Christopher Marlowe Essay - Critical Essays

Christopher Marlowe Drama Analysis

Taken as a whole, Christopher Marlowe’s canon represents a crucial step forward in the development of Elizabethan dramaturgy. Without him, there could not have been a Shakespeare or a John Webster, both of whom learned something of the art of popular melodrama from this master. It is lamentable that Marlowe’s early death deprived audiences and subsequent critics of more examples of his poetic drama, drama that stirs both the heart and the mind.

Dido, Queen of Carthage

Marlowe probably began writing plays while he was a student at Cambridge. Dido, Queen of Carthage, which appeared in quarto form in 1594, was composed in collaboration with Thomas Nashe and was first performed by the children’s company at the Chapel Royal. How much Nashe actually had to do with the work is conjectural; he may have only edited it for publication. The tragedy shows little evidence, however, of the playwright’s later genius. It is closely tied to Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), with much of its blank verse qualifying as direct translation from the Latin. The characters are wooden and the action highly stylized, the result of an attempt to translate the material of epic into drama. The play impresses mainly through the force of its imagery.

Tamburlaine the Great, Part I

Sections of Marlowe’s first popular theater success, Tamburlaine the Great, Part I, were probably sketched at Cambridge as well. First produced around 1587 (probably at an innyard), this exotic, bombastic piece won for its author considerable fame. His name was quickly cataloged with other so-called University Wits —men such as Robert Greene, John Lyly, and George Peele, whose dramas dominated the Elizabethan stage in the late 1580’s. Marlowe’s great dramatic epic was roughly based on the career of Timur Lenk (1336-1405), a Mongolian fighter who had led an army that defeated the Turks at Ankara in 1402. The defeat meant the salvation of Europe, an event that doubtless stimulated Marlowe’s ironic vision. The playwright could have found the account of the audacious Scythian’s career in many Latin and Italian sources, but his interest may have been first aroused after reading George Whetstone’s The English Mirror (1586).

Tamburlaine emerges as an Olympian figure in Marlowe’s hands. He begins as a lowly shepherd whose physical courage and captivating, defiant rhetoric take him to victories over apparently superior opponents. Although episodic, the plot does achieve a degree of tension as each successive opponent proves more difficult to overcome. Tamburlaine’s first victim is a hereditary king named Mycetes, who underrates his adversary’s strength and persuasiveness. The lieutenant who is sent to capture the upstart is suddenly and decisively won over to the rebel’s side. Tamburlaine next outwits Cosroe, Mycetes’ brother, who thinks he can use this untutored fighter to consolidate his own power. As the “bloody and insatiate Tamburlaine” kills him, Cosroe curses the turn of Fortune’s Wheel that has cast him down. Even so, Marlowe believes not in the capricious goddess as the chief ruler of humankind but in a kind of Machiavellian system directed by the will of his larger-than-life hero.

A major test of Tamburlaine’s will comes in his confrontation with Bajazeth, emperor of the Turks. Before the battle between the two warriors, there is a boasting bout between their two mistresses, Zenocrate and Zabina. The former, daughter to the Soldan of Egypt and in love with Tamburlaine, praises her beloved’s strength and his destined glory. Both women also pray for the victory of their men, parallel actions that invite a comparison between the pairs of lovers. When Tamburlaine defeats Bajazeth, he takes the crown from Zabina’s head and gives it to his queen—and “conqueror.” Marlowe thereby demonstrates that the play qualifies as a monumental love story as well. Bajazeth is bound up and later thrown into a cage with his defeated queen; this contraption is then towed across the stage as part of Tamburlaine’s victory procession. Before the final siege of Damascus, the city that houses Zenocrate’s father, the Soldan, Tamburlaine unveils a magnificent banquet. During the festivities, he releases Bajazeth from his cage in order to use him as a footstool from which he will step onto his throne. This audacious touch of spectacle verifies Marlowe’s aim of shocking his audience and displays contempt for the pride of rulers.

In the midst of this banquet, Tamburlaine orders his lieutenants to “hang our bloody colors by Damascus,/ Reflexing hues of blood upon their heads,/ While they walk quivering on their walls,/ Half dead for fear before they feel my wrath!” These threatening, boastful words are followed quickly by a change of colors to black, which signifies Tamburlaine’s intention to destroy the city. He underscores this purpose by condemning four virgins, supplicants sent to assuage his anger, to their deaths on the spears of his horsemen. The destruction of the city soon follows, although the Soldan and the King of Arabia (to whom Zenocrate is still betrothed) lead out an army to do battle with their oppressor. While this battle takes place offstage, Bajazeth and Zabina are rolled in to deliver curses against their torturers. Wild from hunger and despair, Bajazeth asks his queen to fetch him something to drink; while she is away, he brains himself against the bars of the cage. Zabina, returning from her errand, finds her husband’s battered corpse and follows his lead. The horror of this double suicide no doubt satisfied the popular audience’s appetite for gore, an appetite that Marlowe fed lavishly in this play.

The finale of the first part depicts Tamburlaine’s victory over the Soldan, who is spared because the victor plans to crown Zenocrate Queen of Persia. Meanwhile, her betrothed, the King of Arabia, dies from battle wounds; his death causes little conflict, however, in Zenocrate, who follows Tamburlaine as if he were indeed her conqueror, too. Now the lowly shepherd-turned-king declares a truce, buries his noble opponents with solemn rites, and prepares to marry his beloved in pomp and splendor. He appears to stand atop Fortune’s Wheel, a startling example of the Machiavellian man of iron will to whom no leader or law is sacrosanct. There is little sense here that Tamburlaine is intended as an example of pride going before a fall. He has achieved stunning victories over foes who are as immoral as he is; most of them, including Bajazeth, emerge as fools who miscalculate or underrate Tamburlaine with fearful consequences. No doubt the popularity of the play is traceable to this fact and to the truth that most people nurture an amoral desire for fame or power that this hero fulfills with startling success.

Tamburlaine the Great, Part II

Part II shows Tamburlaine continuing on his road to conquest, securely characterizing himself as the scourge of God. As the play opens, Sigismund, Christian king of Hungary, and the pagan monarch Orcanes agree to a truce. This ceremony strikes one as ironic, as pagans and Christians swallow their pride in order to challenge and defeat the half-god who threatens them. In the meantime, Tamburlaine proudly surveys the fruits of Zenocrate’s womb: three sons through whom he hopes to win immortality. One of the brood, however, is weak and unattracted by war; Calyphas seems devoted to his mother and to the blandishments of peace. His effeminate nature foreshadows Tamburlaine’s decline and fall, revealing that his empire cannot survive his own death. Even though his two other sons exhibit natures cruel enough to match their father’s, the flawed seed has obviously been planted.

The hastily forged truce is suddenly broken when Sigismund tears the document and turns his forces on Orcanes. Though Marlowe appears to be attacking the integrity of Christianity, he was in fact appealing to his audience’s anti-Catholic sentiments. When Sigismund is wounded and dies, moreover, Orcanes announces that Christ has won a victory in defeating one so treacherous as Sigismund. While these events transpire on the battlefield, another death is about to take place in Tamburlaine’s tent. Zenocrate has been in failing health, and her imminent death causes her husband to contemplate joining her. That he should entertain such a gesture at the height of his power confirms the depth of his love for Zenocrate. Her imploring words—“Live still, my lord! O, let my sovereign live!”—manage to stay his hand, but his pent-up rage cannot be restrained at her death. Shifting from a figure of gentleness and compassion in a moment’s time, Tamburlaine orders the town in which she dies to be burned to the ground.

With the defeat of Sigismund, Orcanes emerges as a kingmaker, leading the grand procession at which Callapine, the avenging son of Bajazeth, vows to use his new crown as the means to conquer the lowly Scythian. This scene is succeeded by another ceremonial pageant, this one led by the mournful Tamburlaine and his sons carrying the coffin of Zenocrate. Her body will remain with the company wherever they go in battle. Determined to teach his sons the arts of war, Tamburlaine commences a lesson in besieging a fort. When Calyphas balks, afraid of wounding or death, an angry father lances his own arm and orders his sons to dip their hands in his blood. All of them comply, although Calyphas is moved to pity at this horrid sight. With this ritual, Marlowe underscores the tribal nature of his hero’s family but at the same time implies that the letting of blood by Tamburlaine will not necessarily cure the “defect” in it.

The central battle in the second part pits Tamburlaine and his sons against Callapine and his crowned kings before Aleppo. In a preliminary verbal skirmish, Tamburlaine belittles Almeda, a traitor, who cowers behind Callapine’s back when invited to take his crown. The scene is seriocomic as Almeda proves himself a coward before his kingly followers; his weakness is meant to parallel that of Calyphas, Tamburlaine’s son. The latter remains behind in a tent playing cards while his two brothers earn martial honors on the battlefield. When they and their father enter, trailing the conquered Turkish monarchs behind them, Tamburlaine seizes his weakling son and stabs him. Among the many scenes of bloodshed Marlowe presents in the play, this is probably the most shocking and repulsive. Although he cites his role as God’s scourge and this deed as “war’s justice,” Tamburlaine here reveals a self-destructive side of his nature that has not been evident before.

The audience does not have long to ponder the murder; the scene of horror is quickly followed by one of pageantry. Trebizon and Soria, two pagan kings, enter the stage drawing a chariot with Tamburlaine holding the reins. This spectacle is accompanied by the superhero’s disdaining words: “Holla, ye pamper’d jades of Asia!/ What can ye draw but twenty miles a day,/ And have so proud a chariot at your heels,/ And such a coachman as great Tamburlaine?” The monarch-prisoners hurl curses at their captors as, like Bajazeth and Zabina, they are taunted unmercifully. Tamburlaine’s soldiers are rewarded with Turkish concubines, after which the royal train heads toward Babylon for yet another bloody siege.

Before the walls of this ancient city, Tamburlaine calls on its governor to yield. (The scene recalls the negotiations before the walls of Damascus in Part I.) When he refuses, the lieutenants Techelles and Theridamas lead their soldiers in scaling the city’s walls. The victory is quickly won, and Tamburlaine, dressed in black and driving his chariot, proudly announces the city’s defeat. A quaking governor promises Tamburlaine abundant treasure if he will spare his life, but the conqueror disdains such bribes and has his victim hanged in chains from the walls. Theridamas shoots the governor while Tamburlaine proceeds to burn Muhammadan books in an open pit. Defying Mahomet to avenge his sacrilege if he has any power, Tamburlaine suddenly feels “distempered”; he recovers quickly, however, when he hears of Callapine’s army advancing. Does Marlowe mean to imply that his hero’s unexpected illness is punishment for his act of defiance? Although such an explicit moral lesson seems uncharacteristic, the connection between the two events appears to be more than a passing one.

The weakened Tamburlaine manages a final victory over Bajazeth’s son, after which he produces a map that represents the extent of his conquests. With a trembling finger, he also directs his sons’ attention to the remaining countries that they will be expected to conquer. Giving his crown to Theridamas (who later bestows it on Amyras) and turning his chariot over to his sons, Tamburlaine then calls for Zenocrate’s hearse, beside which he stretches out to die. Before the mighty general’s body is carried off, Amyras delivers the fitting eulogy: “Meet heaven and earth, and here let all things end,/ For earth hath spent the pride of all her fruit,/ And heaven consum’d his choicest living fire:/ Let earth and heaven his timeless death deplore,/ For both their worths will equal him no more.” The death of the Scourge of Heaven follows no particular event; its suddenness only serves to underscore Tamburlaine’s mortality. The audience is reminded of Alexander’s demise in the midst of his glory. Because the chariot becomes such a dominant prop in the second part, Marlow may have likewise meant to suggest a parallel between his hero and Phaëthon, who in his pride fell from Jove’s chariot because he could not control its course. Whatever the interpretation of this hero’s fall, there can be little doubt that his mighty feats and his Senecan bombast made him an extremely popular—and awesome—figure on the Elizabethan stage.

The Jew of Malta

For his next play, The Jew of Malta, Marlowe also chose an antihero who poses a threat to the orderly rule of European society. As Tamburlaine had ruled by martial strength, Barabas (named to recall the thief whose place on the Cross was taken by Christ) hopes to dominate the world by his wealth. Although Marlowe depicts him as a grasping, evil man (to the delight of the anti-Semitic Elizabethan audience), Barabas holds one’s interest as Richard III does—by the resourcefulness of his scheming. Just as Tamburlaine’s audacity appeals to an unconscious desire for power, so Barabas’s scorn for Christian morality probably appealed to the audience’s wish to defy authority. He is not portrayed, however, as a sympathetic character, even though in the early stages of the play, the behavior of his Christian opponents toward him reveals their hypocrisy. Faced with a threat from the powerful Turkish fleet, Ferneze, the Maltese governor, turns to Barabas for help in raising tribute money. While three of his colleagues agree to give up half of their estates and consent to baptism, Barabas refuses this arrangement, miscalculating the power and determination of the governor. Accompanied by a chorus of anti-Semitic remarks by the knights, Ferneze announces that he has already sent men to seize Barabas’s property. He also declares that he intends to transform the Jew’s mansion into a nunnery; this news further enrages Barabas, who curses them: “Take it to you, i’ th’ Devil’s name.” This scene highlights the hypocrisy of the Maltese; it also reveals the extent of Barabas’s hatred for those among whom he has lived and worked. The audience has learned from the prologue spoken by Machiavel that the hero is one of his disciples and soon realizes that the subsequent action will show him “practicing” on his enemies.

When his daughter Abigail comes to recount angrily the takeover of their house, Barabas counsels patience, reminding her that he has hidden a fortune beneath its floorboards. In order to recover the money, he spawns a daring plan that requires his daughter to take vows as a means of entering the newly founded nunnery. In a heavily theatrical confrontation staged by Barabas, father accuses daughter of deserting him and their religion, while in an aside he tells her where to find the money. As Abigail is hurried into the mansion, she is spied by two young men, Mathias and Lodowick, both of whom fall in love with her—a rivalry that Barabas will later turn to his advantage. Later that night, Abigail appears on a balcony with Barabas’s bags in her hands; she throws these down to him as he sees her and shouts: “O girl! O gold! O beauty! O my bliss!” This outburst illustrates the Jew’s seriocomic nature, as he employs such impassioned speech to praise his gold. Eight years later, Shakespeare incorporated this trait into his characterization of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

In the square the next day, Barabas begins to practice in earnest against Ferneze. Ferneze’s son Lodowick expresses his love for Abigail and is invited by Barabas to supper for a meeting with his “jewel.” This dinner will prove Lodowick’s undoing, as Barabas tells the audience in an aside. The Jew then proceeds to purchase the slave Ithamore, who will serve his master’s will no matter what the command. In order to test the fellow, Barabas lists a remarkable catalog of evil deeds—including poisoning wells in nunneries—that he has supposedly committed. Ithamore responds by declaring himself in a league of villainy with the Jew: “We are villains both!—Both circumcised, we hate Christians both!” The slave aids his master by taking a forged challenge from Lodowick to Mathias, with whom Abigail is truly in love, even though her father has forced her to display affection for Lodowick. When the rivals meet to engage in a duel, Barabas is positioned above them, watching with pleasure as they kill each other.

Now, however, Ithamore and Abigail, whom he has told of the feigned challenge, know the extent of Barabas’s treachery. In melodramatic fashion, the Jew decides that his daughter must die or she will reveal his deed. To kill her, he has Ithamore prepare a poisoned pot of rice to be “enjoyed” by all the nuns. To secure Ithamore’s loyalty, Barabas promises him the whole of his inheritance, and he seems to adopt him as his son. The audience, however, knows from another aside that Barabas intends to kill his slave as...

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