Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
TWO months before the birth of William Shakespeare, on February 26th, 1564, John Marlowe, shoemaker in the ancient town of Canterbury, carried a baby boy, his first son, to be baptized in the Church of St. George the Martyr. John Marlowe was a “clarke of Saint Marie’s church,” and member of the Shoemakers’ and Tanners’ Guild. He may have been a man of sufficient means to give his son a liberal education; or some rich gentleman, Sir John Manwood perhaps, may have interested himself in the gifted lad. At any rate Christopher went to the King’s School, Canterbury, where fifty pupils were taught gratuitously and allowed £4 a year each; and there he was a diligent scholar, for it is recorded that in 1579 he received an allowance of £1 for each of the first three terms. From school he was sent to Benet—now Corpus Christi—College, Cambridge; where he obtained the degree of B. A. in 1583, and that of M. A. in 1587. His translations of Ovid’s elegies were probably begun, if not completed, during his years at the university. There are slight indications in his poems that he may have been a soldier for a time, and served during the Netherlands campaign. Probably, however, he went at once to London from Cambridge,—“a boy in years, a man in genius, a god in ambition,” as Swinburne says,—and began his struggle for fame and fortune. Like many another young poet, he may have gone on the stage; but it is said that he was soon after incapacitated for acting, by an accident which lamed him. He attached himself as playwright to a prominent dramatic company,—that of the Earl of Nottingham, the Lord Admiral.  1
  He was a dashing fellow, witty and daring, “the darling of the town,” and with a gift for making friends. He was a protégé of Thomas Walsingham, and gallant Sir Walter Raleigh found him a congenial spirit. He knew Kyd, Nash, Greene, Chapman, and very likely Shakespeare too. Of all the brilliant group that glorify Elizabethan literature, there is no more striking or typical figure than Marlowe’s own. He was the very embodiment of the Renascence spirit, with energies all vitalized and athirst for both spiritual and sensual satisfactions. His gay-hearted, passionate, undisciplined nature was too exorbitant in demand to find content. To his pagan soul beauty and pleasure were ultimate aims, orthodox faith and observances impossible. So for a few mad years he dreamed and wrote, loved and feasted, starved sometimes, perhaps; and then at twenty-nine, when he had tried all possible experiences, his wild, brilliant young life suddenly ended. His irreligious scoffing, doubtless exaggerated from mouth to mouth, led finally to a warrant for his arrest. Evading this, he had gone to the small town of Deptford, and there, June 1593, while at the tavern, he became engaged in a drunken scuffle in which he was fatally stabbed.  2
  Marlowe’s first play, ‘Tamburlaine,’ must have been written before he was twenty-four. Like many of his contemporaries, he always borrowed his plots; and this one he took from ‘Foreste,’ a translation from the Spanish made by Thomas Fortescue. His treatment of it was a conscious effort to revolutionize dramatic poetry; for “jiggling veins of rhyming mother wits” to substitute “high astounding terms”; and it is his great distinction that with ‘Tamburlaine’ he established blank verse in the English drama. From the appearance of ‘Gorboduc’ in 1562 there had been blank or rimeless verse; but the customary form of dramatic expression was in tediously monotonous heroic couplets, whether they suited the subject or not. Marlowe was the first of the English dramatists to understand that thought and expression should be in harmony. His original spirit refused dictation; and he developed a rich sonorous line, the beauty of which was recognized at once. His musical ear and poetic instinct guided him to hitherto forbidden licenses,—variety in the management of the cæsura, feminine rhymes, run-on lines, the introduction of other than iambic measures; and thus he secured an elasticity of metre which permanently enriched English poetry. His creative daring stifled a cold and formal classicism, inaugurated our romantic drama, and served as guiding indication to Shakespeare himself. But although certain verses of ‘Tamburlaine’ cling to the reader’s memory as perfect in poetic feeling and harmony, the greater part of it is mere “bombast” to modern taste. Even in Marlowe’s day his exaggerations excited ridicule, and quotations from his dramas became town catchwords. But the spontaneous passion of his impossible conceptions gave them a force which impressed the public. ‘Tamburlaine’ was immensely popular, and the sequel or Part Second was enthusiastically received. Many critics since Ben Jonson have discussed “Marlowe’s mighty line” and honored its influence; and his fellow writers were quick to follow his example.  3
  The Faust legend, traceable back to the sixth century, finally drifted over to England, where in ballad form, founded upon the ‘Volksbuch’ by Spiess, it appeared in 1587, and probably soon caught Marlowe’s attention. His play of ‘Dr. Faustus’ was given in 1588, and was very highly praised. It is said that Goethe, who thought of translating it, exclaimed admiringly, “How greatly it is all planned!” Compared with the harmonic unity of form and matter in Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ Marlowe’s work seems childish in construction, uneven and faulty in expression. But there are certain passages—for example, the thrilling passion of the invocation to Helen, and the final despair of Faustus—of positive poetic splendor.  4
  In the ‘Jew of Malta’ there are fine passages which show Marlowe’s increasing mastery of his line. But in spite of its descriptive color and force, and keen touches of characterization, it was less successful than ‘Tamburlaine,’ and is perhaps most noteworthy now for the obvious parallelism of certain scenes with those of the later ‘Merchant of Venice.’  5
  ‘Edward II.,’ founded upon Robert Fabyan’s ‘Chronicle’ or ‘Concordance of Histories,’ is structurally the best of Marlowe’s plays, and contains finely pathetic verse which bears comparison with that of Shakespeare’s historical dramas. The poet as he grows older seems to take a broader, more sympathetic view of life; and therefore he begins to understand feelings more normal than the infinite ambitions of Faustus and Tamburlaine, and becomes more skillful in the portrayal of character. There is little of his earlier exaggeration.  6
  The two shorter dramas—‘The Massacre of Paris,’ and ‘Dido, Queen of Carthage’—were written in collaboration with other playwrights.  7
  No one can read Marlowe carefully without feeling that the social influences of his time made him a dramatist, and that he was by nature a lyric poet. He was intensely subjective, and incapable of taking an impersonal and comprehensive point of view. He always expresses his own aspiration for fame, or joy, or satisfaction, transcending anything earth can offer. “That like I best that flies beyond my reach.” This preoccupation with imaginative ideals made it impossible for him to understand everyday human nature. Hence no touch of humor vitalizes his work; and hence his efforts to depict women are always vague and unsatisfactory. He is at his best when expressing his own passions,—his adoration of light and color, of gold and sparkling gems, of milk-white beauties with rippling brilliant hair. Like the other men of his time, he loved nature: delighted in tinkling waters, wide skies, gay velvety blossoms. He is a thorough sensualist; frankly, ardently so in ‘Hero and Leander,’—that beautiful love poem, a paraphrase of Musach’s poem, of which he wrote the first two sestiads, and which after his death was finished by Chapman. Every one knows the lines, written in much the same spirit, of ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’; “that smooth song which was made by Kit Marlowe,” as Izaak Walton says. It had many imitations, and a charming response from the pen of Sir Walter Raleigh.  8
  It has been suggested that Shakespeare in his early days may have looked enviously at the successful young Marlowe. This erring idealist aimed high, and left a lasting imprint upon English literature. He reached fame very quickly; made more friends than enemies; and his early death called out many tributes of love and admiration. Michael Drayton wrote of him:—
  “Next Marlowe, bathed in the Thespian Springs,
Had in him those brave translunary things
That the first poets had: his raptures were
All air and fire, which made his verses clear;
For that fine madness still he did retain,
Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.”

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.