Outlines of English and American Literature Christopher Marlowe byLong, William J.
The best of these early playwrights, each of whom contributed some
element of value, was Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who is sometimes
called the father of the Elizabethan drama. He appeared in London sometime
before 1587, when his first drama Tamburlaine took the city by
storm. The prologue of this drama is at once a criticism and a promise:
From jigging veins of rhyming 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.
The "jigging" refers to the doggerel verse of the earlier drama, and
"clownage" to the crude horseplay intended to amuse the crowd. For the
doggerel is substituted blank verse, "Marlowe's mighty line" as it has ever
since been called, since he was the first to use it with power; and for the
"clownage" he promises a play of human interest revolving around a man
whose sole ambition is for world power,--such ambition as stirred the
English nation when it called halt to the encroachments of Spain, and
announced that henceforth it must be reckoned with in the councils of the
Continent. Though Tamburlaine is largely rant and bombast, there is
something in it which fascinates us like the sight of a wild bull on a
rampage; for such was Timur, the hero of the first play to which we
confidently give the name Elizabethan. In the latter part of the play the
action grows more intense; there is a sense of tragedy, of impending doom,
in the vain attempt of the hero to oppose fate. He can conquer a world but
not his own griefs; he ends his triumphant career with a pathetic admission
of failure: "And Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God, must die."
The succeeding plays of Marlowe are all built on the same model; that is,
they are one-man plays, and the man is dominated by a passion for power.
Doctor Faustus, the most poetical of Marlowe's works, is a play
representing a scholar who hungers for more knowledge, especially the
knowledge of magic. In order to obtain it he makes a bargain with the
devil, selling his soul for twenty-four years of unlimited power and
pleasure. [Footnote: The story is the same as that of Goethe's
Faust. It was a favorite story, or rather collection of stories, of
the Middle Ages, and was first printed as the History of Johann
Faust in Frankfort, in 1587. Marlowe's play was written, probably, in
the same year.] The Jew of Malta deals with the lust for such power
as wealth gives, and the hero is the money-lender Barabas, a monster of
avarice and hate, who probably suggested to Shakespeare the character of
Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The last play written by Marlowe
was Edward II, which dealt with a man who might have been powerful,
since he was a king, but who furnished a terrible example of weakness and
petty tyranny that ended miserably in a dungeon.
After writing these four plays with their extraordinary promise, Marlowe,
who led a wretched life, was stabbed in a tavern brawl. The splendid work
which he only began (for he died under thirty years of age) was immediately
taken up by the greatest of all dramatists, Shakespeare.