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