1902 Encyclopedia > Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe
English dramatist and poet
(1564-93)




CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE (1564-1593), the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse, was born at Canterbury in February 1564, and christened on the 26th of that month. John Marlowe, his father, is said, on authority which satisfied the best editor of the poet, to have been a shoemaker by trade; it is supposed also that he was clerk of his parish, and survived his illustrious son for upwards of eleven years. The boy was educated at the King's School, Canterbury; matriculated as pensioner of Benet College, Cambridge, March 17, 1581; took the degree of bachelor of arts in 1583, and that of master of arts four years later. Before this date he had produced the first tragedy worthy of that name in our language, and called into existence that highest and most difficult of all its other than lyrical forms of verse, which alone has proved worthy of acceptance among his countrymen as the fit and adequate instrument of tragic drama. At some uncertain date of his early life he is supposed to have been an actor, and said to have broken his leg in the practice of his profession. But for this and many other traditions of his career and conversation there is no better evidence than that of a religious libeller. His first tragedy of Tamburlaine tlie Great, in two parts, was successively followed by Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward the Second, and The Massacre at Paris. The tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, was probably completed for the stage after his death by Thomas Nash, the worthiest English precursor of Swift in vivid, pure, and passionate prose, embodying the most terrible and splendid qualities of a social and personal satirist; a man gifted also with some fair faculty of elegiac and even lyric verse, but in no wise qualified to put on the buskin left behind him by the " famous gracer of tragedians," as Marlowe had already been designated by their common friend Greene from among the worthiest of his fellows.

The only authentic record concerning the death of Marlowe is an entry " in the burial-register of the parish church of St Nicholas," Deptford : " Christopher Marlowe, slain by Francis Archer, June 1, 1593." Two Furitan scribblers have left two inconsistent reports as to the circumstances of this manslaughter. On the more respectable authority of Francis Meres the critic (1598) we are told that Marlowe was " stabbed to death " by a " serving-man" of bad character, "a rival of his in his lewd love." The one thing unhappily certain is that one of the greatest among English poets died of a wound received in a brawl (stabbed in the head, according to one account, with his own dagger) at the untimely age of twenty-nine years and three months. Like Sir Walter Baleigh and a few lass memorable men of the same generation, he was attacked in his own time not merely as a freethinker, but as a propagandist or apostle of atheism ; nor was the irregularity of his life thought worthier of animadversion than the uncertainty of his livelihood. The informer whose name has survived as that of his most venomous assailant was duly hanged the year after Marlowe's death ; and the list of his charges, first published by Bitson, is hardly a document which can commend itself to any man's confidence as plausibly or even possibly accurate in all its detailed report of the violent and offensive nonsense attributed to the freethinking poet in common conversation " concerning his damnable opinions."

The majestic and exquisite excellence of various lines and passages in Marlowe's first play must be admitted to relieve, if it cannot be allowed to redeem, the stormy monotony of Titanic truculence which blusters like a simoom through the noisy course of its ten fierce acts. 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 poem 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. And the particular note of merit observed, the special point of the praise conferred, by the great German poet should be no less sufficient to dispose of the vulgar misconception yet lingering among sciolists and pretenders to criticism, which regards a writer than whom no man was ever born with a finer or a stronger instinct for perfection of excellence in execution as a mere noble savage of letters, a rough self-taught sketcher or scribbler of crude and rude genius, whose unhewn blocks of verse had in them, some veins of rare enough metal to be quarried and polished by Shakespeare. What most impressed the author of Faust in the work of Marlowe was a quality the want of which in the author of Manfred is proof enough to consign his best work to the second or third class at most. " How greatly it is all planned ! " the first requisite of all great work, and one of which the highest genius possible to a greatly gifted barbarian could by no possibility understand the nature or conceive the existence. That Goethe " had thought of translating it" is perhaps hardly less precious a tribute to its greatness than the fact that it lias been actually and admirably translated by the matchless translator of Shakespeare—the son of Victor Hugo ; whose labour of love may thus be said to have made another point in common, and forged as it were another link of union, between Shakespeare and the young master of Shakespeare's youth. 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. Tdmburlaine 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 master-pieces 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 is not wanting in rough energy and a coarse kind of interest; 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 Barabas 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 as 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 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 o 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, 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 T/ie 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-Shakespearean 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.

Had every copy of Marlowe's boyish version or perversion of Ovid's Elegies 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. The untitled fragment, on the other hand, has been very closely rivalled, perhaps very happily imitated, but only by the greatest lyric poet of England—by Shelley alone. Marlowe's poem of Hero and Leander, 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.

The place and the value of Christopher Marlowe as a leader among English poets it would be almost impossible for historical criticism to overestimate. 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. (A. C. S.)






The above article was written by: Algernon C. Swinburne.



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