Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. Marlowe was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day who belonged to the group of university-educated practitioners of literature known collectively as the ‘University Wits’. He greatly influenced William Shakespeare, who was born in the same year as Marlowe and who rose to become the pre-eminent Elizabethan playwright after Marlowe’s mysterious early death.
He is famous for his dramas-Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, Jew of Malta and Edward II.
Marlowe’s tragedy is significant due to its newness, renaissance influence, Machiavellian morality, powerful and passionate expressions, element of tragic inner conflict, overreaching protagonists, popular literary style, high seriousness, bombastic language and blank verse. Swinburne remarks: ‘Before him, there was neither genuine blank verse nor genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared and the paths were made straight for Shakespeare.’
Marlowe’s contribution to English tragedy is very vital and manifold. He has rightly been called the ‘Morning Star’ of the great Elizabethan drama. Following are the salient features of his tragedies.
Tragedy Before Marlowe
It was in the fifteenth century that tragedy came into English dramatic field. And this was due to the influence of the Revival of Learning and the translation of great Italian tragedies of Seneca. And the first English tragedy was Gorboduc by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. In the style and treatment of theme Seneca was very much their model. Although this tragedy showed some innovation, yet most of the Senecan characteristics—long sententious speeches, lack of action, talkative ghosts and horrible scenes of murder were very much there. The credit goes to Marlow to free the Elizabethan drama from the worst features of the Senecan tragedy. We can discuss various characteristics of his tragedy to point out how he formulated the English drama, specially the tragedy which was improved upon and perfected by a genius like Shakespeare.
Marlowe’s Tragic Heroes
Marlowe put forward a new kind of tragic hero. The medieval concept of tragedy was the fall of a great man, kings or royal personalities. But it was left to Marlow to create the real tragic hero. Almost all the heroes of Marlowe—Tamburlaine, Faustus or Jew of Malta—are of humble parentage, but they are endowed with great heroic qualities and they are really great men.
His tragedy is, in fact, the tragedy of the hero. All other characters of Marlovian drama look insignificant besides the towering personality of the tragic hero.
Tragic Flaw In His Heroes
Marlowe revived the Aristotelian conception of tragic hero in so far as he introduced a certain flaw or flaws in his character. His heroes are men fired with indomitable passion and inordinate ambition. His Tamburlaine is in full-flooded pursuit of military and political power, his Faustus sells his soul to the devil to attain ultimate power through knowledge and his Jew of Malta discards all human values in order to gain maximum wealth. But they perish by the forces beyond their control.
Another great achievement of Marlowe was to introduce the element of conflict, especially inner struggle in two of his great tragedies—Doctor Faustusand Edward II. And this inner conflict reveals the real significance of character as the main-stay of a great tragedy.
High Seriousness / Absence Of Female Characters
Another notable characteristic of Marlowe’s tragedies is its high seriousness and hence there is complete lack of humour. According to many a critic, the scenes of clownishness in Doctor Faustus are nothing but later interpolations. His often neglects female characters.
Poetic Excellence / Blank Verse
Marlowe’s poetic excellence was highly appreciated even by his contemporaries. Swinburne pays his tribute: ‘The first great English poet was the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse.’
All of Marlowe’s heroes, Faustus is the most poetic, as he is a prototype of Marlow himself with his passionate love of beauty and yearning for sensuous pleasures.
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen make me immortal with a kiss.
A new spirit of poetry was breathed into the artificial and monotonous verse of old plays. He made blank verse a great dramatic medium acknowledged by all his successors as the metre indispensable for any serious drama.
As for as plot construction is concerned all Marlow’s great plays, with the exception of Edward II to some extent, suffer from great technical defects. There are no sub plots in his dramas.
Influence On Shakespeare
Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Marlowe in his work, as can be seen in the re-using of Marlovian themes in Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, and Macbeth (Dido, Jew of Malta, Edward II and Dr. Faustus respectively). In Hamlet, after meeting with the travelling actors, Hamlet requests the Player perform a speech about the Trojan War, which at has an echo of Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. In ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ Shakespeare brings on a character “Marcade” in conscious acknowledgement of Marlowe’s character “Mercury”, in ‘The Massacre at Paris’.
We may conclude by the illuminating remarks of Schelling:
‘Marlowe gave the drama passion and poetry and poetry was his most precious gift. Shakespeare would not have been Shakespeare had Marlowe never written or lived. He might not have been altogether the Shakespeare we know.’