Christopher Marlowe's contribution to English drama

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      At the time when Christopher Marlowe came upon the English stage, the English drama was in a chaotic state. The native dramas, namely the Miracies and Moralities still held their sway. Senecan models in tragedy and imitations of Plautus and Terence in comedy were practised by the popular playwrights who counted. There were the 'University Wits', who were learned and scholarly playwrights, who insisted on form, decorum and dignity even with artificiality and rigialty, while the popular ones continued the native tradition of formiessiness but gave much of vivacity and vigour to their representations. The common medium of expression was rhymed lines and stanzas of various sorts, though the first blank verse tragedy Gorboduc was produced in 1562. Such verses were lifeless and monotonous to a degree and were scarcely suited to common speaking. The English public wanted something more exciting than declamations. Thus the English drama at the advent of Marlowe floundered in search of a proper method, metre and diction. It needed a great genius who could give the drama a direction and stability. And this was fulfilled by Marlowe, who came just in time.

      Marlowe has been rightly called the 'Father of the English drama'. Of course, he had no bent for comedy and the comic parts found in some of his plays are inferior, probably written by other hands. It was upon the tragedy that Marlowe gave the impress of his genius and left it ready-made for his great successor, Shakespeare. Marlowe saw clearly that the Romantic drama, as distinguished from the classical one with its unities and other features, was best suited to the needs of the nation and no other form could best represent its abundant exuberant life. He, therefore, sat down between the classical and native dramas and decided in favour of the latter.

      How did Marlowe do it? In the first place, he raised the subject-matter to a higher level. He provided heroic subjects which appealed to his imagination. In his person the spirit of the Renaissance - boundless passion for knowledge, power and beauty was incarnated. His heroes are Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, Barabas, embodying passion for world conquest, knowledge and wealth respectively. He gave life and reality to these characters. They are not mere puppets pulled by a string by their creator but they are endowed with astounding life and reality. "He was the first English playwright to realise that tragic action must issue from and be reflected in character". The seeds of the tragedy lie in character and the hero plucks upon himself the result of his own deeds. Of course his characters have no complexity or development and each is an embodiment of a single idea or passion. This is no doubt a serious limitation of his art of characterization. But they are giants among men and their fall excites pity and terror.

      In the next place, he gave the approval of his authority on the blank verse of the classical school and put aside the old rhyming lines of the Romantic or native drama, "jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits", as he says in the Prologue to Tamburlaine. His was to be the high astounding terms. He found the blank verse of the classical models wooden, stilted and lifeless and took upon himself to breathe life and passion into it and 'make it an instrument of hundred stops', with its infinite variety. This is what is called by Ben Jonson as Marlowe's 'mighty lines'. The old blank verse consisted of lines, each ending with an accented syllable, standing by itself and mornotonous in rhyming effect. He varied the rhythmic pauses, altered the accents and made the metre suit the subject. In place of the old end-stopped verses flowing smoothly according to the current of ideas. Thus the language of drama was brought nearer to real life. And the instrument was made ready for Shakespeare who further improved upon it. Thus the language of drama was given a new lite by his energising power and fervid imagination. He is the greatest of Shakespeare's predecessors, foreshadowing the future greatest dramatist. There is a saying- "No Marlowe, no Shakespeare". This may sound an exaggeration but it contains the hard core of truth in it. Marlowe gave to English tragedy its true metre and diction, splendidly fulfilling the arrogant promise in the Prologue to Tamburaine:

"From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits

And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay."

Marlowe also added to the conception of tragedy. He broke, partly with mediaeval conception in which tragedy was the fall of a great man
Christopher Marlowe


      Marlowe also added to the conception of tragedy. He broke, partly with mediaeval conception in which tragedy was the fall of a great man. With him, as later with Shakespeare, tragedy is distress resulting from some Overweening feature of weakness, or strength in the character himself. In Tamburlaine, it is lust of power; in the Jew of Malta, it is avarice; in Faustus, it is lust of sovereign knowledge. For the middle ages, tragedy was a thing of princes; for Marlowe it was a thing of individual heroes. The Jew is a money-lender; Faustus, an ordinary German doctor and Tamburlaine though a king is born a peasant. Thus the mediaeval conception of the royalty of tragedy is being supplanted by the Renaissance ideal of individual worth. Marlowe's heroes are guided by Virtu which drives man to find free and full expressions of his thoughts and emotions. Tamburlaine, Faustus, the Jew and Mortimer are all governed by this Virtu which leads them to their ultimate tragedy.

      Marlowe gave to the crude tragedy of mediaeval times a depth and inwardness in English drama. In Dr. Faustus he attempted the delineation of a struggle within the mind of the chief figure. Marlowe dared to claim admiration even for the blood-thirsty conqueror like Tamburlaine. It is a clear anticipation of Shakespeare's treatment of Richard and Macbeth.

      Marlowe's Edward II is a distinct improvement upon the earliest historical play like "King Johan". In Edward II, Marlowe attempted a dramatisation of history by compression and telescoping, Edward II is a successful attempt at poetic tragedy revolving round the character of Edward.

      Marlowe is a poet. He is a poet of passion and pathos. The union of poetry and drama which is one of the glories of Shakespeare is also Marlowe's achievement. It raises crude mediaeval drama to the realm of high tragedy. The poignantly pathetic death scene of Faustus, the scene of King Edward in Kenilworth castle and the rapturous cry over the dying zenocrate are gems or English poetry.

      Marlowe, however, is not a good dramatist. His plays lack unity. Tamburlaine and Dr, Faustus are a collection of unrelated scenes, loosely pinned together. In Edward I there is a break in the middle with a too abrupt shift in sympathies Marlowe's tragedies are one man shows. The central character dominates the play. He can draw only one character and lacks the power of weaving a dramatic plot by the distribution of sympathies. He does not understand female characters. He tries to draw the character of Isabella in Edward II but he shows lack of insight into the psychological essentials of the characters. All his characters speak the same language. He cannot construct the nimble pliable dialogue spiced with humour and interspersed with comic relief.

      Inspite of these defects, Marlowe's position as a pioneer and forerunner of Shakespeare is permanently established.

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