Tragedy Before Marlowe
We may begin by quoting Swinburne’s very just and relevant remarks regarding Marlowe: “Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared, the paths were made straight, for Shakespeare.”
Gone were the great days of Miracle and Mystery plays. After the Reformation of Movement Mysteries and Moralities lost all their influence on the audience; they were rather disliked by the people because of their link and association with old Church. In response to public demand came the Interlude with its fun and frolics and the masques and Pageants with their costume displays gorgeous colours. Hence, comedy captured the mind of the English people. But everything was in a chaotic and formless state before the advent of University Wits the greatest among whom was Marlowe.
It was in the fifteenth century that tragedy came to English dramatic field. And this was due to the influence of the Revival of Learning and the translation of great Italian tragedies of Seneca. In fact Italian Renaissance had a tremendous influence upon the development of the English drama. And the first English tragedy was Gorboduc (1562) by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. In 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 gruesome murders, were very much there. Tragedies that followed Gorboduc had the same Senecan characteristics. It required the mighty efforts of a great genius to free the Elizabethan drama from the worst features of the Senecan tragedy. And it was Christopher Marlowe who is credited with this outstanding achievement in the realm of England’s dramatic literature. He threw the gauntlet when he penned these forceful lines in the Prologue to his first drama Tamburlaine:
“From 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 astounging terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.”
We may now discuss about the various characteristics of Marlovian 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 Hero
The first great thing done by Marlowe was to break away from the medieval conception of tragedy, as in medieval drama, tragedy was a thing of the princes only. It dealt with the rise and fall of kings or royal personalities. But it was left to Marlowe to evolve and 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 one man-the rise, fall and death of the hero. All other characters of a Marlovian drama pale into insignificance beside the towering personality and the glory and grandeur of the tragic hero. Even various incidents of the drama revolve round the hero. 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 absolutely discards all sense of human values with his blind and inordinate aspiration towards wealth as an ultimate end. But what Marlowe really depicts and dramatises with thoroughness is that all his mighty heroes with all their sky-kicking aspirations find that the flush of their temporary success leads to ultimate failure bringing about their tragic and terrible end. Herein lies the greatness of Marlowe.
Working of a Passion
We have just seen that Marlowe’s heroes are dominated by some inordinate ambition or passion-may be a supreme lust for power, wealth or knowledge. And kindling such passion in their souls Marlowe imparted great vehemence and force in his drama. But in this we may trace the distinct influence of Machiavelli on Marlowe. Marlowe must have read his far-famed book The Prince and derived this idea of ambition from him. In his book Machiavelli praised ambition as the only desirable virtue in a prince and denied all morality except that morality which operated for the good of the individual. Thus, we find all his heroes dominated by inordinate ambition discarding all moral codes and plunging headlong to achieve their end. Such intense passion and pitiless struggle with super-human energy, to achieve their end makes Marlowe’s tragic heroes great indeed and adds glory and grandeur to their personality. Thus, Marlowe discarded the old conception of tragedy as descent from greatness to misery and supplanted it by the greatness of individual worth. His heroes believing that the ecstasy of earthly gain and glory is its own reward also proclaimed the true Renaissance outlook.
Another great achievement of Marlowe was to introduce the element of conflict, specially inner struggle in two of his great tragedies—“Doctor Faustus” and “Edward II.” Conflict may be on physical as well as on spiritual plane. The spiritual or moral conflict takes place in the heart of man and this is of much greater-significance and much more poignant than the former. And a great tragedy most powerfully reveals the emotional conflict or moral agony of the mighty hero. In this respect, in the realm of England’s dramatic literature Doctor Faustus may be reckoned as the first great spiritual tragedy or tragedy of the soul. In this epoch-making drama the deep moral agony and the painful spiritual conflict has been superbly laid bare before us by Marlowe. And this inner conflict reveals the real significance of character as the main-stay of a great tragedy. Like the heroes of ancient tragedy, Marlowe’s heroes are not helpless puppets in the hands of blind fate. The tragic flaw was in their character and the tragic action also issued out of their characters. This was really Marlowe’s greatest contribution to English tragedy.
Another great achievement of Marlowe was to introduce a new type of blank verse in his tragedies. A new spirit of poetry was breathed into the artificial and monotonous verse of old plays. In fact, the whole of the Renaissance drama was enlivened by a new poetic grandeur.
It was Marlowe who first discarded the medieval conception of tragedy as it was distinctly a moral one. In those dramas the aim was always to inculcate some moral lesson by showing the fall of hero into adversity. There is no such intrusive morality in Marlowe’s plays. The main interest in Marlovian drama centres on the towering personality of the heroes -with their tremendous rise and tragic fall.
Some Other Features
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 Doctors Faustus are nothing but later interpolations. The women characters are also conspicuous by their absence. Zenocrate in Tambulaine, the Duchess and Helen in Doctor Faustus and Abigail in the Jew of Malta are either figureheads or spirits or shadows. As regards plot-structure, Marlowe followed the old chronicle tradition of separate episodes just loosely knit together in his Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus. Only in the Jew of Malta and specially in Edward II he first attempted a regular plot and succeeded to some extent in the former and to a greater extent in the latter. Most of the above features may also be treated as Marlowe’s drawbacks as a dramatist; and probably due to these limitations Marlowe could not succeed in reaching the loftiest summits of the tragic art. But we must remember he was pioneer and a path-finder; and what he did was really magnificent and he is justly regarded as the father of English tragedy, as the ‘morning star of Elizabethan drama.’ He was really ‘the Columbus of the new literary world.’ 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.”