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Christopher Marlowe, The Pioneer of Modern English Theater

Christopher Marlowe, The Pioneer of Modern English Theater


He was born in Canterbury in 1564, the same year as William Shakespeare, and attended King’s School where he received a classical education like all Elizabethan writers. Later he entered Corpus Christi College at Cambridge on a scholarship that destined him to a career in the Church. This of course was not to take place as Marlowe was already perhaps on his first plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage and his monumental work Tamburlaine; his extant poems also date back to this period in his life. Subsequently Marlowe launched himself as a dramatist and became a member of the renowned “University Wits”. Unfortunately his career and life came to an abrupt end when he was killed in a tavern brawl at Deptford in 1593; Christopher Marlowe was only 29!

His works and his legacy

This dramatist was completely forgotten and neglected during the eighteen hundreds until he was rediscovered by writers like William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb in the following century. From the twentieth century Marlowe acquired a comfortable place in the English literary and dramatic scene for his works were no longer compared to that of Shakespeare. In his short and turbulent life this great poet dramatist innovated the blank verse that brought the admiration of his contemporary Ben Jonson who acclaimed his “mighty line”. The iambic pentameter existed in English poetry since Chaucer but Marlowe made the break into a “realistic” form of human speech that was true for all his works and is particularly evident in his four outstanding masterpieces.

His very first play “Tamburlaine”, an heroic epic in two parts ever written in blank verse contains the noblest passages in literature as a whole. The Prologue was a self-confident opening with the Scythian Shepherd, Tamburlaine, moved by an ambition far beyond the circumstances of his status becomes a powerful figure with: “I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove; And yet a shepherd by my parentage”. Tamburlaine was a sensation when it was first staged for the dramatist actually exemplified Elizabethan drama with its pompous language, its exquisite imagery with spectacular expressions and characters. As one of the greatest masters of poetry his Dr Faustus in dramatic verse is perhaps the most exceptional play in this vision of Helen that reveals an intense perception of loveliness in the passionate and spontaneous selection of words: “Was this the face, that launched a thousand ships And burnt the topless towers of Illium.” Edward, the Second, a king torn between his love for his friend Gaveston and the revolt of his lords remarkably illustrated homosexual relationship without restriction. The pity and sympathy for Edward II are emphasized by the stark cruelty of his treatment when he is imprisoned. “What are kings, when regiment is gone, But perfect shadows in a sunshine day? ” describe in an outstanding manner the fall of Edward. Whereas his Jew of Malta Barabas is apart because of his differences; he is Jewish and his only motivation seems to be money.

He is introduced as a comic character who “smiles to see how full his bags are crammed”; while in contrast he later develops into a scheming manipulator and a greedy old man who jealously guards his wealth. At the play’s end, Barabas declares his own fantastical notions of destroying the world and dies uttering, “I would have brought confusion on you all / Damned Christians, dogs, and Turkish infidels.” He personified all the traits that an Elizabethan audience would have understood as quintessentially Jewish and anti-Christian.

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Christopher Marlowe, The Pioneer of Modern English Theater

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