Certainly he did very great things for the popular drama of the time which deserve high recognition as his merits; and these merits must be summarised in a few lines before we proceed to point out his drawbacks as a dramatic artist. He reformed and we may say, reshaped the blank verse to be a mighty vehicle of passion and vigorous romanticism, of ambitions, of soaring ideas; he made poetry the hand-maiden of dramatic expression. He gave to each of his dramas the stamp of the great personality of a death-defying hero, ‘single-minded individual’. In Dr. Faustus Marlowe may be said to lay the foundation of the conception of tragedy as due to internal conflict-the conflict being delineated in the struggle within the mind of the chief character. “Faustus, in this respect is unquestionably the greatest tragic figure in sixteenth century literature outside the work of Shakespeare.” In the art of plot construction, characterization and natural evolution, Marlowe gave at least some signs of promising comprehension in his chronicle drama of Edward II. “Whether because Marlowe’s genius had developed or because the exigencies of historical drama obliged him to self-effacement, this play has qualities which are properly dramatic—progress in character-study is also evinced, over a numerous and diversified cast.”
To say that Marlowe was “the most individual, the most talented of the pre-Shakespeareans” does not, of course, mean that his dramatic works taken together had in them the hallmark of perfection.
Let us now come to consider certain drawbacks in the make-up of Marlowe’s temperament as a dramatist, always remembering that these drawbacks perceptible in his plays are mainly of the negative sort and as such they do not minimise the merits by their intrusion as in the case of his less capable contemporaries.
(i) Unimportance of Minor Characters
The inevitable consequence of making the central a colossus representing one great passion is that the other figures lose their individuality—they are almost non-existent. In the words of Nicoll, “all his heroes, by their very greatness, stand alone. We have the feeling that they have no moral force to fight against. They are lonely figures in a world of Lilliputians. This may be, to a certain extent, a characteristic likewise of the Shakespearean tragedy, but always Shakespeare has given more of individuality to his lesser figures than has Marlowe. Horatio, Cassio, Banquo and Kent have independent existence such as Meander and Wagner never could have.”
(ii) Absence of Women
Marlowe’s pre-occupation with the overmastering central character, who is always a male, gives no scope to introduce women. Perhaps there was something in his temperament which made him unable to study women. The gentle grace, feminine loveliness, the warmth of devoted love, the softness and charm of womanly care-all these seem to lie beyond the range of Marlowe’s limited comprehension. While Peele, Greene and Lyly in their romantic comedies or pastoral dramas were holding forth charm and grace of feminine love and devotion, Marlowe’s Zenocrate in Tamburlaine plays a shadowy part; her beauty is celebrated by the mighty Scythian but we have no acquaintance with her personality. So also in The Jew of Malta Abigail remains always in the background. (Only Isabella in Edward II is something of a woman; but her womanliness is less prominent than her part in inflicting the tragic death of her husband). Helen in Dr. Faustus appear only as a vision. The poetry in which the magician turns to her is noble and sublime but there is no touch of her character.
(iii) Disproportion in Dialogue
Still another consequence follows this one in the direction of dialogue. Marlowe’s craze for high-flown, deep-sounding verse and well-turned echoing phrases blinds him to the artistic need of suiting the dialogue to the mouths of different characters. Very often the insignificant, ordinary characters in his plays speak in the high-brow swaggering manner of the main character.
(iv) One-man Show
Each of the three main tragedies of Marlowe Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta and to a great extent his chronicle play of Edward II may be spoken of as a one-man show. The central character of the hero so much dominates the play from beginning to end that his towering personality overshadows everything. “With Marlowe we are in the presence of a distinctly passionate but unbalanced genius, a man lacking the serenity and the calm-eyed power which gave to Shakespeare a large part of his greatness.”
(v) Want of Humour
Another deficiency in Marlowe as a dramatist lies in his utter lack of humour. His plays are too serious; there is no comic relief as there is even in the most serious of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth in the Porter Scene, or Hamlet in the Grave-diggers Scene. The comic scenes in Dr. Faustus are so inapt and incongruous with the tragic sombreness of the main theme that they shock the sense of artistic propriety of even a sympathetic critic of Marlowe like Wynne who is forced to remark, “Marlowe must be blamed for the utter incongruity of so many scenes with high tragedy. The harmony which rules the construction of Tamburlaine, giving it a lofty coherence and consistency, is lamentably absent from Dr. Faustus.”
(vi) Lack of Patriotism
Though Tamburlaine and to some extent Dr. Faustus with their passionate declaiming swelled the English heart with dreams of distant conquests, limitless power and mastery of the world, it is remarkable to note that in none of them, not even in the chronicle play of Edward II, Marlowe breathes any spirit of national patriotism. There is no note of exaltation of England which we find so blatant in Peele’s Arraignment of Paris, as Diana pronounces her eulogy on England and of course, there is nothing of the spirit of patriotism which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of John of Gaunt in Richard II.