Other Literary Forms
Christopher Marlowe translated Lucan’s Bellum civile (60-65 c.e.) as Pharsalia (1600) and Ovid’s Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.) as Elegies (1595-1600) while still attending Cambridge (c. 1584-1587). The renderings of the Elegies are notable for their imaginative liveliness and rhetorical strength. They provide as well the earliest examples of the heroic couplet in English. Hero and Leander (1598), a long, erotic poem composed before 1593, is also indebted to Ovid. It is the best narrative of a group that includes William Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593) and John Marston’s The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion’s Image (1598). The vogue for these Ovidian epyllions lasted for more than a decade, and Marlowe’s reputation as a poet was confirmed on the basis of his contribution. He completed only the first two sestiads before his death, after which George Chapman continued and finished the poem. Marlowe’s brilliant heroic couplets create a world, in Eugene Ruoff’s words, of “moonlight and mushrooms”; his lovers are the idealized figures of pastoral works, chanting lush and sensual hymns or laments. A sophisticated narrator—viewed by most critics as representing Marlowe’s satiric viewpoint—manages to balance the sentimentalism of the lovers, giving the poem an ironic quality that is sustained throughout. This tone, however, is not a feature of Marlowe’s famous lyric, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” First published in an anthology entitled The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), the poem is a beautiful evocation of the attractions of the pastoral world, a place where “melodious birds sing madrigals.” Technically called an “invitation,” “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” became an extremely popular idyll and was often imitated or parodied by other writers. One of the most intriguing responses, “The Nymph’s Reply,” was composed by Sir Walter Raleigh and published in The Passionate Pilgrim. Its worldly, skeptical attitude offers a contrast to the exuberance of Marlowe’s lyric. Without a doubt, this pastoral piece, along with Hero and Leander, would have ensured Marlowe’s reputation as a major literary figure even if he had never written a work intended for the stage.
It is difficult to overestimate the poetic and dramatic achievement of Christopher Marlowe. Although his career was short (about six years), Marlowe wrote plays that appealed to an emerging popular audience and that strongly influenced other dramatists. The heroes of the plays have been called “overreachers” and “apostates,” figures whom many critics believe reveal the defiance and cynicism of Marlowe himself. In addition to introducing these controversial, larger-than-life protagonists, Marlowe was also instrumental in fusing the elements of classical—and especially Senecan—drama and native morality plays, thereby establishing a style that would be followed by many subsequent playwrights. Doctor Faustus is the prime example of Marlowe’s talent for combining classical satire and a conventional Elizabethan theme of humanity in a middle state, torn between the angel and the beast. The vitality of Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine the Great, and Marlowe’s other works can be traced as well to his facility for writing powerful yet musical blank verse. Indeed, so regular and forceful is his style that his verse has been described as “Marlowe’s mighty line,” and his achievement in blank verse no doubt influenced Shakespeare. It is apparent in such plays as Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596), The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597), and Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, rev. 1623) that Shakespeare was also inspired by certain of Marlowe’s themes and plots.
Marlowe did not possess a patriotic spirit; his heroes are not Prince Hals but rather men similar to Shakespeare’s Richard III. Yet he was sensitive to the range of passion in human nature. Many of Marlowe’s characters reflect a true-to-life, even psychological complexity that preceding English...
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