Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE

BIOGRAPHICAL accounts of Marlowe resemble those of all other Elizabethan dramatists in containing two grains of fact in a bushel of conjecture.? Had Ben Jonson's library not been burned, or had Thomas Heywood spent the time on his projected Lives of the Poets that he squandered on the Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels, we should probably know for certain many things that remain shrouded in complete darkness. Nothing in literary history is more depressing to contemplate than the misdirected energy of Shakespeare's contemporaries; they produced huge folios on impossible themes. Had any one of them spent a half-holiday, during their busy years of quill-driving, in narrating the simple facts of Shakespeare's career, those few sheets would have outweighed in interest for us tons of the controversial, scholastic, and theological stuff that they built with so much toil. Heywood's alert and inquisitive mind seems to have had some notion of the future importance of such a book, for he said positively that it was his intention to produce a biographical history of the poets, ancient and modern, including all his contemporaries. But although he wrote over two hundred plays, and many other volumes, this particular one became valuable only as a paving-stone in an oft-mentioned place.

1 For all that is known, and much that has been guessed of Marlowe's career, see John H. Ingram, Christopher Marlowe and his Associates, London, 1904. He holds a brief for Marlowe's personal character, and discusses the various versions of his tragic death. The new light thrown on the relations between Marlowe and Kyd, by Professor Boas (see his edition of Kyd, Clarendon Press), is sceptically treated. Dyce's Introduction to Marlowe's Works is still valuable: other complete editions are Bullen's, 1887, and Brooke's, 1910. The histories of Elizabethan drama by Ward and by Schelling are scholarly and suggestive. An excellent bibliography, not only of Marlowe's writings, but of critical literature on the subject, is given in Ingram's book, and goes far to atone for the immense amount of guess-work with which this handsome volume is padded.

Of the actual facts in Marlowe's life we know little except that he was born in Canterbury in February, 1564, that he studied at Cambridge University (if the

Marlin” and “Chrof. Marlen” on the books there be the dramatist), and that he was killed by a person named Francis Archer, and buried at Deptford, June first, 1593.' We cannot even prove that he wrote Tamburlaine ; the external evidence is astonishingly small. We have to assume it on the basis of a variety of contemporary references. We do not know whether or not he wrote any part of the early historical plays usually included in Shakespeare's works. We can form no idea of how many interpolations there may have been in the four plays on which his fame as a dramatist rests. Nor do we know for certain when a single one of these four dramas was composed or first acted; so that all the vast theories that have been erected on their chronological place in the Elizabethan drama rest upon guess-work.

Besides the four plays included in this volume, two others bearing Marlowe's name may receive passing mention, though as pieces of literature they are unimportant. On January third, 1593, while Marlowe

Nothing whatever is known of his personal appearance.

1

was still living, The Massacre at Paris was put on the boards; this was published somewhat later, but there being no date on the title-page of what is apparently the earliest edition, the year of its first appearance in print is not known. This title-page, however, bears the legend, “Written by Christopher Marlowe.That is the only line in the whole volume of any real interest. Another play, The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage, was published in quarto form as early as 1594, and on the title-page appeared “Written by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, Gent.” This drama contains some verses that seem like faint echoes of the mighty line; but it also includes such gems of poetry as,

“Gentle Achates, reach the tinder-box,”

which we may hope supplied some of the fire lacking in the verse.

Marlowe wrote narrative and lyric poetry as well as dramatic. His translations from the Latin are worthless; but his splendid fragment, Hero and Leander (entered on the Stationers' Books, September twenty-eighth, 1593, and published in 1598), indicates a high order of creative genius. It is one of the most notable expressions of the Pagan Renaissance in England. The dramatist Chapman completed it, and although his part of the work is much finer than ordinary post mortem conclusions, it naturally suffers by comparison with the early portion. Out of the thousands of beautiful lyrical poems produced by the Elizabethans, Marlowe's exquisite Passionate Shepherd to His Love, commencing,

" Come live with me, and be my love,”

is one of the very best. The thrilling music of those spacious times is enchantingly heard in the splendid line,

“Melodious birds sing madrigals.”

Although the author of Tamburlaine the Great 1 must apparently share with Thomas Kyd some of the glory of discovering the possibilities of dramatic blank verse and of founding the English romantic drama, still the appearance of this play is one of the most important events in the literary history of the Englishspeaking race. It is not going too far to say that “it worked a revolution in English dramatic art.” The irrepressible conflict between the rules of the classicists and the freedom of the romanticists was permanently settled by Tamburlaine. He conquered the Elizabethan stage as in real life he conquered the world. The authority of Seneca, the learning of Sir Philip Sidney and his friends, the precedent of Gorboduc, were all overthrown by the colossal figure of the barbarian chieftain and the glorious poetry he uttered. At one blow the shackles of pseudo-classicism and vain pedantry were struck off; it took a Samson to do it, but he was at hand. It is within the limits of truth to say that the course of Elizabethan drama, the greatest part of the greatest period of the greatest literature of the world, was determined more by Tamburlaine than by any other single cause. And, unlike most literary beginnings, which are unconscious, the author of Tamburlaine was himself aware of the importance of his achievement he knew what he was about. Like Milton in the Preface to Paradise Lost, like Jonson in the Prologue to Every Man in his Humour, like Victor Hugo in Cromwell and Hernani, the poet appeared with a definite program. Shakespeare was no innovator; he was content to do everything better than anybody else, and let his creations speak for themselves. Not So the maker of Tamburlaine. His prologue is a shout of defiance.

1 The first and second parts were both published in 1590.

“From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,

And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
View but his picture in this tragic glass,
And then applaud his fortune as you please.”

Here is a definite and uncompromising attack on rhyme as a vehicle of dramatic expression: a crack of the whip at professional buffoonery, so dear to Elizabethan spectators and so despised by the poets; and a contemptuous blow in the face to the public, whose attitude toward the piece was indifferent to the / author, for it was written to please no one but himself.

Courage and conviction, backed by genius, had their natural reward. The first matinée of Tamburlaine was an epoch-making day. The character of the Scourge of God, as portrayed by the great actor Edward Alleyn, himself a man of colossal size and great histrionic ability, fairly dazzled the Elizabethans. We must always remember that people then went to the theatre not to see, but to hear; stage scenery and

« ZurückWeiter »