A master-idealist, Marlowe is one of the foremost representatives of the Elizabethan artistic movement, a writer who lived in and for his art. Possessed by his art rather than holding it in possession, he made his literary work not a mere episode in his life but his very life itself. Revelling in a reckless, quick and passionate Bohemian life, he had yet the strength and the good fortune to stand at the centre of renascents of English national life—a life conscious of a new-found power, a life that galvanized the nation into a living body self-organised around splendid objects of common interest, pride and admiration. Somewhat without balance, immoderate and extravagant, he was yet a great, ardent and aspiring spirit. With a hunger for the unattainable, a thirst for knowledge infinite and a fertile imagination hallowed by its own fiery energy. Disregarding with sublime indifference the grand notoriety of insolent atheism that was heaped upon him by some of his contemporaries on account of his ever-enthusiastic yearning for lawless pleasure and forbidden fruits, Marlowe lived the life of a typical artist, in outlook and utterance. His was the enviable privilege of discerning the authentic gem or art lying concealed in the labyrinthine mass of unmastered possibilities and of perceiving the capacities for noble art inherent in the “Romantic Drama.” It was he and no other who effected a magic transfiguration of dramatic matter and dramatic metre, moulded a new type of heroic and tragic character, designed tragedies on a magnificent scale and elevated them to heights as yet unapprehended in his days made the instrument of language produce rolling thunders and whispering sighs, and draped his plays in the purple robes of his imperial imagination. What wonder then that Marlowe was ‘in that age thought second to none’ and that his name has become ‘Fame’s Marlowe is to be remembered and valued not as a mere impulse-giver and path-finder who paved the way for the typical English tragedy, not merely as the wielder of blank verse as a noble poetic instrument, a master of the ‘mighty line.’ He was an unconscious artist whose mind forever voyaged through strange seas of thought, alone. With a god-like curiosity and daring ebullience worthy of the foremost Elizabethan adventurer, Marlowe sought to conquer Africa from the quadrangle of a Cambridge college. Drawing his inspiration mostly from abstract ideas and not from the concrete characters of men, he longed for spectacular action, titanic passion and the quick march of life. Indubitably born a poet, he was the proud possessor of a magnificent and matchless poetic force. His wonderful freshness, energy and emotion transmuted themselves into raptures—‘all air and fire,’ Having in him ‘those brave translunary things that the first poets had’, he created types of the Lusts unlike others who made types of the Virtues. With his ‘fine madness’, he is an admirable painter of the human passion, of the ‘Impossible Amour’—‘the love or lust of unattainable things: beyond the reach of physical force, of sensual faculty, of mastering will; but not beyond the scope of man’s ever-craving thirst for beauty, power and knowledge.’ Standing ‘upto his chin in the Pierean flood’—he revealed himself as a rapturous lyrist of limitless desire and infinite aspiration.
Silhouetted against the crowded and rather confused literary firmament of the pre-Shakespearean age, Christopher Marlowe shines with singular scintillation. Standing in the shadow of Shakespeare without being overshadowed by him, Marlowe, of all the Elizabethan dramatists, is next only to him in poetical status.
Marlowe appeared differently to different sections of his contemporaries. There were those who regarded him as an individual with violent passions and obstinate questioning, of dangerous opinions and haughty cynicism, as one who took a morbid delight in playing the role of an intrepid iconoclast of cherished idols without offering the solace of any substitute. Others there were who looked upon him as a sort of Lucetius exhorting men to be fearless of fear, to see with unhooded eyes the errors and hypocrisies and the ignorance that is the breeding ground of all sin, as one who was indiscreetly pitiless in his portrayal of these things. Still others admired him as a man of powerful intellect and fertile imagination, of indomitable courage and invincible confidence, as a poet of wonderful vision and voice, of peerless beauty and lustrous intensity and as a supreme master of his own gifted mind, of golden thought and silver speech. To yet others he was the young Apollo of his age and the glorious Titan of the stage.
Marlowe blazed a new trail both in thought and technique, —in matter as well as manner and in its footsteps a new perfection tread. Not his the familiar domain of men’s manners and habits, customs and conventions, but his concern was with the needs and necessities of human souls. Not man’s relation to man but man’s relation to God and to the universe was the theme dear to Marlowe. The element that is eternal in man, the spirit that is significant of man—this element and this spirit which have the potency of arraying themselves against the universe if necessary—these were his sole concern as a playwright. He sought the cause and explanation of that searching-out of man’s spirit towards a truth which can be apprehended but never expounded. And thus he leads us to a realization that dazzles and stupefies by its absoluteness and its finality: ‘Marlowe lost himself as it were, in case less isolated reveries of experiments in the power of the mind.’ Inspired by his own lofty idealism and daring enthusiasm, he was like a hardy explorer voyaging on endless uncharted seas fondly believing in the existence of some yet undiscovered possibility, eagerly hoping to arrive at the white foaming shores of some yet unknown island where he could plant the flag of his unique triumph. He belonged to the race of Admiral Drake and Walter Raleigh.
Marlowe was one who was loved by the gods. Hardly twenty-rune years did he live when he was invited to join the chorus of the inheritors of unfulfilled renown. Had he lived longer he would surely have achieved greater name and fame and proved himself to be a serious rival to Shakespeare. As it is, he remains a poet of fiery promise, but which mere promise excells the achievements of any other but one among the Elizabethan poets. He is the companion and comrade-in-arms of Collins, Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and Rupert Brooke. Like them, he too strove to shatter ‘the dome of many coloured glass’ and catch a glimpse of the ‘white radiance of eternity.’ And as in their case, not so much the possession of the prize as the rapture of the race was his. Maybe Marlowe’s work is fragmentary: may be the expression of some of his ideas is imperfect. Yet the authenticity of his ultimate vision is beyond doubt or dispute. As one Marlowe-admirer has appropriately observed: “Whatever men are preoccupied with the ‘Why?’ rather than the ‘How?’, in whatever periods of history thought turns back to question the nature of man’s being and the part he plays in the universe, there the thought of Marlowe will be found to be at heart of Man’s most vital experience. Whenever fundamental instincts and intuitions have been overlaid by convention, superstition or hypocrisy, until it becomes necessary to question again the purpose of life in order that life may again be sane, there Marlowe’s trenchant and fearless mind will be found warning men ‘not to be afraid of bug bears.’ He is the Lucretius of the English language, and though he does not accompany men closely in their daily lives, as does Shakespeare, his poetry and his aspiration will be heard in times of doubt and confusion, of disillusionment and corruption, when more familiar and better-loved voices are silent.”
Three and a half centuries have not lessened the importance of Marlowe in English drama, nor have they dimmed the glorious lustre that was his in his own day. With everything mighty about him, he shines for us across the span of the centuries in the blaze of his own marvellous gifts. ‘A boy in years, a man in genius, a god in ambition’, Marlowe has carved for himself an abiding niche in the Temple of Fame. And the dear nightingale of his poetry survives still and shall long survive in Apollo’s laurel boughs making music to enchant the ears of man and send his spirit winging into the topless towers of thought.