If Christopher Marlowe had not been killed in a tavern brawl at the age of twenty-nine, he might have equalled his exact contemporary William Shakespeare as poet and playwright. This commonly held view makes for a lively debate.
‘Kit’ Marlowe, as he mostly called, was cut off in his prime in a sixteenth century London pub – a dagger was thrust into his brain through an eye – but he had already had time to influence Shakespeare. The writing and production of plays was copious in this century and the next, but Marlowe rose easily above the other authors, partly because he developed earlier than Shakespeare. He was the son of a successful shoe and boot maker in Canterbury, Kent, educated at the fearsome King’s School in that town, and later at Corpus Christi in Cambridge.
While a student he joined a small theatre company owned by the Earl of Nottingham, for whom he wrote plays. Among his friends of this period was the promising poet and adventurer Walter Raleigh. Like most young men in earlier centuries than ours he was bi-sexual when this condition was not considered abnormal.
In 1587 he wrote the play that would set him above contempories and make his name – Tamburlaine the Great, also known as Tamerlaine in some printed versions. The piece was written entirely in blank verse, and showed a mastery of this medium that had been lacking in his more experimental works composed before. Blank verse can be monotonous if it is but heroic couplets with no rhyming ends.
The theme is not charming: Tamburlaine is a shepherd/robber from Scythia who allies himself with Cosroe against his brother the King of Persia, then challenges Cosroe himself for the crown and takes it. Next in line for his attentions is the Turk Bazajet, whom Tamburlaine locks up in a cage with his empress/concubine, taunting them before the crowd until in desperation they beat their own brains out against the bars. Now it is time for the hero to fall in love with the daughter of the Sultan of Egypt, Zenocrate, after he has captured her in Damascus. Later we see him drawn in his chariot by a group of prisoner/kings, but he has gone too far, ambition overcomes him, and he and Zenocrate must die. Kit Marlowe is known for what critics have called ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’ and here are some of them, from Tamburlaine:-
See, where my slave, the ugly monster Death, /Shaking and quivering, pale and wan with fear, /Stands aiming at me with his murderous dart, /but flies away at every glance I give; /And, when I look away, comes stealing on! /Look where he goes, but see, he comes again, /Because I stay! Techelles, let us march /And weary Death with bearing souls to hell.
Zenocrate is delighted with these splendid outbursts, even more so when Tamburlaine urges on the stumbling kings who pull him along –
Holla! Ye pampered jades of Asia /Can ye not pull your twenty miles a day?
Marlowe’s second great play could hardly be more different. The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus deals with a scientist who sells his soul to the Devil. Tired with mere science, he makes contact with Mephistopholes, a sort of satanic agent. He offers to sell his soul in return for twenty-four years more life, with Mephisto in constant attendance, rewarding him with whatever he fancies. What he fancies most is to meet and love Helen of Troy, no less, and here we hear Kit at his sweetest:-
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? /Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. /Her lips suck forth my soul! /See, where it flies! /Come Helen, come, give me my soul again. /Here will I dwell, for Heaven is in these lips, /And all is dross that is not Helena. He goes on to say he will become Prince Paris, and how he will sack Wittenburg instead of Troy, fight and kill Menelaus, wound Achilles in the heel, and finally return to Helen for another kiss.
Kit’s most moving play, still often produced, is Edward II, written in the year of his death. Here he is in Shakespearean mode, indeed there are similarities with the latter’s Richard II. The play deals with the revolt of Edward’s barons against him because of the outrageous ambitions of his favourite Piers Gaveston. The barons are led by a nasty piece of work called Mortimer, who is sleeping with Edward’s queen, Isabella of France, easily done because the king spends all day and night with Gaveston. He is locked up in Berkeley Castle (q.v.) and done to death in a dreadful way. This last scene caused the critic and poet Charles Lamb to write: “it moves pity and terror beyond any scene, ancient or modern, with which I am acquainted.” Even the assassin is moved to tears as the king laments: And there in mire and puddle have I stood /This ten days’ space; and lest that I should sleep, /One plays continually upon a drum: /They give me bread and water, being a King: /So that, for want of sleep and sustenance, /My mind’s distempered, and my body’s numbed, /And whether I have limbs or not I know not. /O! Would my blood dropped out from every vein, /As does this water from my tattered robes! /Tell Isabel the queen, I looked not thus, /When for her sake I ran at tilt in France, /And there unhorsed the Duke of Clermont. Shakespeare will undoubtedly have heard these lines.
There is a good deal of anti-Semitism in Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, which might have inspired Shakespeare in his gentler play The Merchant of Venice. In the former play the Governor of Malta decides that the island’s debts shall be paid by the Jews, and Barabbas the Jew resists; his wealth and property are taken from him as punishment. His house becomes a nunnery. Mad with grief, Barabbas murders his own daughter and her lover and betrays Malta to the Turks, for which he is made Governor! Not content with this, Barabbas tries to kill the Turks’ commander with a trap, but falls through it himself, straight into a cauldron where he drowns.
Theatre was immensely popular in Elizabethan times, the people liking plenty of strong stuff, blood and tragedy, mixed with bawdy lines and flowing rhetoric. Kit and William later gave them all they wanted and more, but Marlowe is infinitely more brutal then Shakespeare, and I doubt if he could have written the Sonnets had he wanted to. He worked often for Walsingham, head of Elizabeth’s secret service, and his sudden and violent death may have had a connection with his job as a spy.