Elizabethan Drama || Marlowe and Shakespeare

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       It is no exaggeration to say that the Elizabethan drama is the supreme achievement of the genius of the English race. The only other drama which offers a close parallel to it is the ancient Greek drama, which is composed of the works of supreme geniuses like Eschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Yet in sheer splendour and intensity, in range and variety, Elizabethan drama stands supreme and unapproachable. It may be rightly compared to a web of many colours and in the task of weaving this complex and many-coloured web, quite a host of great Elizabethan dramatist had their part. Many of them were of real genius but they were unlucky in their time. Being born in the age of Shakespeare, that great miracle of genius, they had been eclipsed and overshadowd by the blinding light. In particular qualities of their genius, in the grandeur of isolated scenes of their plays, they were match for Shakespeare.

The two great Elizabethan dramatists who stand out in this rich galaxy of dramatists by the sheer force of their genius are Marlowe and Shakespeare. A brief survey of their works will sufficiently convince one of the splendour, the richness, variety, range and power of the Elizabethan drama.
Shakespeare & Marlowe

      The two great Elizabethan dramatists who stand out in this rich galaxy of dramatists by the sheer force of their genius are Marlowe and Shakespeare. A brief survey of their works will sufficiently convince one of the splendour, the richness, variety, range and power of the Elizabethan drama.

      Marlowe was most richly endowed with a splendid imagination. In him the glowing Renaissance spirit, with its infinite passion for knowledge, power and beauty seemed to have become incarnated. Though he lacked the qualities of a great dramatist, in so far as the technical aspects of the drama are concerned, he possessed the supreme imagination which enabled him to lift the drama to the level of high poetry. "He was a great poet, a lyrical, personal, violently egoistical poet, who carried with him his own conception of man and life." He set the fashion of the superman hero of the tragedy. His heroes Tamburlaine, Barabbas, Dr. Faustus are great Titans who fall down by the sheer force of their lust of power in various fields of activity. The tragedies of Marlowe have many defects no doubt. Marlowe is lacking in humour; he cannot escape from his own self and conceive feelings distinct from his own (all his characters are self-portraitures), he has no architectural skill etc. But in the intensity of imagination and splendour of diction he is unrivalled and foreshadows Shakespeare. Dr. Faustus is supreme achievement of human genius. Edward II, too, is a pioneer historical play and set the pace for the historical plays of the period. There two plays have given at least two famous. scenes (last scene in the former, and addiction scene in the latter) which even Shakespeare did not excel.

      Shakespeare came in the ripeness of time when the English drama, slowly evolving for a long time, had needed a supreme genius to give it direction and energy. He found the raw-materials of the English drama in a mess, as it were, and by his supreme powers he turned them into finished products. Or to vary the metaphor, he turned the baser metals into gold. "If it was the strength of his genius that lifted him to the top of the heap, it was also the greatness of the heap that enabled him to reach and maintain that elevation". He was no conscious innovator or theorist on the drama. He took the drama as it came to his hand, a thing of unsouled forms and lacklustre eyes, all brainless and meaningless and by his supreme genius he informed its shapes with grace and virtue, breathed life into it and the drama was reborn, as it were. This is what his genius had done for the Elizabethan drama. He made it 'a thing of beauty' and 'hence a joy for ever' Herein lies the distinctive quality of his creative genius.

      The wide range and variety of Shakespearean plays is almost bewildering. Shakespeare was, indeed, not of one mind but 'myriad-minded'. He was "not of one an age, but of all times," He was not 'of a land but of all lands'. The diversity of the materials and themes of his plays is astonishing. He might well say 'nothing human is alien to me'. In twenty years of his dramatic career he has written thirty-seven plays, which are the permanent treasures of English literature. Their appeal is universal. They have not been staled by time or custom. In them his catholic and capacious mind ranged freely over distant times and places and brought materials from a wide range and by his art he had treated them, giving them life, beauty and power. His gallery of portraits is vast and varied. He has touched every mood, every passion and thought of the human mind and made us familiar to them. In the words of Matthew Arnold:

All pains the immortal spirit must endure,

All weakness that impairs, all griefs that bow,

Find their sole voice in that victorious brow.

      There is, as it were, God's plenty in his world of men and women. Nay, he is not confined to the world of men only. Graves have opened their mouths at his bidding and belched forth their inmates. Ghosts, fairies, witches-denizens of other worlds than ours often come into his plays and mingle with the world of men. And he has painted them with a delicacy of touch and a psychological imagination that are wonders for ever. This much about his materials.

      In form, too, the plays show an astonishing variety. "They correspond to and overflow every dramatic classification hitherto known-national history, tragedy, comedy, romantic and fairy plays. But these categories do not suffice to show their variety." Even within one species he has rung infinite variations, making the classification hopeless, misleading and arbitrary. His comedies often shade off into the tragic by insensible means and there is "every degree and variety of tragic and comic interest, exhibited in rich profusion in one single play. There are the tragi-comedies, dark comedies, problem plays etc. in the same group, broadly called comedies. His tragedies, too, are rich in their variety. All current patterns of tragedy he took up and touched to gold.

      Hamlet, for example, is a 'revenge-tragedy' of the popular tradition but in his hand it receives an apotheosis and becomes one of the marvels of psycho-logical tragedies. His last plays, called romances are a unique creation in their dramatic contents, style and technique. He shows equal aptitudes and skill, imagination and knowledge of human character in poetry and lyricism, whatever be the species he takes up. As a critic has beautifully put it: "Shakespeare is never found twice at the same point. It is as though he has sworn in his youth to experiment in construction of the most varied kinds and in the highly contrasted moods". He is ever on the 'quest for fresh fields and pastures new'. It is this endless variety and vitality of his plays that gives him such a unique place in world literature.

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