The balance-sheet of Marlowe’s merits and demerits as a dramatist cannot be correctly understood and justly estimated without an idea of the condition of English drama at the time that he arrived in London as a literary adventurer.

The origins of drama have always and everywhere been deeply rooted in simple piety and religious instinct. In England too, the cradle of the drama rested on the altar of the Church. In the very ritual of the Church, in the Mass itself and in the festivities of Christmas, Easter and Michaelmas, were inherent occasions and themes for dramatic development. The clergy who were obliged to find some method of teaching and explaining to the ignorant and illiterate masses the doctrinal truths of religion, took advantage of the gospel stories which they illustrated by a series of living pictures, generally called pageants or dumb-shows. These early church entertainments which were spiritual and not secular yielded place in course of time to humanistic development. In this second stage, the scope of the dramatic productions gradually extended in respect of subject-matter, accommodation and participants. The actors spoke as well as acted and Mysteries (stories taken from the Scriptures) and Miracle plays (dealing with incidents in the lives of saints and martyrs) became common. In the third stage, the serious and light elements which were interwoven in the earlier period were bifurcated and Moralities and Interludes supplanted the Mysteries and Miracle Plays. The Moralities were didactic, abstract, serious, allegorical, whereas the Interludes were light entertainments, full of gaiety and humour. In the fourth stage of development which was reached by the middle of the 16th century, Tragedy and Comedy established themselves as definite and separate branches of drama. Gorboduc (1561) by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton has the distinction of being the first regular English Tragedy, while in the field of comedy the honour goes to Ralph Roister Doister (1541) by Nicholas Udall.

At the time that Marlowe unfurled the banner of his dramatic career, the theatrical repertory consisted of tragedies on the model of Seneca, comedies like those of Plautus and Terence, historical plays, romances, court comedies and dramatised episodes of private life. English drama, thus, was in a somewhat chaotic condition, struggling between a well-formed chill and a structureless enthusiasm. ‘The classicists had form, but no fire; the popular dramatists had interest, but little sense of form.’ J.A. Symonds observes: “There was plenty of productive energy, plenty of enthusiasm and activity. Theatres continued to spring up and acting came to rank among the recognised professions. But this activity was still chaotic. None could say where or whether the gem of a great national art existed…..Scholars despised the shows of mingled bloodshed and buffoonery in which the populace delighted. The people had no taste for dry and formal disquisitions in the style of Gorboduc. The blank verse of Sackville and Hughes rang hollow: the prose of Lyly was affected; the rhyming couplets of the popular theatre interfered with dialogue and free development of character. The public itself was divided in its tastes and instincts; the mob inclining to mere drolleries and merriment upon the stage, the better vulgar to formalities and studied imitations. A powerful body of sober citizens, by no means wholly composed of Puritans and ascetics, regarded all forms of dramatic art with undisguised hostility. Meanwhile, no really great poet had arisen to stamp the tendencies of either court or town with the authentic seal of genius. There seemed a danger lest the fortunes of the stage in England should be lost between the prejudices of a literary class, the puerile and lifeless pastime of the multitude, and the disfavour of conservative moralists.” It was at such a critical time that Marlowe arrived on the scene with his poetry and his passion, his intellectual vigour and his academical training. It was as though Marlowe was specially destined to save English drama from a perilous landslide by discerning in the existing chaotic and conflicting elements the real and vital seed of art, and set its flowering beyond all risks of accident by his singular and significant achievement.
Marlowe’s Reform of Theme and Language
Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part I appeared on the stage with a haughty, almost insolent trumpet note of revolt both against the conventional theme of the dramatists and their language. In the very first lines of the Prologue to the play, Marlowe proclaims his bold programme of reform:
“From the 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.”
Thus he announces that he will break the conventions in two important directions: “With the jigging veins of rhymesters are contrasted the Scythian’s ‘high astounding terms’, while his heroic exploits are similarly set off against the mere ‘conceits of clownage.’ These bold reforms, in simple language, are in the direction of versification and subject-matter. He boldly adopted for use in the popular drama the blank verse, so long used by his contemporaries only for dramas on the classical model. He was the first to feel rightly that for adequate dramatic expression in serious subjects the vehicle of rhymed lines and stanzas was ridiculously inadequate. Some of his contemporaries had indeed used the blank verse in their tragedies of the Senecan school; but these dramas were meant for scholars only and courtly audiences. “To dissever it from these associations/and submit it on the boards of the public theaters to the rough-and ready verdict of the groundlings, might well have seemed a hazardous experiment. Yet it received instant success. Similarly, in subject- matter the almost farcical, or weakly sentimental themes which went by the name of comedy were replaced by themes which almost burst with passion and high feelings. It is true that Marlowe could contribute almost nothing to the genuinely comic side of the drama, nor to the grace and loveliness of prose dialogue. But he gave strength, force and vigour to the drama which once for all turned its career for both greatness and stability. He lifted the drama into the sphere of high literature. The English stage in his time was in great need of intensity. Grace, sentiment, wit, fancy had been communicated to the English drama by various talents of the age, communicated with reckless and very often ridiculous excess; but the vigour, dash and animation which only can make a drama as a whole a living, pulsating expression of life were the gifts of Marlowe alone. The wits of the age, even some of his close collaborators might mock at his ‘spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllable’ or at his ‘bragging blank verse’; serious, critical-minded dramatic talents might find fault with his extravagant one-man show, but all the same they all had to fall in line with him to give their own productions life and vigour.”
The Gift of Stability and Direction
Before the year 1587 in which Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part I was put upon the stage and the young dramatist rose suddenly to giddy heights of fame and popularity, English drama was in a chaotic condition—groping its way to a much-desired stability but pulled in different directions. “It is not necessary”, as Boas pointedly remarks, “to deprecate the tentative efforts of earlier Elizabethan playwrights in order to recognise that they had failed to point with certainty to a glorious dramatic future.” There were the learned, scholarly playwrights writing for the Court, or the Inns of Court, or the Universities. These neo-classicists insisted on form, decorum and dignity even with artificiality and rigidity. On the other hand, there were popular playwrights holding to the native tradition of formlessness but giving much of vivacity and vigour to the presentation. Senecan models in tragedy and imitations of Terence and Plautus in comedy, both in the courtly dramas and those for the public stage, confused the issue. As medium of expression, rhymed lines and stanzas of various sorts still held their away, though the first blank verse tragedy had been produced as early as 1562 and prose had occasionally been used in some comedies. “The age, however”, as Nicoll remarks, “obviously wished for no trammels upon the theatre. Freedom, action, passion, the audiences desired, and these they found in the work of the romantic playwrights.” And Marlowe, when he first appeared on the stage more than fulfilled this popular desire for “freedom, action, passion.” His successive dramas were wonderful, almost overwhelming, embodiments of the spirit of Renaissance. All the four plays from his pen were indeed exemplary of the tragic art in dramatic poetry. But they were enough to give a permanence and stability to the drama. The comedic art was being perfected by other masters of the age, particularly by Greene and Lyly. It was passion, vigour and poetry that the populace thirsted for and these were exactly the gifts that Marlowe brought to the drama.
Gift to Poetry and Lyricism
Marlowe was a born poet, the greatest poet and lyricist of the Renaissance before Shakespeare. Marlowe not only reformed the dramatic blank verse—by infusing variety, vigour and spontaneous flow and cadence—but made it the aptest vehicle for the poetry of high passion and imagination. He breathed into the blank verse the animation and life-spirit of high lyricism. It has been truly remarked that “all his heroes are essentially poets in their nature, for they are all reflections of Marlowe’s personality.” Imbued with the Renaissance thirst for unlimitable power, infinite knowledge and unbounded ambition without any moral inhibition, Marlowe communicated his spirit to the heroes of his dramas. Tamburlaine speaks high poetry of unquenchable aspirations in the most melodious resounding verses; he gives clear utterance in poetry to Marlowe’s love of the impossible. So also Barabas in The Jew of Malta speaks in high poetry of his ambition for boundless wealth not for power which wealth brings but for the joy of the greediness in wealth. Faustus is shaped in a similar mould: “With him the passion takes the form of a desire to conquer the secret of nature but his words have the glow of enthusiastic rapture. Even Mortimer in Edward II and Edward himself are poets, given as they are the dreams of the endless joy of living a life of ease, splendour and power. Marlowe is not only a poet but a poet of passion. Tamburlaine’s raptures over the beauty of his wife Zenocrate at her dying moments, Faustus’s rhapsody over Helen’s beauty, Edward’s passionately pathetic self-pity-all these gave to the English dramatic verse the passion and emotion which go with high poetry. In this connection, Schelling’s remark is worth quoting: “Marlowe gave the drama passion and not poetry; and poetry was his most precious gift. Shakespeare would have never been Shakespeare had Marlowe never written or lived. He might not have been altogether the Shakespeare we know.
Gift of Individuality: Machiavellian Ideal
Marlowe had not indeed the dramatic capacity of presenting a character by the portrayal of its development through clash and conflict. It may be said with reasonable justification that each of his four great dramas centres round a single character of the superbly heroic type and it is not all mobile. It is ready-made from the beginning and ends as it began. The whole theme only illustrates the ready-made character. This is certainly a defect in a master dramatist. But in the case of Marlowe as a pioneer in that age of experiment it is a credit that he gave a superb individuality to his characters,—the heroes of his tragedies. In fact, Marlowe was too much under the influence of the Renaissance conception of greatness as taught by the great Machiavelli. On this point we can do nothing better than quote at some length from the illuminating observation of A. Nicoll: “We may note the influence of Machiavelli…..Most heard of him by report, and took him as a symbol of all that was atheistical, immoral and corrupt. His Prince is merely a summing up of regular Renaissance ideals of conduct; it is the culmination of that individualism which marks off the newly awakened Europe from the anonymity and communal ideals of the Middle Ages. Machiavelli had made a god of virtue, that quality in man which drives him to find free and full expression of his own thought and emotions. It is this virtue on which Marlowe has seized, not without some tremors of conscience in spite of his liberated mind. So he presents his heroes, Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus and Barabas, over-riding the ordinary moral codes of their times in order to find the complete realisation of their particular ideals; in the Jew of Malta he brings Machiavelli forward in person to speak the prologue to his tragedy:
“I count Religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.”
One important result of this insistence upon virtue must be noted. Call it what we please, virtue, ambition, will, tends to overlook class, and accordingly the dramas of Marlowe break away slightly from the more ancient medieval plan. For the Middle Ages tragedy was a thing of princes only; for Marlowe it was a thing of individual heroes. Thus his Tamburlaine, King though he may be by the end of the drama, is born a peasant. The Jew is but a Mediterranean money-lender, and Faustus an ordinary German doctor and an alchemist. The medieval conception of the royalty of tragedy is here supplanted by the Renaissance ideal of individual worth. It is the union of the two which gives us the majesty of Macbeth and Lear. This is one of Marlowe’s most outstanding contributions to the development of a truly august type of English tragedy. His main conception of serious drama—Renaissance virtue battling on to success and then falling unconquered before fate—is at the root of all the great seventeenth century tragic activity; only Shakespeare made his figures more human and stressed more on the fatal flaw in the greatness of their characters.
Marlowe’s Gift to the Historical Drama
Edward II coming last in the series of Marlowe’s major dramatic productions marks a development in several aspects. It is the best of the English chronicle plays of the time. Though there is a wide gap between it and even the immature chronicle plays of Shakespeare like Richard III and Richard II, yet it marks a development in Marlowe’s power of characterization. The central character of the unfortunate King is not very attractive but is so portrayed that the pathos of his end is calculated to draw the sympathy of the audience. The subordinate characters are sketched with some individualities and there is an attempt, not unsuccessful, of evolving something like a plot. “Edward II, in the matter of plot and construction, stands on a different level from any of the author’s previous works. Instead of being a collection of unconnected episodes, or the tantalisingly imperfect fulfilment of a great design, it is a complex and organic whole, working up by natural stages to a singularly powerful climax. In style also, from the dramatic point of view, it marks an advance. The ‘high astounding terms’ of the earlier period have almost entirely disappeared, though there is still a plentiful supply of the unreasonable classical allusions which had so irresistible a fascination for Elizabethan playwrights. Otherwise the language is of chastened simplicity, verging at times on baldness but full, for the most part, of silvery charm and grace…..But it is above all in the power of characterisation that the play shows most distinctive evidence of growth. Marlowe’s earlier dramas are dominated by the commanding figure of the hero, which overshadows and dwarfs the other personages, robbing them of all interest on their own account. (In Edward II this fault is avoided, and while the King stands clearly out as the central character, we have other well-defined types in Gaveston and Mortimer, to whom, though of inferior interest, may be added the young Spenser and the Queen.”
Marlowe: The Poet of Passion
Marlowe is undoubtedly the poet of passion par excellence. It is passion that heaves in his poetry at every turn. Yet it has other striking characteristics too, especially three marked ones—pictorial quality, ecstatic quality and vitalising energy. The pictorial richness of Marlowe’s poetry reminds us of the intense and quivering colour effects that we come across in the poetry of Keats. Lines like these:
The pavement underneath thy chariot wheels
Turkey carpet shall be covered.
And cloth of arras hung about the walls;
Fit objects for thy princely eye to pierce,
A hundred bessoes clothed in crimson silk,
Shall ride before thee on Barbarian steeds,
And when thou goest a golden canopy
Enchas’d with precious stones…..
which are powdered over, as it were, with glittering silver and gold and scarlet, are akin to the rich-hued and picturesque veined passages in The Eve of St. Agnes. As Frederick Boas observes: “Never again, till the coming of Keats, did the sensuous imagination that glories in the lust of the eye and the pride of life speak in tones so full and rich.” The ecstatic quality is well exemplified in Faustus’s apostrophe—
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss;
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies
Come, Helen, come give me my soul again
Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips;
And all is dross that is not Helen
and in the speech of Barabas on regaining his lost treasure—
                O my girl,
My gold, my fortune, my felicity,
Strength to my soul, death to mine enemy;
Welcome the first beginner of my bliss;
O Abigail, Abigail, that I had thee here too
Then my desires were fully satisfied;
But I will practise thy enlargement thence;
O girl: O gold: O beauty; O my bliss;
The ecstatic quality of Marlowe’s poetry reveals his easily excitable moods which are moved to exuberant expression by certain appeals to the imagination such as the appeal to beauty. Marlowe, the wistful visionary that always followed the trail of adventure in life as well as in literature, lived in a self-wrought world of beauty and wonder. The vitalising energy of Marlowe’s poetry is evident in all his four great tragedies—Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus. The Jew of Malta and Edward II. It is this pervading energy that redeems these plays from many an absurdity and endows them with compelling beauty and elevating power. Not satisfied with vague descriptions, Marlowe often actualises his theme—as in the pageant of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in Dr. Faustus. Such a thing is native to Marlowe’s genius and is the out flowing of a virile and vital imagination. It is this vitalising energy that imparts to the young poet’s eloquence a vibrant music that compels the reader’s admiration.

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