THE LIFE AND WORK OF CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE
By: William Lyon Phelps
|The following article was originally published in Christopher Marlowe. William Lyon Phelps. New York: American Book Company, 1912.
Biographical accounts of Christopher Marlowe resemble those of all other Elizabethan dramatists in containing two grains of fact in a bushel of conjecture. Had Ben Jonson's library not been burned, or had Thomas Heywood spent the time on his projected Lives of the Poets that he squandered on the Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels, we should probably know for certain many things that remain shrouded in complete darkness. Nothing in literary history is more depressing to contemplate than the misdirected energy of Shakespeare's contemporaries; they produced huge folios on impossible themes. Had any one of them spent a half-holiday, during their busy years of quill-driving, in narrating the simple facts of Shakespeare's career, those few sheets would have outweighed in interest for us tons of the controversial, scholastic, and theological stuff that they built with so much toil. Heywood's alert and inquisitive mind seems to have had some notion of the future importance of such a book, for he said positively that it was his intention to produce a biographical history of the poets, ancient and modern, including all his contemporaries. But although he wrote over two hundred plays, and many other volumes, this particular one became valuable only as a paving-stone in an oft-mentioned place.
Of the actual facts in Marlowe's life we know little except that he was born in Canterbury in February, 1564, that he studied at Cambridge University (if the "Marlin" and "Chrof. Marlen" on the books there be the dramatist), and that he was killed by a person named Francis Archer, and buried at Deptford, June 1st, 1593. We cannot even prove that he wrote Tamburlaine; the external evidence is astonishingly small. We have to assume it on the basis of a variety of contemporary references. We do not know whether or not he wrote any part of the early historical plays usually included in Shakespeare's works. We can form no idea of how many interpolations there may have been in the four plays on which his fame as a dramatist rests. Nor do we know for certain when a single one of these four dramas was composed or first acted; so that all the vast theories that have been erected on their chronological place in the Elizabethan drama rest upon guess-work.
Besides the four plays previously mentioned, two others bearing Marlowe's name may receive passing mention, though as pieces of literature they are unimportant. On January 3rd, 1593, while Marlowe was still living, The Massacre at Paris was put on the boards; this was published somewhat later, but there being no date on the title-page of what is apparently the earliest edition, the year of its first appearance in print is not known. This title-page, however, bears the legend, "Written by Christopher Marlowe." That is the only line in the whole volume of any real interest. Another play, The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, was published in quarto form as early as 1594, and on the title-page appeared "Written by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, Gent." This drama contains some verses that seem like faint echoes of the mighty line; but it also includes such gems of poetry as,
"Gentle Achates, reach the tinder-box,"
which we may hope supplied some of the fire lacking in the verse.
Marlowe wrote narrative and lyric poetry as well as dramatic. His translations from the Latin are worthless; but his splendid fragment, Hero and Leander (entered on the Stationer's Books, September 28th, 1593, and published in 1598), indicates a high order of creative genius. It is one of the most notable expressions of the Pagan Renaissance in England. The dramatist Chapman completed it, and although his part of the work is much finer than ordinary post mortem conclusions, it naturally suffers by comparison with the earlier portion. Out of the thousands of beautiful lyrical poems produced by the Elizabethans, Marlowe's exquisite Passionate Shepherd to His Love, commencing,
"Come live with me, and be my love,"
is one of the very best. The thrilling music of those spacious times is enchantingly heard in the splendid line,
"Melodious birds sing madrigals."
Although the author of Tamburlaine the Great must apparently share with Thomas Kyd some of the glory of discovering the possibilities of dramatic blank verse and of founding the English romantic drama, still the appearance of this play is one of the most important events in the literary history of the English-speaking race. It is not going too far to say that "it worked a revolution in English dramatic art." The irrepressible conflict between the rules of the classicists and the freedom of the romanticists was permanently settled by Tamburlaine. He conquered the Elizabethan stage as in real life he conquered the world. The authority of Seneca, the learning of Sir Philip Sidney and his friends, the precedent of Gorboduc, were all overthrown by the colossal figure of the barbarian chieftan and the glorious poetry he uttered. At one blow the shackles of pseudo-classicism and vain pedantry were struck off; it took a Samson to do it, but he was at hand. It is within the limits of truth to say that the course of Elizabethan drama, the greatest part of the greatest period of the greatest literature in the world, was determined more by Tamburlaine than by any other single cause. And, unlike most literary beginnings, which are unconscious, the author of Tamburlaine was himself aware of the importance of his achievement--he knew what he was about. Like Milton in the Preface to Paradise Lost, like Jonson in the Prologue to Every Man in his Humour, like Victor Hugo in Cromwell and Hernani, the poet appeared with a definite program. Shakespeare was no innovator; he was content to do everything better than anybody else, and let his creations speak for themselves. Not so the maker of Tamburlaine. His prologue is a shout of defiance.
- "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 astounding terms,
- And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
- View but his picture in this tragic glass,
- And then applaud his fortune as you please."
Here is a definite and uncompromising attack on rhyme as a vehicle of dramatic expression: a crack of the whip at professional buffoonery, so dear to Elizabethan spectators and so despised by the poets; and a contemptuous blow in the face to the public, whose attitude toward the piece was indifferent to the author, for it was written to please no one but himself.
Courage and conviction, backed by genius, had their natural reward. The first matinée of Tamburlaine was an epoch-making day. The character of the Scourge of God, as portrayed by the great actor Edward Alleyn, himself a man of colossal size and great histrionic ability, fairly dazzled the Elizabethans. We must always remember that people then went to the theatre not to see, but to hear; stage scenery and settings were scanty; the play was the thing. Mouthed in sonorous Elizabethan fashion, this new and magnificent blank verse must have charmed and electrified the Elizabethans like marvellous music.
Blank verse had been introduced into English poetry by the Earl of Surrey, who, about the middle of the sixteenth century, translated two books of the Aeneid in this measure. But Surrey's style was naturally rough and halting; and a perusal of his work gives little idea of what possibilities lay in this instrument. The stiff Senecan tragedy Gorboduc (acted about 1561) was written in blank verse of monotonous rigidity; it chilled rather than charmed. The playwrights who immediately preceded Marlowe failed in one thing in which he most emphatically succeeded; namely, expression. They could conceive dramatic situations, but the language accompanying the supreme moment was usually entirely inadequate, and often pitiably weak. Marlowe's characters and events required a "great and thundering speech"; and, needless to say, it was plentifully supplied. It thundered, indeed, so loudly that some contemporaries laughed it to scorn, but their laughter has the discordant tone of envy rather than the ring of sincerity. In the preface to Greene's Menaphon, Nash remarked: "Idiote art-masters, that intrude themselves to our eares as the alcumists of eloquence; who (mounted on the stage of arrogance) think to outbraue better pens with the swelling bombast of a bragging blanke verse." And again, he alludes to what he calls "the spacious volubilitie of a drumming decasillabon." Greene, who sneered at Marlowe as a "cobler's eldest sonne," said with swelling blank verse we should not dare "God out of heauen with that atheist Tamburlan." Ben Jonson said the play had nothing in it "but the scenical strutting and furious vociferation to warrant [it] to the ignorant gapers."
Tamburlaine was peculiarly Elizabethan in tone, and it is not at all surprising to find that in Restoration days it had passed almost into oblivion. Charles Saunders, in a preface to his play Tamerlane the Great in 1681, wrote: "It hath been told me there is a Cockpit play going under the name of The Scythian Shepherd or Tamberlain the Great, which how good it is any one may judge by its obscurity, being a thing, not a bookseller in London, or scarce the players themselves who acted it formerly, cow'd call to remembrance."
Tamburlaine was a real character in history, whose actual achievements sound like a wild romance. Timur, called Timur Lenk (that is, Timur the Lame), Tamerlane, or Tamburlaine, was an Asiatic Napoleon of the fourteenth century. He was born in 1333 in Central Asia, and for some time was merely the chief of a petty tribe. But he finally overran and subdued an enormous stretch of territory, extending from the Chinese Wall to the Mediterranean Sea, and from Siberia to the Ganges. His cruelty was as notable as his genius, though not so uncommon. He is said to have build a pyramid constructed entirely of the heads of his foes. He died in 1405, and his empire went to pieces. In 1543 a Spanish biography of him appeared at Seville, composed by Pedro Mexia. This book had great vogue, and was translated into various European languages. The English version was printed in 1571, and it is extremely probable that it is the chief source of the drama Tamburlaine. The details are largely the same; the cage, the crumbs of bread, the scraps of meat, and the title, Scourge of God are all in the original.
It is difficult to speak calmly of this tremendous ten-act tragedy. If its author exceeded all bounds of restraint, the critics from that day to this have unconsciously followed his example. To some it is wisdom, to others foolishness; but both those who condemn and those who praise have drawn heavily on their stock of adjectives. Lamb did not take it seriously; but Swinburne in writing of it had one of his frequent fits of ecstasy. The play of course shows no regard for dramatic structure. There is no development, either of plot or of character; there might as well have been a hundred acts as ten. As some one has said of Hauptmann, the play does not end, it quits.
But the salient virtue of this drama, apart from its superb diction, is that we have, for the first time in English tragedy, one grand, consistent, unforgettable character. We do not ask of romantic heroes, either in Cooper or in Shakespeare, that they shall resemble actual life. All we demand is that they make a permanent impression on the imagination. This Tamburlaine assuredly does. No one who has ever once read the play can by any possibility forget the protagonist. He is the incarnation of the spirit of aspiration--the spirit of Christopher Marlowe, and the spirit of the Elizabethan age. He revels in the intoxication of boundless power. His swelling confidence hypnotizes his friends, and paralyses his enemies. His most bitter foes feel the resistless fascination of the man. Some of the best things said about him are uttered by his antagonists. Tamburlaine trusts no earthly or divine agent; his God is himself.
His passionate love for Zenocrate is perfectly natural, and not in the least inconsistent. His wild pagan nature has its one ideal side--beauty. Of beauty in the abstract he speaks in language too familiar to quote, but which Shelley or Keats might have envied. Now beauty in the concrete, beauty incarnate, appears in the fair person of Zenocrate, and the strong man worships. Their marriage is an ideal union, strength and beauty; and it is easy to understand how Zenocrate falls under the spell of the man's dominant power, and returns his love with constant devotion.
There is no real humour in the drama, but there is terrible irony. Tamburlaine treats his victims as the cat handles the mouse. His mock courtesy is more awful than his positive cruelty. But there is a far deeper irony than this, and it is here that the drama ceases to be merely a resplendent romance; at this point it reaches the very basis of human tragedy, for it represents nothing less than the irony of life. So far as I know, this appears here for the first time in English drama. Some one has defined happiness as "freedom from limitations." Tamburlaine, drunken with success, believes that he has attained this liberty. The death of Zenocrate bewilders as much as it grieves him. And finally he, too, must yield to a foe stronger than himself. The advance of death is a tremendous shock to his aspiring heart; and he realizes, as other conquerors have realized, that instead of controlling fate he is its plaything. After all, he has his tether, and he has reached the end of it. Death is the only "check to egotism."
The passion of this play sweeps the reader along with it now, much as it did in the sixteenth century. Some one has compared the perusal of it to a debauch of mental passion, leaving the reader weak and exhausted. It was written hot from the brain, and is evidently full of those magnificent impromptus so frequent in Shakespeare. The late Richard Holt Hutton used to speak of the "sudden solemnizing power" of Browning--how after a long pedestrian passage, suddenly, without any warning or premonition to the reader, the great poet irresistibly carries us off into the ether. Such power is also peculiarly characteristic of the author of Tamburlaine. In the midst of sheer nonsense or vain bombast comes a passage that salutes our ears with strains divine.
In Elizabethan times, England knew France, Italy, and Spain very well. But Germany was an undiscovered country. The English of 1540 and the English of 1590 looked at Germany from widely different view-points. In the early part of the century, the great German name was Luther, and the word Germany signified Protestantism. Then as the influence of the Renaissance grew and prevailed (and it should never be forgotten that the Renaissance was pagan, both in spirit and in power), and as England grew in military greatness and began to triumph on land and sea, Germany rather lost its religious significance, and assumed a new and literary interest unlike anything it had possessed before.
In the latter part of the century, the word that Germany expressed in England was _mystery;_ partly because it was so little known, partly because it had produced famous physicians who had already become legendary figures--Paracelsus, Faust, and others. To the Elizabethan dramatists Germany came to be necessarily associated with magic. For news of alchemy, astrology, sorcery, and all specimens of the black art, Englishmen naturally looked toward Germany. A twilight air of mystery enveloped the region of the Rhine.
Meanwhile England in a certain degree lost the respect she had entertained for German Protestantism, for England was now the great champion of the Reform; and in civilization, colonial reach, political, naval, and military power England felt herself to be superior to her Teutonic neighbour. Travellers, statesmen, and serious students rather neglected Germany, and devoted themselves to France and Italy, where they thought to learn something. Thus actual political events in Germany do not appear in the Elizabethan drama with anything like the frequency of French.
The literary interest taken in Germany was of a different order, and proved to be fruitful. Strange and startling tales came over the North Sea. These were often made into "news-sheets" by enterprising journalists, and in this fashion hawked about the streets of London. Fantastic enough some of these sounded. Mr. Herford gives a number of illustrations:
A Bloody Tragedy Acted by Five Jesuits on Sixteen Young German Frows.
Account of Executions of Two Hundred and Fifty Witches.
Strange Sight of the Sun and the Elements at Basel.
History of a Fasting Girl.
True Discourse of One Stubbe Peter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer, who in Likeness of a Wolf Committed Many Murders.
These are fair examples, and we see that they are somewhat similar to the subjects exploited in the yellow journalism of the twentieth century.
But the single greatest contribution that Germany made to literary England at this time--how great no one then dreamed--was the legend of Faust. Dr. John Faust was a real person, who flourished in the same century as Christopher Marlowe. He was a rather cheap medical quack, who lived about 1530. Strange stories grew about him, and after his death they rolled along with the cumulative power of a snow-ball.
The relation between Marlowe's play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and its original source, is full of unsolved and apparently insoluble problems. The drama was not entered on the Stationers' Books till 1601, and the first known edition is dated 1604, with the inscription on the title-page: "Written by Ch. Marl." But this was eleven years after Marlowe's death. Now the story of Faust had not appeared in book form until 1587, when the so-called Faustbuch, which seems to be the source of Marlowe's play, was published in Germany. The first known edition of an English translation is in 1592, although that date on the title-page may mean 1591. It is assumed that Marlowe's play was acted in 1588 or 1589; but, as a matter of fact, nobody knows. It is also assumed that Marlowe knew no German, and therefore founded his play on the English translation of the Faustbuch; and in order to account for this, many scholars further assume that there was an earlier edition of the English translation, and that this earlier edition appeared shortly after 1587 and is now lost. If we possessed this unknown book, and possessed also some definite knowledge as to the first performance of the English play, we should be within the limits of knowledge instead of in the fog of conjecture. The "earliest known reference" to the presentation of the play occurs in Henslowe, by which we learn that it was acted September 30th, 1594.
But whether the date of the composition of Marlowe's Faustus be 1589 or 1592, he has the credit of having produced the first play in any language on this immortal theme; and the short time (whatever theory we adopt) that intervened between the appearance of the Faustbuch in Germany and the play in England is nothing less than remarkable. Marlowe must have instantly perceived the splendid dramatic possibilities of the story, for he made out of them, notwithstanding all crudities and blemishes, a dramatic masterpiece.
It is not at all fair to Marlowe to compare the imperfect text of his hastily composed Faustus with the Faust of Goethe. The former was written by a young man with scarcely any literary background. Goethe had all the leisure of ease and mature years, with two centuries of culture behind him. After all, Marlowe's character of Faustus is essentially childish; he longs for magic power, like a boy who has read the Arabian Nights. Goethe's hero longs for life, which he missed, life with all its variety of experience. And into his mouth Goethe put the thoughts of one of the greatest literary geniuses that the world has seen since the death of Shakespeare. The qualities that win our admiration and respect for Marlowe's drama are the thrilling intensity of the climax, which in other hands might have been absurd, the wonderful height of pure poetry reached in certain passages, and the extraordinary conception of Mephistopheles. As a boy in Canterbury, Marlowe had in all probability seen representations of the devil on the local stage, for the mysteries and moralities were not extinct; he was of course familiar with the devil of Puritan imagination, and of the conception of hell as a definite place of fire. But instead of making Mephistopheles a grotesque bugaboo, compounded of mirth and horror, he made him a spirit of sombre melancholy, tortured with the eternal memory of his lost estate. And the geography of hell shows that Christopher Marlowe was in advance of his time.
- "Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
- In one self place: for where we are is hell,
- And where hell is there must we ever be."
That the miracles of one age are the commonplaces of another is curiously shown in this drama. The Duchess, on being requested to demand an illustration of the supernatural power of Faustus, asks what to Elizabethan minds was an impossible thing--grapes in January. Mephistopheles is gone only for a moment, and returns with the desired fruit; and in reply to the Duke's amazed inquiry, Faustus explains that although it is winter here it is summer in certain parts of the world, and "by means of a swift spirit" the grapes are brought.
The final awful sililoquy of Faustus and the terrific climax of the play raise a rather interesting question in art. Marlowe's reputation in his own time was that of an atheist, and it is probable that he was a defiant unbeliever. But no Puritan sermon could have exceeded in religious force and effect the depiction of Faustus's fearful struggles with conscience, and the unspeakable horror of his departure. Now, either Marlowe, like Greene, felt occasional pangs of remorse (of which, however, there is no other evidence than this play) and the last soliloquy came from his own terror-stricken heart, or his artistic temperament was so completely ascendant that he was able to treat this sinner's dissolution with precisely the same artistic aloofness with which we should describe the sufferings of Prometheus. Such an attitude toward the Christian religion at that time is, to say the least, unusual; and it would require two things, the most absolute and assured unbelief, and an extraordinary power of artistic ventriloquism.
The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta was licensed for the press on May 17th, 1594, but the earliest known edition is a quarto of 1633, forty years after Marlowe's death. On the title page appears "Written by Christopher Marlo." In spite of many hypotheses and conjectures, no one knows when it was written nor when it was first acted. We know that Alleyn added greatly to his renown by his wonderful portrayal of Barabas; on the stage this Jew was largely a comic character, and wore a huge false nose. The source of the drama is unknown; there seems to have been an earlier play on a similar subject; but as the play is lost, all conjectures built on it are of no moment. This is undoubtedly Marlowe's best acting play, as Faustus is perhaps his literary masterpiece. The plot is wildly improbable, like most of the works of Shakespeare; but it is steadily interesting, and crowded with action. The critics seem mostly to have decided that the first two acts are fine, and that the last three indicate a sad falling off. With this judgment I find it impossible to agree. The interest in the story is maintained steadily to the powerful and unexpected conclusion; and the climax is of that kind that has particularly delighted spectators in all ages of theatrical history, "for 'tis the sport to have the enginer Hoist with his own petar."
With reference to the literary value of The Jew of Malta much wordy war has been waged. Swinburne says, "Only Milton has surpassed the opening soliloquy." This is exaggerative, for Shakespeare has surpassed it fifty times, as have other English poets, including Marlowe himself. It does not compare for an instant with several passages in Tamburlaine, nor with the apostrophe to Helen in Faustus. Indeed, I think that the Jew's soliloquy at the beginning of the second act is poetically superior. It is interesting, however, to compare this first "key-note" speech with the opening lines of Jonson's Volpone, spoken also in worship of the golden calf. Jonson's verse is noble, stately, and regular; but it is carefully constructed, and smells of the lamp. Marlowe's is careless in a royally splendid way.
This drama historically has its place in the Tragedy of Blood school that runs like a red stream through the entire course of Elizabethan drama. The Tragedy of Blood began with Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, and Titus Andronicus, powerfully affected Marlowe and Chapman, reached a climax in Webster, and an anticlimax in Ford. Not only do the majority of the dramatis personae die violently in the works of this school, but there is usually a hired assassin who believes in crime for crime's sake. He takes a joyous and artistic delight in deeds of the most revolting nature. The scoundrel Aaron, in Titus Andronicus, is typical of this stock figure:
- "Even now I curse the day--and yet I think
- Few come within the compass of my curse--
- Wherein I did not some notorious ill:
- As kill a man, or else devise his death;
- Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it;
- Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself:
- Set deadly enmity between two friends:
- Make poor men's cattle break their necks:
- Set fires on barns and haystacks in the night,
- And bid the owners quench them with their tears:
- Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves,
- And set them upright at their dear friends' doors.
- Even when their sorrows almost were forgot:
- And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
- Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
- 'Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.'
- Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
- As willingly as one would kill a fly:
- And nothing grieves me heartily indeed,
- But that I cannot do ten thousand more."
Now Ithamore, in The Jew of Malta, fills this rôle acceptably; for Barabas, to test him, describes some of the playful avocations of his own leisure moments:
- "As for myself, I walk abroad o' nights
- And kill sick people groaning under walls:
- Sometimes I go about and poison wells."
To which virtuous sentiments Ithamore cheerfully replies:
- "One time I was an ostler in an inn,
- And in the night-time secretly would I steal
- To travellers' chambers, and there cut their throats."
The fact is, that the theatrical villain of the Tragedy of Blood had the same zest in crime that the small boy of all time has in the perpetration of practical jokes on respectable citizens.
Marlowe in this play did not scruple to appeal to the popular prejudice against Jews by representing Barabas as an hellish monster; but just as Milton made a hero out of Satan, so Marlowe created a Jew of such colossal force, both in cunning and in courage, that one feels admiration for his vast ambition and tremendous power, without any sympathy. But Marlowe apparently does not love the Christians any more than the Jews; they too are represented as devoid of truth, honour and probity. The only decent people in the play are the heathen, intentionally or not.
A comparison of The Jew of Malta with The Merchant of Venice is even more damaging to Marlowe's reputation than the comparison of Faustus with Goethe's masterpiece; for Shakespeare wrote his play under conditions precisely similar to Marlowe's, and not far from the same time. The fundamental difference in the result is that whereas Barabas is an impossible monster, Shylock is wonderfully human. I do not believe for a moment that Shakespeare sympathized with Shylock, or meant his audience to do so. I feel certain that the downfall of the man was greeted with tremendous applause. But none the less, he is a real character, a sharply defined individual, not a racial caricature; and Shakespeare allows him to speak cleverly and powerfully in his own defence, in the method later adopted by Browning. Where Shakespeare excels Marlowe is in his vastly superior power of psychological analysis, to say nothing of the glorious poetry of the conclusion, which ends in beautiful moonlight and harmonious laughter in Portia's gardens. Shakespeare had one artistic virtue simply unknown to Marlowe--moderation. In the felicitous words of William Watson:
- "Your Marlowe's page I close, my Shakespeare's ope.
- How welcome--after gong and cymbal's din--
- The continuity, the long slow slope
- And vast curves of the gradual violin!"
Marlowe's influence on Shakespeare was in all probability very great; but it is interesting to cite a single famous passage from the latter poet, where it is easy to see which are the lines written in the Marlowesque and which those in the true Shakespearian manner.
- "Where should Othello go?
- Now, how dost thou look now? O ill-starred wench!
- Pale as thy smock! when we shall meet at compt,
- This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
- And fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl?
- Even like thy chastity.--
- O cursed, cursed slave!--Whip me, ye devils,
- From the possession of this heavenly sight!
- Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
- Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!"
There are certain striking similarities in the three plays, Tamburlaine, Faustus, and The Jew of Malta. In all three, the emphasis is laid on one character; the others are merely sketched in. Concentration on a single hero was the aim, conscious or unconscious, of the dramatist. And in each instance, this hero is the personification of some mad, devouring ambition. The living breath of aspiration vitalizes not only this chief character, but sets the whole play aglow with poetic fire. In Tamburlaine, the desire is for earthly power: he will bestride the narrow world like a colossus, and the petty men must walk under his huge legs, and peep about to find themselves dishonourable graves. The critics have generally agreed that the splendid speech of Tamburlain:
- "Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
- The wondrous architecture of the world,"
ends in a lamentable anticlimax:
- "Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
- That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
- The sweet fruition of an earthly crown."
But Tamburlaine did not think so; nor, I am convinced, did the poet. The critics seem to be completely mistaken here; for they approve of the early part of the speech, with which modern thought would sympathize, and condemn the conclusion, because it grates harshly on latter-day ears. But in the days of Queen Elizabeth and Philip II, when royalty was surrounded with the panoply of supreme majesty, was it not brave to be a king? A god was not so glorious as a king.
As in Tamburlaine the ambition is for earthly power, so in Faustus the summum bonum is magic--the control of time and space. In The Jew of Malta it is wealth, and the power that wealth brings: he does not wish to be merely a rich man:
"Fie; what a trouble 'tis to count this trash."
He will not rest until he has everything, until he sways empires with his wealth. The riches merchants must be beggars in comparison with him.
It is a different Marlowe that we see in Edward II; and although the play has been extravagantly praised, I believe it to be poetically markedly inferior to the other three. It is universally assumed to have been Marlowe's last dramatic work; but the fact is, no one knows anything definite about this important matter. We do not know when it was written, nor when it was first put on the stage. It was licensed for printing July 6th, 1593, about a month after Marlowe was slain; but the first known edition is the quarto of 1594, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England: with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. The title-page informs us that it was "written by Chri. Marlow, Gent."
In this drama the interest is not concentrated on one character, as it was in the others: the King, the Queen, Mortimer, and Gaveston all stand out sharply, and lesser persons are not crudely set forth. But it deals with a single elemental passion, as did Tamburlaine, Faustus, and The Jew: this passion is friendship. In order to understand it, one must look upon the passion of friendship from the Elizabethan point of view, which in this matter differs very largely from our own. Compared to the friendships of the Elizabethan giants, our best college friendships today are pale. The English language has never exceeded in passion the lines of Shakespeare's sonnets; and most of the best ones were written to a man, which, when first discovered by very young students, invariably causes a painful shock. Not infrequently Elizabethans valued their friends higher than their wives, or any of the ties of blood. If one doubts this, read the words of Melantius in The Maid's Tragedy.
As Tamburlaine lost his life in the passion for earthly power, as Faustus lost his soul in the passion for forbidden magic, as the Jew died a horrible death in the pursuit of wealth, so Edward loses his character, his position, his influence, his queen, and finally his life, in the vain passion of friendship. For Marlowe here shows the same terrible irony displayed in his other works; the King, who longs for Gaveston's friendship, believing that in this one instance he is beloved as a man rather than as a king, is cruelly deceived; Gaveston's love is founded wholly on selfishness. The heart-hunger of royal personages, who so seldom hear the language of frankness and sincerity, has been repeatedly used as a motive in literature; we have only to remember Browning's In a Balcony and Daudet's Les Rois en Exil. Marlowe has employed it with great power and with a closer approach to humanity than in any other drama ascribed to him. From the modern point of view, this weak king seems idiotic; but one must understand Elizabethan ideas of friendship before one can understand that it was a terrible passion, elevating and degrading like other passions; and that just as kings have been ruined by wine and by women, son in the sixteenth century it was possible to be ruined by a friend.
King Edward is indeed a pathetic figure in Marlowe's drama, as he was in history, from the contemporary chronicles of which the dramatist probably drew his material; and it is rather strange to find Marlowe, who delighted in representing in his other protagonists the very superlative of will-power, selecting here for portrayal a man damned with indecision. It can best be accounted for by remembering what has already been so emphasized, that the King's passion was too strong for his character. His death is horrible and his last speechs are full of pathos, especially the oft-quoted one in which he compares his present squalor with his former splendour, and wishes his wife to remember the contrast. But Charles Lamb's comment on this passage, which practically all editors of Marlowe quote as though it were holy writ, is fustian and nonsense: "The death-scene of Marlowe's king moves pity and terror beyond any scene, ancient or modern, with which I am acquainted." Twenty superior scenes might be cited, but we need think for the moment only of Lear's whisper,
"Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little."
Lamb deserves the homage of all students of Elizabethan drama for his incomparable services in making that drama known; but his hyperbole of criticism is as absurd in this instance as is his ridiculous comparison of the death of Calantha in the Broken Heart to Calvary and the Cross.
Edward II belongs to the group of "chronicle-histories" in English dramatic literature; it was one of the first, and ranks deservedly high. Had Marlowe lived to middle age he might have done splendid work in this field; but at his best, and if he had lived to be a hundred, he could never have written a play like Henry IV, for the simple reason that he has given not the slightest indication of possessing a sense of humour. And the absence of this is not merely a positive loss--it destroys, as Mr. Saintsbury has pointed out, the power of self-criticism. Christopher Marlowe had no check on his own work; like Victor Hugo and Wordsworth, he could not always tell when he was sublime and when he was something very different. Yet self-control, which was apparently lacking in Marlowe's own life and character, might have prevented his muse from soaring to the vertiginous heights reached in Tamburlaine and Faustus. The real glory of Marlowe as a poet is his boundless aspiration; we may grant that Edward II shows a commendable absence of the rant and bluster that sometimes disfigure his other plays; still it unfortunately exhibits also an absence of his supreme gifts as a poet. If I had to give up any one of his four great dramas, I would most willingly spare the history of the forlorn king.
Marlowe's reticence in all his plays on the subject of the love between men and women is as notable as is Stevenson's in his romances. This topic, which has been the mainspring of the drama among all nations, probably did not interest him. Possibly he was so masculine in temperament that men's ambitions and powers were enough to draw all his intellectual attention. Perhaps in his short life he had never met a good woman. He has certainly created not a single feminine character that interests us deeply, or who seems in any complex way true to life. Sin is the basis of his dramas; he has drawn no remarkable women and created no good men.
In summing up his great contributions to the development of English drama, we find that more than any other one man he established blank verse as the medium of expression, and splendidly illustrated its fitness: he set the pace for dramatic passion: he freed England from the tyranny of pseudo-classic domination, and made the drama of our race romantic and free. Had there been no Marlowe, no one can tell what the Elizabethan stage would have been; but it probably would not have been what it is, the chief glory of English literature and the wonder of the whole world. Marlowe is not the morning star; he is the sunrise.
We hear in his plays the great voice of Elizabethan England; he represents its overweening pride, the enthusiasm of discovery and conquest, the shout of success, the sky-piercing ambition which dared God out of heaven, the limitless aspiration of passion and of intellect, and the inflexible power of an abnormally developed will. In the twentieth century, whether for good or for evil, we are much closer to the Elizabethan temperament than any of the generations that stand between. Christopher Marlowe is a writer whom we can perfectly understand, even while we secretly realize the folly of such spiritual leadership. As a deeply thoughtful writer of today has remarked: "It is by their will that we recognize the Elizabethans, by the will that drove them over the seas of passion, as well as over the seas that ebb and flow with the salt tides. It is by their thoughts, so much higher than their emotions, that we know the men of the eighteenth century; and by their quick sensibility to the sting of life, the men of the nineteenth.... For, from a sensitive correspondence with environment our race has passed into another stage; it is marked now by a passionate desire for the mastery of life--a desire, spiritualized in the highest lives, materialized in the lowest, so to mould environment that the lives to come may be shaped to our will. It is this which accounts for the curious likeness in our today with that of the Elizabethans; their spirit was the untamed will, but our will moves in other paths than theirs, paths beaten for our treading by the ages between."
Such words as these are well worth reflection, for they contain profound wisdom. Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas--probably Christopher Marlowe himself--were nothing more nor less than Nietzsche's Supermen; and we know very well what he is and what he wants. But his influence is already on the wane; for he is not only no God, he knows less of the meaning of life than a little child.