Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe: what did he contribute to English literature
and how is his writing reflective of the style of the times?

Christopher Marlowe contributed greatly to English literature. He
developed a new metre which has become one of the most popular in
English literary history, and he revitalised a dying form of
English drama. His short life was apparently violent and the man
himself was supposedly of a volatile temperament, yet he managed
to write some of the most delicate and beautiful works on record.
His writing is representative of the spirit of the Elizabethan
literature in his attitude towards religion, his choice of
writing style and in the metre that he used.

Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564 the son of a Canterbury
shoemaker and was an exact contemporary of Shakespeare. He was
educated at the King's School, Canterbury, and Corpus Christi
College, Cambridge. He became a BA in 1584 and a MA in 1587. He
seems to have been of a violent nature and was often in trouble
with the law. He made many trips to the continent during his
short lifetime and it has been suggested that these visits were
related to espionage. In 1589 he was involved in a street brawl
which resulted in a man's death. An injunction was brought
against him three years later by the constable of Shoreditch in
relation to that death. In 1592 he was deported from the
Netherlands after attempting to issue forged gold coins. On
the 30th of May 1593 he was killed by Ingram Frizer in a Deptford
tavern after a quarrel over the bill. He was only 29 years old.

During the middle ages, culture and government were influenced
greatly by the Church of Rome. The Reformation of Henry VIII
(1529-39), and the break of ties with that church meant that the
monarch was now supreme governor. This altered the whole balance
of political and religious life, and, consequently, was the
balance of literature, art and thought. The literature of
Elizabethan England was based on the crown. This period of
literature (1558-1625) is outstanding because of its
range of interests and vitality of language. Drama was the chief
form of Elizabethan art because there was an influx of writers
trying to emulate speech in their writing, and because
of the suddenly expanded vocabulary writers were using (most of
these new words came from foreign languages).

Marlowe's plays comprise The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage
(possibly with some collaboration from Nashe), Tamburlaine parts
one and two, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, Dr. Faustus and The
Massacre at Paris. Up to the time of Tamburlaine, written in 15
87-8, there had been a few so-called tragedies. Of these, the
best known is Gorboduc, first played in 1561, and apparently
popular enough to justify its printing a few years later,
although the play was "a lifeless performance, with no character
of enough vitality to stand out from the ruck of the rest of the
pasteboards." With Tamburlaine, Marlowe swept the Elizabethan
audiences off their feet.

The Jew of Malta, written after Tamburlaine, begins very
strongly, with the main character a commanding figure of the same
calibre as Tamburlaine, and the characterisation is better
rounded than Tamburlaine's. Sadly the play comes to pieces after
the second act, and it has been speculated that another less
talented author revised the ending.

Edward II is unexpected in that the main character is a neurotic
weakling, instead of a dominant figure like Henry V. Even though
the characterisation is clumsy, it is yet a dramatist's
treatment, and one can see that Marlowe has moved towards
creating a more developed character. Marlowe thus breathed new
life into English tragedy, and paved the way for the greatest
English dramatist, Shakespeare. It is quite possible that without
Marlowe's contribution to English tragedy, Shakespeare would
never have at tempted such an unpopular style and he would not be
canonised as he is today.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is surely the pinnacle of
Marlowe's achievement. The subject no doubt appealed to Marlowe.
In no other play of his, nor in the majority of English
literature, is there a scene to match the passionate and tragic
intensity of Faustus' last hour on earth.

Faustus used to be