This article was originally published in A Short History of the Theatre. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 221-2.

Purchase Plays by Christopher Marlowe

EACH one of Christopher Marlowe's plays is, in a sense, a tour de force, a special creation. The Jew of Malta, Dido, and The Massacre of Paris, though abounding in passages of strength yet do not fulfill the requirements the author himself had set up. The Jew, however, was very popular, being performed thirty-six times in four years, which in those days was an unusual record. Marlowe's first and most important service to drama was the improvement of blank verse. Greene had condemned its use as being unscholarly; Sackville and Norton had used it, but were not able to lift it above commonplace. In their work, it usually consisted of isolated lines, one following another, with no grouping according to thought. All the verses were made after one rhythmical pattern, with the same number of feet and the cæsura always in place. Marlowe invented numberless variations while still keeping the satisfying rhythm within a recurring pattern. Sometimes he left a redundant syllable, or left the line one syllable short, or moved the position of the cæsura. He grouped his lines according to the thought and adapted his various rhythms to the ideas. Thus blank verse became a living organism, plastic, brilliant, and finished.

Marlowe's second best gift to drama was his conception of the heroic tragedy built on a grand scale, with the three-fold unity of character, impression, and interest, instead of the artificial unities of time and place. Before his time tragedies were built either according to the loose style of the chronicle, or within the mechanical framework of the Senecan model; but in either case the dramatic unity attained by the Greeks was lacking. Marlowe and Shakespeare, with their disregard of the so-called classic rules, were in fact much nearer the spirit of Aeschylus and Sophocles than the slavish followers of the pseudo-classic schools. Marlowe painted gigantic ambitions, desires for impossible things, longings for a beauty beyond earthly conception, and sovereigns destroyed by the very powers which had raised them to their thrones. Tamburlaine, Faust, Barabbas are the personifications of arrogance, ambition and greed. There is sometimes a touch of the extravagant or bombastic, or even of the puerile in his plays, for he had no sense of humor; nor had he the ability to portray a woman. He wrote no drama on the subject of love. Furthermore, his world is not altogether our world, but a remote field of the imagination. It has been remarked that "in Marlowe's superb verse there is very little to indicate that the writer had ever encountered any human beings." [1] In spite of this, he was great, both as a dramatist and poet. His short life, the haste of his work, the irregularities of his habits -- these things combined to keep him from perfecting the creations of his imagination. Taken together, his plays imposed a standard upon all succeeding theatrical compositions. Before him, in England, there was no play of great importance; but after him, and based upon his work as a model, rose the greatest drama of English history.

Purchase Books about Christopher Marlowe

Search eBay! for Christopher Marlowe collectibles


1 James Branch Cabell, Beyond Life.

Home · Theatre Links · Script Archive · Bookstore · Email · © 2002