It was in the fifteenth century that tragedy came to English dramatic field. This was due to the Revival of Learning in Europe commonly referred to as the Renaissance and the translation of great Italian tragedies. Italian Renaissance exercised a vital influence on the development of English Drama. The first English tragedy was Gorboduc (1565) 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 qualities such as long speeches, ghosts, gruesome murders and talks and talks were very much there. The tragedies that followed Seneca had the same qualities and properties. It required the mighty efforts of a genius to free the Elizabethan Drama from the worst features of the Senecan tragedies and it was Christopher Marlowe who has achieved this foundation for the realm of English Dramatic Literature. There are umpteen characteristic of Marlovian tragedies. In discussing Marlowe, we can point out how he formulated the English Drama and especially Tragedy which was improved upon and perfected by a genius like Shakespeare who owes Marlowe for all his greatness and grandeur. Because had there been no Marlowe, there would have been no Shakespeare. It is also due to Marlowe that English Drama for the first time was bestirred with the vigorous poetry and passion. He has rightly been called the Morning Star of English Drama.
Tragedy before Marlow: Swinburne’s remarks, “Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was paved for Shakespeare.” With the advent of Marlowe, Miracle and Morality plays vanished. He brought Drama out of the old rut of street presentation and made it a perfect art and a thing of beauty. After the Reformation, the Mystery and Morality plays were disliked by the public at large until the advent of University Wits the greatest of whom was Marlowe.
Marlow’s Great Tragic Heroes: The first great thing done by Marlowe was to break away from the medieval conception of Tragedy. The Medieval Drama was a game of the princes and imperial classes – the kings and Queens and their rise an fall. But it was left to Marlowe to evolve and create the real tragic hero. All of his tragic heroes are of humble parentage, Tamburlaine, Barabas in the Jew of Malta and Faustus, but they are endowed with great tragic and heroic qualities. His tragedy is a tragedy of one man – his rise and fall, his fate and actions and finally his death for his own failings and incapacities. All the other characters fade into insignificance besides the towering personality and the glory and grandeur of the tragic hero. Even various incidents 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 gain the deity and His Jew of Malta discards all sense of human values with his blind aspirations. What Marlowe depicts and dramatizes is that all his mighty and towering heroes with all their sky-high designs and aspirations ultimately fall into failure and doom exhibiting their tragic and doomed end. Herein lies the greatness of Marlowe.
Working of a passion: We have previously studied that Marlowe’s heroes are dominated by the inordinate desires and passions. These passions take the form of wealth, spirit of learning, high power. Through these, Marlowe imparts vehemence, fire and force in the drama. But in this way, we may trace the distinct influence of Machiavelli on Marlowe. Marlowe must have read his famous book, The Prince and derived this idea of ambition and spirit from him. Marlowe discarded the old concept of tragedy as decent from greatness to misery and supplanted it greatness by the greatness of individual worth. His heroes truly reflect the new Spirit of Learning because he himself was the product of Renaissance.
The Inner Conflict: Another great achievement of Marlowe was to introduce the element of conflict in the tragic hero especially in Dr. Faustus and Edward II. The conflict may be on the physical or spiritual plane. The spiritual and 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 the realm of England’s dramatic literature, Dr. Faustus may be reckoned the first spiritual tragedy or the tragedy of the soul. In this epoch-making drama, true and deep moral agonies and painful spiritual conflict has been superbly laid bare before us by Marlowe. Like the old Greek heroes, Marlovian Heroes are not helpless puppets in the hands of Fate and they are never destined by gods. They have free thinking of religion and carve their way themselves. The tragic end they meet is caused by the tragic flaw in their personalities and they achieve this end through their actions. This is the greatest contribution of Marlowe to the English Drama.
Moral Conception: It was Marlowe who first discarded the medieval conception of tragedy as it was distinctly a moral one. In old Morality Plays, the purpose was to simply inculcate a moral lesson by showing the fall of the hero. There is no such thing in Marlovian plays. The main interest centers on the sky-touching personality of the heroes with their tremendous efforts to attain the limit and their rise and fall in their struggle.
Blank Verse: 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 the old days. In fact, the whole of Elizabethan Drama was enliven by a new poetic grandeur.
Seriousness and Concentration: Another notable characteristic of Marlowe’s work is seriousness and concentration on the theme and there is complete lack of humor. According to many critics, the clownish scenes and the other absurdities were interpolated by the later authors. There are also no women characters in Marlowe’s works, this is also a typical quality of his. The episodes of Helen in Dr. Faustus and other female figures in other plays are only shadows or figure-heads. Most of these features may also be regarded as the drawbacks, however; it was Marlowe’s distinct way of writing which is typical of him. Or perhaps, for these reasons, he couldn’t reach the towering high plane of fame as did Shakespeare. But we must remember that he was a pioneer and path-finder. He was the Columbus of a new literary World in England. It is due to Marlowe that we have Shakespeare whom we know and read, but had Marlowe not written such these works, there would have been Shakespeare, but no the one we know today. Shakespeare, without him, would have been only another writer.