1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Christopher Marlowe

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:171-74.



The greatest of Shakspeare's precursors in the drama was CHRISTOPHER MARLOW — a fiery imaginative spirit, who first imparted consistent character and energy to the stage, in connexion with a finely modulated and varied blank verse. Marlow is supposed to have been born about the year 1562, and is said to have been the son of a shoemaker at Canterbury. He had a learned education, and took the degree of MA. at Bennet college, Cambridge, in 1587. Previous to this, he had written his tragedy of Tamburlaine the Great, which was successfully brought out on the stage, and long continued a favourite. Shakspeare makes ancient Pistol quote, in ridicule, part of this play — "Holla, ye pamper'd jades of Asia," &c. But, amidst the rant and fustian of "Tamburlaine," there are passages of great beauty and wild grandeur, and the versification justifies the compliment afterwards paid by Ben Jonson, in the words, "Marlow's mighty line." His high-sounding blank verse is one of his most characteristic features. Marlow now commenced the profession of an actor; but if we are to credit a contemporary ballad, he was soon incapacitated for the stage by breaking his leg "in one lewd scene." His second play, the Life and Death of Dr Faustus, exhibits a far wider range of dramatic power than his first tragedy. The hero studies necromancy, and makes a solemn disposal of his soul to Lucifer, on condition of having a familiar spirit at his command, and unlimited enjoyment for twenty-four years; during which period Faustus visits different countries, "calls up spirits from the vasty deep," and revels in luxury and splendour. At length the time expires, the bond becomes due, and a party of evil spirits enter, amidst thunder and lightning, to claim his forfeited life and person. Such a plot afforded scope for deep passion and variety of adventure, and Marlow has constructed from it a powerful though irregular play. Scenes and passages of terrific grandeur, and the most thrilling agony, are intermixed with low humour and preternatural machinery, often ludicrous and grotesque. The ambition of Faustus is a sensual, not a lofty ambition. A feeling of curiosity and wonder is excited by his necromancy and his strange compact with Lucifer; but we do not fairly sympathise with him till all his disguises are stripped off, and his meretricious splendour is succeeded by horror and despair. Then, when he stands on time brink of everlasting ruin, waiting for the fatal moment, imploring, yet distrusting repentance, a scene of enchanting interest, fervid passion, and overwhelming pathos carries captive the sternest heart, and proclaims the full triumph of the tragic poet....

Before 1593, Marlow produced three other dramas, the Jew of Malta, the Massacre at Paris, and a historical play, Edward the Second. The more malignant passions of the human breast have rarely been represented with such force as they are in the Jew....

"Edward the Second" is considered as superior to the two plays mentioned in connexion with it: it is a noble drama, with ably-drawn characters and splendid scenes. Another tragedy, Lust's Dominion, was published long after Marlow's death, with his name as author on the title page. Mr. Collier has shown that this play, as it was then printed, was a much later production, and was probably written by Dekker and others. It contains passages and characters, however, which have the impress of Marlow's genius, and we think he must have written the original outline. Great uncertainty hangs over many of the old dramas, from the common practice of managers of theatres employing different authors, at subsequent periods, to furnish additional matter for established plays. Even Faust us was dressed up in this manner : in 1597 (four years after Marlow's death), Dekker was paid 20s. for making additions to this tragedy; and in other five years Birde and Rowley were paid £4 for further additions to it. Another source of uncertainty as to the paternity of old plays, was the unscrupulous manner in which booksellers appropriated any popular name of the day, and affixed it to their publications. In addition to the above dramatic productions, Marlow assisted Nash in the tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and translated part of hero and Leander (afterwards completed by Chapman), and the Elegies of Ovid; the latter was so licentious as to be burned by order of the Archbishop of Canterbury, yet they were often reprinted in defiance of the ecclesiastical interdict. Poor Marlow lived, as he wrote, wildly: he was accused of entertaining atheistical opinions, but there is no trace of this in his plays. He came to an early and singularly unhappy end. He was attached to a lady, who favoured another lover; Marlow found them in company one day, and in a frenzy of rage attempted to stab the man with his dagger. His antagonist seized him by the wrist, and turned the dagger, so that it entered Marlow's own head, "in such sort," says Anthony Wood, "that, notwithstanding all the means of surgery that could be brought, he shortly after died of his wound." Some of the accounts represent the poet's rival as a mere "serving man," the female a courtesan, and the scene of the fatal struggle a house of ill-fame. The old ballad to which we have alluded thus describes the affair:

His lust was lawless as his life,
And brought about his death;
For in a deadly mortal strife,
Striving to stop the breath
Of one who was his rival foe,
With his own dagger slain;
He groan'd, and word spoke never moe,
Pierc'd through the eye and brain.

Thus, condemned by the serious and puritanical, and stained with follies, while his genius was rapidly maturing and developing its magnificent resources, Marlow fell a victim to an obscure and disgraceful brawl. The last words of Greene's address to him a year or two before are somewhat ominous: — "Refuse not (with me) till this last point of extremity; for little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited." The warning was—

Like the sad presaging raven, that tolls
The sick man's passport in her hollow beak,
And in the shadow of the silent night
Doth shake contagion from her sable wings.
Jew of Malta.

Marlow's fatal conflict is supposed to have taken place at Deptford, as he was buried there on the 1st of June 1593. The finest compliment paid to the genius of this unfortunate poet was by his contemporary and fellow-dramatist, Michael Drayton:—

Next Marlow, bathed in the Thespian springs,
Had in him these brave translunary things
That the first poets had: his raptures were
All air and fire, which made his verses clear;
For that fine madness still he did retain,
Which rightly should possess a poet's brain.

We subjoin part of the death-scene of Edward II. in his historical drama, a scene which Charles Lamb says, "moves pity and terror beyond any scene, ancient or modern." It may challenge comparison with Shakspeare's death of Richard II.; but Marlow could not interest us in his hero as the great dramatist does in this gentle Richard.