Christopher Marlowe

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Christopher Marlowe World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Marlowe is often called the father of English tragedy because Tamburlaine the Great was the first tragedy to combine a grand concept, a strong central character capable of carrying the action of the play, and suitably heightened verse style. The extent of the revolution in drama that Marlowe initiated cannot be understood without considering his contribution to English verse. The poetry of Tamburlaine the Great was a kind never before heard on the English stage, with passages of exultant magnificence and lyrical sweetness. Its power was attributable largely to Marlowe’s discovery of true blank verse style. Previous dramatists had experimented with an unrhymed decasyllabic line with five iambic feet (each foot having a weak stress followed by a strong one). Consider as an example these lines from an earlier play, Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s Gorbuduc (pr. 1561, pb. 1565; also published as The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex): “Your lasting age shall be their longer stay,/ For cares of kings, that rule as you have ruled.” Each line has five pairs of two syllables, each pair consisting of a weak stress followed by a strong one (the iambic foot); the strong stresses are uniform in weight; and this iambic rhythm is never varied. The result is tiresomely repetitive.

Marlowe had a sufficiently sensitive ear to perceive that though the norm of blank verse should be this regular iambic rhythm, and though the audience’s awareness of that norm should not be lost, few lines should conform to that pattern. The strong stresses per line should be fewer than five; the line should be broken into four, three, even two groups of sounds, separated by a minuscule pause; moreover, different kinds of feet other than the iamb should be introduced. In applying these discoveries, Marlowe exploited the flexibility and expressiveness of blank verse and cleared the way for other poets such as Shakespeare, John Milton, and William Wordsworth. Compare the Gorbuduc lines with the following passage from Doctor Faustus: “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?/ Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.” The first line is regular, with five iambic feet and five stresses. The second is regular in rhythm but has only four strong stresses, and the line falls into three sound groups. The third, however, diverges completely from the regular meter, beginning with a foot of two strong stresses and having a foot of two weak and one strong stresses (“me immor-”) in the middle. Such changes in the basic rhythm emphasize emotionally charged words and phrases, increasing the expressive power and enlivening the listener’s attention.

Marlowe was an innovator also in his choice of themes. Religious skepticism recurs throughout the plays. Tamburlaine the Great challenged both Christian and Moslem faiths; The Jew of Malta confounded Christianity and Judaism alike. Marlowe’s questioning of humanity’s place in the universe reached its height in Doctor Faustus, an agonized cry of defiance against an orthodoxy represented as chaining humankind’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge. One cannot, however, assume that Marlowe was atheistical in the modern sense of materialistic. If there is anything of Marlowe in the solemn speech given to Orcanes in Part II, act 2 of Tamburlaine the Great, one may infer that the dramatist accepted the existence of a nondenominational supreme intelligence.

At the core of Marlowe’s heterodoxy was his fascination with humanity’s aspirant spirit and illimitable mind—a theme that did not fit easily into contemporary Christian thought. Marlowe’s heroes are self-made, fired by a sense of their own power and greatness, in strong contrast to Shakespeare’s, with their orthodox assumption of the privileges and honor due to noble birth.

Marlowe’s treatment of this theme became more complex over the years. Faustus shares with the earlier hero Tamburlaine aspirations for worldly power at any cost....

(The entire section is 3,795 words.)