Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
743
MARLOWE, CHRISTOPHER


conception and realistic execution is not yet struck with perfect accuracy of touch and security of hand; but on this point also Marlowe has here come nearer by many degrees to Shakespeare than any of his other predecessors have ever come near to Marlowe.

Of The Massacre at Paris (acted in 1593, printed 1600?) it is impossible to judge fairly from the garbled fragment of its genuine text which is all that has come down to us. To Mr Collier, among numberless other obligations, we owe the discovery of a noble passage excised in the piratical edition which gives us the only version extant of this unlucky play, and which, it must be allowed, contains nothing of quite equal value. This is obviously an occasional and polemical work, and being as it is overcharged with the anti-Catholic passion of the time has a typical quality which gives it some empirical significance and interest. That anti papal ardour is indeed the only note of unity in a rough and ragged chronicle which shambles and stumbles onward from the death of Queen Jeanne of Navarre to the murder of the last Valois. It is possible to conjecture, what it would be fruitless to affirm, that it gave a hint in the next century to Nathaniel Lee for his far superior and really admirable tragedy on the same subject, issued ninety-seven years after the death of Marlowe.

In the tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage (completed by Thomas Nash, produced and printed 1594), a servile idelity to the text of Virgil's narrative has naturally resulted in the failure which might have been expected from an attempt at once to transcribe what is essentially inimitable and to reproduce it under the hopelessly alien conditions of dramatic adaptation. The one really noble passage in a generally feeble and in composite piece of work is, however, uninspired by the unattainable model to which the dramatists have been only too obsequious in their subservience. It is as nearly certain as anything can be which depends chiefly upon cumulative and collateral evidence that the better part of what is best in the serious scenes of King Henry VI is mainly the work of Marlowe. That he is at any rate the principal author of the second and third plays passing under that name among the works of Shakespeare, but first and imperfectly printed as The Contention between the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, can hardly be now a matter of debate among competent judges. The crucial difficulty of criticism in this matter is to determine, if indeed we should not rather say to conjecture, the authorship of the humorous scenes in prose, showing as they generally do a power of comparatively high and pure comic realism to which nothing in the acknowledged works of any pre-Shakespearian dramatist is even remotely comparable. Yet, especially in the original text of these scenes as they stand unpurified by the ultimate revision of Shakespeare or his editors, there are tones and touches which recall rather the clownish horseplay and homely ribaldry of his predecessors than anything in the lighter interludes of his very earliest plays. We find the same sort of thing which we find in their writings, only better done than they usually do it, rather than such work as Shakespeare's a little worse done than usual. And even in the final text of the tragic or metrical scenes the highest note struck is always, with one magnificent and unquestionable exception, rather in the key of Marlowe at his best than of Shakespeare while yet in great measure his disciple.

A Taming of a Shrew, the play on which Shakespeare's comedy was founded, has been attributed, without good reason, to Marlowe. The passages in the play borrowed from Marlowe's works provide an argument against, rather than for his authorship; while the humorous character of the play is not in keeping with his other work. He may have had a share in The Troublesome Raigne of King John (1591), and Fleay conjectured that the plays Edward III. and Richard III. usually included in editions of Shakespeare are at least based on plays by Marlowe. Lust's Dominion, printed in 1657, was incorrectly ascribed to him, and a play no longer extant, The True History of George Scanderbage, was assumed by Fleay on the authority of an obscure passage of Gabriel Harvey to be his work. The Maiden's Holiday, assigned to Day and Marlowe, was destroyed by Warburton's cook. Day was considerably Marlowe's junior, and collaboration between the two is not probable.

Had every copy of Marlowe's boyish version or perversion of Ovid's Elegies (P. Ovidii Nasonis Amorum compressed into three books) deservedly perished in the flames to which it was judicially condemned by the sentence of a brace of prelates, it is possible that an occasional bookworm, it is certain that no poetical student, would have deplored its destruction, if its demerits could in that case have been imagined. His translation of the first book of Lucan alternately rises above the original and falls short of it, -often inferior to the Latin in point and weight of expressive rhetoric, now and then brightened by a clearer note of poetry and lifted into a higher mood of verse. Its terseness, vigour and purity of style would in any case have been praiseworthy, but are nothing less than admirable, if not wonderful, when we consider how close the translator has on the whole (in spite of occasional slips into inaccuracy) kept himself to the most rigid limit of literal representation, phrase by phrase and often line by line. The really startling force and felicity of occasional verses are worthier of remark than the inevitable stiffness and heaviness of others, when the technical difficulty of such a task is duly taken into account.

One of the most faultless lyrics and one of the loveliest fragments in the whole range of descriptive and fanciful poetry would have secured a place for Marlowe among the memorable men of his epoch, even if his plays had perished with himself. His Passionate Shepherd remains ever since unrivalled in its waya way of pure fancy and radiant melody without break or lapse. The untitled fragment, on the other hand, has been very closely rivalled, perhaps very happily imitated, but only by the greatest lyric poet of England-by Shelley alone. Marlowe's poem of Hero and Leander (entered at Stationers' Hall in September 1593; completed and brought out by George Chapman, who divided Marlowe's work into two sestiads and added four of his own, 1598), closing with the sunrise which closes the night of the lovers' union, stands alone in its age, and far ahead of the work of any possible competitor between the death of Spenser and the dawn of Milton. In clear mastery of narrative and presentation, in melodious ease and simplicity of strength, it is not less pre-eminent than in the adorable beauty and impeccable perfection of separate lines or passages. It is doubtful whether the heroic couplet has ever been more finely handled. The place and the value of Christopher Marlowe as a leader among English poets it would be almost-impossible for historical criticism to over-estimate. To none of them all, perhaps, have so many of the greatest among them been so deeply and so directly indebted. Nor was ever any great writer's influence upon his fellows more utterly and unmixedly an influence for good. He first, and he alone, guided Shakespeare into the right way of work; his music, in which there is no echo of any man's before him, found its own echo in the more prolonged but hardly more exalted harmony of Milton's. He is the greatest discoverer, the most daring and inspired pioneer, in all our poetic literature. Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared, the paths were made straight, for Shakespeare.  (A. C. S.) 

Marlowe's fame, so finely appreciated by Shakespeare and Drayton, was in obscuration from the fall of the theatres until the generation of Lamb and Hazlitt. A collected edition was brought out by Pickering in 1826. This was greatly improved upon by A. Dyce (1858, 1865, 1876). A one-volume edition was repared by Colonel Francis Cunnin ham in 1871. The standard) edition of Mr A. H. Bullen in 3 vols. appeared in 1884-1885 and is now under revision. The “Best Plays" were edited for the Mermaid series by Havelock Ellis with an Introduction by J. A. Symonds (1887-1889). The best modern text is that edited by C. F. Tucker Brooke (Oxf. Univ. Press, 1910). A sketch in outline of Marlowe's Life was essayed by J. G. Lewis (Canterbury, 1891). A not very conclusive monograph on Christopher Marlowe and his Associates by J. H. Ingram, followed in 1904. For further information the reader should consult the histories of the stage by Collier, Ward, Fleay, Schelling, and the studies of Shakespeare's Predecessors by Symonds, Mezières, Boas, Manley, Churton Collins, Feuillerat and J. M. Robertson. See also Verity's Essay on Marlowe’s Influence (1886); Mod. Lang. Rev. iv; 167 (M. at Cambridge); Swinburne,