A study of Marlowe’s great tragedies cannot but convince us that Marlowe possessed the power in its fullest degree of projecting himself into his chief characters. In fact one of the most remarkable elements in all his dramatic works is this subjective or autobiographical note. Herein also lies the great difference between Shakespeare and Marlowe as dramatists. There is a complete effacement of Shakespeare’s personality in his plays.

We can never assert that this play or that passage of Shakespeare reveals his mind or personality. But Marlowe could not but project his personality into the chief characters of his plays, especially in his four great tragedies: Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II.

Marlowe’s Life and the Spirit of Renaissance
Before taking up this note of subjectivity in Marlowe’s dramatic works we should have a fair idea of Marlowe’s life, career, the influence of the spirit of Renaissance on him and his ambitions and aspirations. Marlowe came of ‘parents base of stock’—he was the son of shoe-maker. But he was fortunate enough to have school education, had a chance to go to Cambridge to specialise in theology and got Doctorate in Divinity. As an Archbishop Parker’s scholar he was intended for a Church career. But he abandoned the holy order and joined the theatrical companies in London to become a dramatist. In Cambridge, he also studied classics and various other subjects and became an erudite scholar. But here also he had the bitter experience of finding his young companions belonging to a wealthier class with much better status and a greater scope for enjoying pleasures of life, although they were much inferior to him in other respects. Probably, in his later life this was the main cause of his rebellion against the established order. He also imbibed his sceptical attitude to the established religion and religious authority and was reputed as an atheist by rejecting Christian dogma. Marlowe also developed a dual personality—especially during his life in London. He was a poet, a dramatist as well as an agent of secret service. In London he freely mixed with many a reputed nobleman as well as shady characters of the under-world. He was to a great extent violent in temperament and Bohemian in character.
Then we are to remember that Marlowe was a man of the Renaissance and an embodiment of the spirit of his age. He was saturated with the spirit of Renaissance with its great yearning for knowledge and learning, with its hankering after sensual pleasure of life and with its inordinate ambition and supreme lust for power and pelf. He was also profoundly influenced by Machiavelli, the famous Italian social and political writer, who disregarded all conventional moral principles to achieve the end by any means, noble or ignoble, fair or foul.
Reflection of Marlowe’s Personality in His Tragic Heroes
A close and critical study of works of Marlowe convinces us that all his tragic heroes clearly reveal the chief characteristics and temperament of the great dramatist. His great tragic heroes, Tamburlaine, Faustus, Jew of Malta, and Edward II—all are absolutely dominated by some uncontrollable passion for gaining some ideal or finding the fulfilment of some inordinate ambition. To achieve their end they throw overboard all established moral scruples or religious sanctions and never scruple to adopt even the most cruel and horrible means. His cruel, tyrannic Tamburlaine with his craze for limitless power defies all authorities on earth as well as in heaven. His stone-hearted Barabas is dominated by a senseless craze for gold and does not shirk from committing the worst type of crimes to achieve his end. He seems to be an embodiment of Machiavellianism. To gain super human powers through knowledge, his Doctor Faustus, with his over-weening ambition takes to the study of the black art of necromancy and even sells his soul to the Devil to gain his end. And Edward II and Mortimer pay the heaviest price—the former for his passion for is base minions and the latter for his craze for power. Influenced by the spirit of Renaissance, Marlowe developed a deep sense of egotism. All his great creations are also deeply egotistical having the highest regard for their own power and personality. Hence, we find his Tamburlaine speaking thus:
“I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains.
And with my hand turns fortune’s wheel about.”
His heroes have also scant regard for religion or godliness. His spirit of the atheist is clearly revealed in the following line from the “Prologue to the Jew of Malta”:
“I count religion but a childish toy”
Another relevant point to note is that just like Marlowe all his great tragic heroes, excepting Edward II, are born of ‘parents base of stock’ with a great sense of superiority. Thus, proclaims Tamburlaine:
“I am a lord, for so my deeds will prove,
And yet a shephered by my Parentage.”
And Baldock, the clerk, in Edward II proudly asserts:
“My name is Baldock, and my gentry
I fetch from
Oxford, not from Heraldry.”
Another significant point is that almost all the tragic heroes of Marlowe are poets and convey their feelings and emotions to the audience in the superb poetical language. And Marlowe himself was a great poet of passion. Hence, this lyrical quality of his great heroes reveal their creator’s moods and passions.
Marlowe and Doctor Faustus—Striking Parallelism
Of all Marlowe’s tragic heroes Doctor Faustus bears out the most striking reflection of Marlowe’s own self. After a close study of the play we are struck by the close similarity between the life and career of Marlowe and that of Doctor Faustus. We know that Marlowe was the second child of a Canterbury shoe-maker and in the very beginning of the play Doctor Faustus, the Chorus tells us of Faustus’s parentage:
“Now is he born, his parents base of stock.”
Harold Osborne has briefly pointed it out thus:
“Marlowe himself, like Faustus, came of parents of ‘base stock’ and was destined for the church but turned elsewhere; he was undoubtedly keenly interested in secular knowledge; was reputed as scoffer of religion and incurred the charge of blasphemy.”
We should not press the analogies too far. But we cannot ignore them as the parallelism is so very obvious.
Personal Tragedy: Spiritual Suffering
Doctor Faustus expresses very powerfully Marlowe’s innermost thoughts and authentic experiences. So it can be regarded as the spiritual history of Marlowe himself. Marlowe’s inordinate ambition led him to revolt against religion and society, to defy the laws of man and laws of God. And such defiance is bound to bring about acute mental conflict resulting in deep despair and certain defeat. So, both Marlowe and his creation Doctor Faustus experience terrible mental pangs and agonies. Osborne has rightly said:
“The descriptions of Faustus’s repentance, despair and mental anguish are among the most vivid and poignant parts of the play. It is, of course, possible to suppose that Marlowe had passed through a stage of youthful scepticism in religion and that with a sounder and deeper faith he had come to the knowledge of repentance. Nor indeed is he ever the pure scoffer. It is certain that the author of “Faustus” must himself have walked some way along the path of religious doubts and gropings and must have known the sufferings attendant upon that journey.” Hence, in Doctor Faustus we get a faithful portrait of an agonised condition of mind wavering between its ‘Good and Evil Angels, between God and the Devil.’ And it very much seems that Faustus is for Marlowe when he gives vent to his deep anguish of his soul before his scholar friends: “But Faustus’s offence can never be pardoned: the serpent that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus….O, Would I have never seen Wittenberg, never read book and what wonders I have done, all Germany can witness, yea, all the world; for which Faustus hath lost both Germany and the world, yea, heaven itself………..”
The end of the play reveals the influence of Reformation on Marlowe. It seems in spite of all his great achievements, Marlowe, like Faustus, ultimately realised that they did not in any way helped to fortify his soul but to lose it as it was cut off from the rich natural resources of inspiration and faith.
Hankering after Power, Knowledge and Sensuality
As regards passion for knowledge and craving for sensual pleasure of the world there is remarkable affinity between Faustus and Marlowe. It is true that Marlowe lived a Bohemian, profligate and boisterous life. Marlowe who was to go for the Holy Orders gave up divinity for the career of a poet and a playwright. Faustus seeks knowledge just for the power it gives and to have opportunities for the gratification of sensual pleasures. If Ellis is correct regarding the circumstances of Marlowe’s tragic death, then Faustus’s doting over the lips of Helen shortly before his death bears a very close resemblance with those of Marlowe’s death over ‘bought kisses.’
Poetic Spirit
All the tragic heroes of Marlowe are undoubtedly poets. But of all of them his Faustus is poet par-excellence just like Marlowe himself. The superb oft-quoted apostrophe to Helen beginning with the lines:—
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of
reveals his wonderful poetic temperament. Wynne is perfectly correct in saying: “This passage has probably never been surpassed in its magic idealisation of that which is essentially base and carnal.”
Even in their short span of life and in their tragic death there is real affinity between Marlowe and his creation, Doctor Faustus. After living twenty-four years a life of sensual pleasures and superhuman achievements, Faustus had to surrender his soul to the Devil for eternal damnation. Marlowe’s boisterous and Bohemain life also came to a tragic and premature end in a tavern brawl at the hands of a shady character of the London underworld at the age of twenty-nine. And there is really something occult in the mournful melody of the Chorus in the closing line of this tragedy:
“Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometimes grew within this learned man.”
It is given only to Shakespeare to write dozens of plays without projecting his personality into them in any detectable manner. He has so lost himself in his works and yet so skilfully kept himself away from them that it is almost impossible to say with any stress of certainty that a particular play or even isolated passage reveals his mind and personality. Marlowe does not share this unique privilege of Shakespeare. He is there in every play of his, and especially in his four great tragedies—Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II. These plays give us not a shadowy idea but an intimate glimpse of the quivering personality of Marlowe and the intense thoughts that were his at the time of writing them. It is therefore neither desirable nor possible to separate Marlowe the poet and dramatist from Marlowe the man. His subjectivity, however, is not as obvious and insistent as that of Shelley, for instance. It is the subjectivity of the type that Milton gives us in his Comus, Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes.
Doctor Faustus is strewn with unmistakable autobiographical suggestions. Reading the play we cannot refrain from concluding that it is the spontaneous expression of its writer’s innermost thoughts and authentic experiences. The storm of doubt and despair, of suffering and sin, that sweeps through the serious scenes of the play, does not seem to be the work of a mere imaginative artist who conjures it forth from the confines of his own mind, but of one who must have stood up to the chin in such experience. There is no doubt that the writer of Doctor Faustus appears to be one who has experienced a great spiritual tragedy, one whose sense of harmony between his mind and the universal forces around him is shaken, one who is heavy with a feeling of loss. What his sufferings and losses are, the dramatist does not make clear. Caught in a chaotic maze of conflicting emotions, he is busy searching for the meaning of the calamity that has overtaken him. Part of it he seems to discover in blind servitude to barren learning. Marlowe, like Faustus, seems to have realised that all he had learnt and known, all he had attempted and achieved with the help of his intellectual equipment, helped not to strengthen his soul but to lose it, by being cut off from the rich natural resources of inspiration and of faith.

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