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Christopher marlowe

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 placed as the play immediately following

Tamburlaine, yet a discovery by Dr. F. S. Boas led to the

conclusion that the play cannot be dated before 1592. This was

because the English translation of the German Faustbuch

was not published until 1592, and though it is possible that

Marlowe saw the manuscript before publication, the evidence

suggests that Dr. Faustus was written after Edward II. This would

mean that instead of making a massive jump in quality from

Tamburlaine and The Jew of

Malta to Dr. Faustus, and then reverting back to Edward II,

Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine and The Jew and felt that he had not

really set his genius and so casts back to the type of these

earlier plays and far surpasses them in dramatic poetry.

Faustus tells of a man who sells his soul to Satan in return for

twenty-four years of knowledge and power. The protagonist, Dr.

John Faustus, instead of sharing his gift with others, fritters

his years away until the in last scene he realises the grave

mistakes he has made. The scenes where Faustus uses his power for

practical jokes are in stark contrast to those where something

meaningful happens to him. There are three places in the play

where Marlowe's genius can be seen illuminated by perfection of

metre and rhetoric; the scene where Faustus conjures up

Mephistopheles, the scene in which he speaks to Helen of Troy and

Faustus' last hour on Earth. It has been suggested by some that

Marlowe only wrote these three scenes and the rest was added by

someone else. However these are probably the same people who

think Marlowe and Shakespeare are the same man. Even so, these

scenes were unmatched in their word play and metre until

Shakespeare. This play is timeless because its subject matter is

still interesting today and because the force of Marlowe's

conviction cannot help but invoke emotions in even the most

soulless of critics.

Possibly Marlowe's greatest gift to English literature was his

metre. Marlowe was the real creator of the most famous, most

versatile and noblest of English measure, the unrhymed

decasyllabic (ten syllables) line called blank verse. Blank verse

or iambic pentameter as it is known was first used twenty or so

years before Marlowe, however it was intolerably monotonous. The

metre comes from the Greek Iambic trimeter, which was a twelve-

syllable line with six feet. The experimenters were perceptive

enough to see that the more slowly moving English language would

require five feet instead of six. The result was such lifeless

pieces as this from Gorboduc:

Your lasting age shall be their longer stay,

For cares of kings, that rule as you have ruled,

For public wealth and not for private joy,

Do waste man's life, and hasten crooked age,

With furrowed face and with enfeebled limbs,

To draw on creeping death a swifter pace.

They two yet young shall bear the parted reign

With greater ease, than one, now old, alone,

Can wield the whole, for whom much harder is

With lessened strength the double weight to bear.

This piece is unbelievably tedious, and without a sensitive ear

like Marlowe's, blank verse would never have been the great

measure that it is.

What Marlowe did was to revise the internal structure of the

single line. In some lines he substituted an iamb (- / ) for a

spondee (- - ), a tribrach (/ / / ) or a dactyl (- / / ) in

certain feet, which made each line more interesting and

versatile. Also, while having a few lines strictly conform to the

norm, he created lines with four, three even two groups of

sounds. By using these devices, Marlowe transformed blank verse

from a stiff and monotonous to a varied and flexible

metre, as can be seen in Faustus' invocation to Helen:

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 feet and five stresses. The

second has the same number of stresses, but the grouping of the

words is irregular. Whereas the third is completely irregular.

It is Marlowe's greatest gift to English literature that he ma

naged to develop a metre which gave the author more creative

freedom than any other before or since.

Marlowe's writing is reflective of the spirit of the Elizabethan

age in a number of ways. His subject matter and characters in his

plays often question the validity of the church. He has been

criticised for being an atheist, for example he was accused of

blasphemy in his portrayal of Helen in Dr. Faustus She is seen as

a goddess who has the power to cleanse Faustus' soul, even though

God cannot. She is more powerful than the virgin Mary, and the

fact that Marlowe presents the proposition that God is

incapable of redeeming Faustus' soul farther aggravated the

church. This new thinking about the church is part of the spirit

of the Elizabethan age due to King Henry VIII's reformation.

In many Elizabethan plays, the main character is a merchant of

some sort, due to the rise in power of these middle class

businessmen. This can be seen in many plays of Shakespeare, as

well as Marlowe's The Rich Jew of Malta. Also the protagonists in

Marlowe's plays are often similar to Everyman, particularly Dr.

Faustus, except that these characters are individuals, and not

mankind in general, in that the character learns something which

is important to the audience as well. The Everyman plays were

written shortly before Marlowe's birth, and again this re-

characterisation by Marlowe is a reflection of the spirit of the

times in his works.

Lastly, the fact that Marlowe used iambic pentameter, as well as

having drama as his writing style is representative of the

Elizabethan age. Although these were contributions to English

literature, Marlowe really set the trend for this age, and many

contemporaries of his used these techniques. In that sense, one

of Marlowe's contributions to English literature was that he

defined a lot of the aspects of Elizabethan literature. Marlowe's

revolutionary use of literature is both representative of the

age, as well as a contribution to English literature.

Marlowe contributed greatly to English literature. His works are

excellent on their own; though he also revitalised the tragedy as

well as developing blank verse, one of the most beautiful,

flexible and versatile of metres. His work is representative of

the spirit of the Elizabethan age in that Marlowe used drama as

his chief form of writing, his subject matters were demonstrative

of this age, for example the loss of belief in the church, and he

wrote in iambic pentameter which became very popular before

the end of this age.

Word Count: 1875

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