Christopher Marlowe Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Christopher Marlowe’s literary reputation rests primarily on the following plays: Tamburlaine the Great, Part I (pr. c. 1587); Tamburlaine the Great, Part II (pr. 1587); The Jew of Malta (pr. c. 1589); Edward II (pr. c. 1592); Doctor Faustus (pr. c. 1588). Two unfinished plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage (pr. c. 1586-1587; with Thomas Nashe and the fragmentary The Massacre at Paris (pr. 1593), round out his dramatic canon. He produced two important translations: Elegies (1595-1600), which treats three books of Ovid’s Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.; English translation, c. 1597), and Pharsalia (1600), which treats Lucan’s first book Bellum civile (60-65 c.e.; Pharsalia, 1614), and was first entered in the Stationers’ Register as Lucan’s First Book of the Famous Civil War Betwixt Pompey and Caesar (1600).


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Christopher Marlowe’s plays established him as the foremost of the University Wits, a loosely knit group of young men, by reputation generally wild and rakish, that included Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, and the older, perhaps less unruly, John Lyly. Their work largely established the nature of the English drama that would reach its apogee in the work of William Shakespeare. Marlowe shares with Thomas Kyd the honor of developing the English conception of tragedy. Marlowe also developed the rather clumsy blank verse of the day into the flexible vehicle of his “mighty line,” using it to flesh out his tragic characters as they fell from greatness. He shares the honor of reshaping the dramatically crude chronicle play into the mature and subtle history play. His Edward II bears comparison with William Shakespeare’s Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593) and anticipates Shakespeare’s “Henriad.”

Although Marlowe attracted much casual comment among his contemporaries, serious criticism of his work was rare until the nineteenth century. After the Puritan diatribe of T. Beard in The Theatre of Gods [sic] Judgements (1597) and W. Vaughn’s consideration in The Golden Grove (1600), no serious criticism appeared until J. Broughton’s article, “Of the Dramatic Writers Who Preceded Shakespeare” (1830). Beginning in 1883, with C. H. Herford and A. Wagner’s article “The Sources of Tamburlaine,” Marlovian criticism grew at an increasing rate. Two critics initiated the very extensive body of modern scholarship that began in the first decade...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Identify the characters in Christopher Marlowe’s plays who might be called “overreachers.”

Analyze metrically a group of Marlowe’s lines that you find effective and determine the nature of the variations.

How might Marlowe’s subject in his early play Dido, Queen of Carthage have influenced William Shakespeare’s choice of dramatic subjects?

To what extent was Doctor Faustus a rejection of “the cosmic order of conventional Christian doctrine”?

What makes Dr. Faustus’s goal more shocking than those of Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta?

What qualities in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” made it irresistible to the other poets who composed “replies” to it?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Christopher Marlowe: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This volume consists of thirteen selections, mainly excerpts of previously published books that are landmarks in Marlowe criticism. The bibliography at the end of the volume includes most of the major critical studies of Marlowe.

Downie, J. A., and J. T. Parnell. Constructing Christopher Marlowe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. This scholarly study contains essays on Marlowe’s life and works. Includes bibliography and index.

Grantley, Darryll, and Peter Roberts, eds. Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture. Aldershot, Hants, England: Scholar Press, 1996. This collection of essays covers topics such as Marlowe and atheism and the staging of his plays and provides in-depth analysis of most of his plays. Bibliography and index.

Hopkins, Lisa. Christopher Marlowe: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A study of Marlowe’s career and what is known of his life. Hopkins focuses on Marlowe’s skepticism toward colonialism, family, and religion.

Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992.

Riggs, David. The World of Christopher Marlowe. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. This rich study of the poet/playwright, including both biography and analysis of Marlowe’s works, is an excellent source of information about Marlowe’s historical and social context.

Simkin, Stevie. A Preface to Marlowe. New York: Longman, 2000. Provides comprehensive and full analysis of all Marlowe’s dramatic and non-dramatic works, brings the texts to life, and emphasizes the performance aspects of the texts. A controversial and challenging reading which reopens debates about Marlowe’s status as a radical figure and as a subversive playwright.

Tauton, Nina. Fifteen-nineties Drama and Militarism: Portrayals of War in Marlowe, Chapman, and Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2001. Tauton looks at war in the works of Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and George Chapman, writing in the late sixteenth century. Bibliography and index.

Tromly, Fred B. Playing with Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Tromly discusses the dramatic works of Marlowe from the playwright’s use of tantalization. Bibliographical references and index.

Trow, M. J., and Taliesin Trow. Who Killed Kit Marlowe? A Contract to Murder in Elizabethan England. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2001. This discussion focuses on Marlowe’s mystery-shrouded death, providing both the evidence that is available and the many theories that exist. Bibliography and index.