Christopher Marlowe

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Christopher Marlowe Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 7,556 words.)