Malta. The scene of the king's deposition at Kenilworth is almost as much finer in tragic effect and poetic quality as it is shorter and less elaborate than the corresponding scene in Shakespeare's King Richard II. The terror of the death-scene undoubtedly rises into horror; but this horror is with skilful simplicity of treatment preserved from passing into disgust. In pure poetry, in sublime and splendid imagination, this tragedy is excelled by Doctor Faustus; in dramatic power and positive impression of natural effect it is certainly the masterpiece of Marlowe. It was almost inevitable, in the hands of any poet but Shakespeare, that none of the characters represented should be capable of securing or even exciting any finer sympathy or more serious interest than attends on the mere evolution of successive events or the mere display of emotions (except always in the great scene of the deposition) rather animal than spiritual in their expression of rage or tenderness or suffering. The exact balance of mutual effect, the final note of scenic harmony, between ideal conception and realistic execution is not yet struck with perfect accuracy of touch and security of hand; but on this point also Marlowe has here come nearer by many degrees to Shakespeare than any of his other predecessors have ever come near to Marlowe.
Of The Massacre at Paris (acted in 1593, printed 1600?) it is impossible to judge fairly from the garbled fragment of its genuine text which is all that has come down to us. To Mr. Collier, among numberless other obligations, we owe the discovery of a noble passage excised in the piratical edition which gives us the only version extant of this unlucky play, and which, it must be allowed, contains nothing of quite equal value. This is obviously an occasional and polemical work, and being as it is overcharged with the anti-Catholic passion of the time has a typical quality which gives it some empirical significance and interest. That antipapal ardour is indeed the only note of unity in a rough and ragged chronicle which shambles and stumbles onward from the death of Queen Jeanne of Navarre to the murder of the last Valois. It is possible to conjecture, what it would be fruitless to affirm, that it gave a hint in the next century to Nathaniel Lee for his far superior and really admirable tragedy on the same subject, issued ninety-seven years after the death of Marlowe.
In the tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage (completed by Thomas Nash, produced and printed 1594), a servile fidelity to the text of Virgil's narrative has naturally resulted in the failure which might have been expected from an attempt at once to transcribe what is essentially inimitable and to reproduce it under the hopelessly alien conditions of dramatic adaptation. The one really noble passage in a generally feeble and incomposite piece of work is, however, uninspired by the unattainable model to which the dramatists have been only too obsequious in their subservience. It is as nearly certain as anything can be which depends chiefly upon cumulative and collateral evidence that the better part of what is best in the serious scenes of King Henry VI is mainly the work of Marlowe. That he is at any rate the principal author of the second and third plays passing under that name among the works of Shakespeare, but first and imperfectly printed as The Contention between the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, can hardly be now a matter of debate among competent judges. The crucial difficulty of criticism in this matter is to determine, if indeed we should not rather say to conjecture, the authorship of the humorous scenes in prose, showing as they generally do a power of comparatively high and pure comic realism to which nothing in the acknowledged works of any pre-Shakespearian dramatist is even remotely comparable. Yet, especially in the original text of these scenes as they stand unpurified by the ultimate revision of Shakespeare or his editors, there are tones and touches which recall rather the clownish horseplay and homely ribaldry of his predecessors than anything in the lighter interludes of his very earliest plays. We find the same sort of thing which we find in their writings, only better done than they usually do it, rather than such work as Shakespeare's a little worse done than usual. And even in the final text of the tragic or metrical scenes the highest note struck is always, with one magnificent and unquestionable exception, rather in the key of Marlowe at his best than of Shakespeare while yet in great measure his disciple.
A Taming of a Shrew, the play on which Shakespeare's comedy was founded, has been attributed, without good reason, to Marlowe. The passages in the play borrowed from Marlowe's works provide an argument against, rather than for his authorship; while the humorous character of the play is not in keeping with his other work. He may have had a share in The Troublesome Raigne of King John (1591), and Fleay conjectured that the plays Edward III and Richard III usually included in editions of Shakespeare are at least based on plays by Marlowe. Lust's Dominion, printed in 1657, was incorrectly ascribed to him, and a play no longer extant, The True History of George Scanderbage, was assumed by Fleay on the authority of an obscure passage of Gabriel Harvey to be his work. The Maiden's Holiday, assigned to Day and Marlowe, was destroyed by Warburton's cook. Day was considerably Marlowe's junior, and collaboration between the two is not probable.
Had every copy of Marlowe's boyish version or perversion of Ovid's Elegies (P. Ovidii Nasonis Amorum compressed into three books) deservedly perished in the flames to which it was judicially condemned by the sentence of a brace of prelates, it is possible that an occasional bookworm, it is certain that no poetical student, would have deplored its destruction, if its demerits could in that case have been imagined. His translation of the first book of Lucan alternately rises above the original and falls short of it,— often inferior to the Latin in point and weight of expressive rhetoric, now and then brightened by a clearer note of poetry and lifted into a higher mood of verse. Its terseness, vigour and purity of style would in any case have been praiseworthy, but are nothing less than admirable, if not wonderful, when we consider how close the translator has on the whole (in spite of occasional slips into inaccuracy) kept himself to the most rigid limit of literal representation, phrase by phrase and often line by line. The really startling force and felicity of occasional verses are worthier of remark than the inevitable stiffness and heaviness of others, when the technical difficulty of such a task is duly taken into account.
One of the most faultless lyrics and one of the loveliest fragments in the whole range of descriptive and fanciful poetry would have secured a place for Marlowe among the memorable men of his epoch, even if his plays had perished with himself. His Passionate Shepherd remains ever since unrivalled in its way — a way of pure fancy and radiant melody without break or lapse. Marlowe's poem of Hero and Leander (entered at Stationers' Hall in September 1593; completed and brought out by George Chapman, who divided Marlowe's work into two sestiads and added four of his own, 1598), closing with the sunrise which closes the night of the lovers' union, stands alone in its age, and far ahead of the work of any possible competitor between the death of Spenser and the dawn of Milton. In clear mastery of narrative and presentation, in melodious ease and simplicity of strength, it is not less pre-eminent than in the adorable beauty and impeccable perfection of separate lines or passages. It is doubtful whether the heroic couplet has ever been more finely handled.
The place and the value of Christopher Marlowe as a leader among English poets it would be almost impossible for historical criticism to over-estimate. To none of them all, perhaps, have so many of the greatest among them been so deeply and so directly indebted. Nor was ever any great writer's influence upon his fellows more utterly and unmixedly an influence for good. 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 harmony of Milton's. He is the greatest discoverer, the most daring and inspired pioneer, in all our poetic literature. Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared, the paths were made straight, for Shakespeare.
(Algernon Charles Swinburne)
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XVII.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 744.
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