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Outlines of English and American Literature
Christopher Marlowe
by Long, 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."

Marlowe's Dramas

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.


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