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Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

A shoemaker's son and a scholarship student at Cambridge University, Marlowe began writing plays while he was still a student. At the same time he was apparently also engaged in some secret service for Queen Elizabeth I; his activities were considered suspicious by college authorities, who wanted to withhold his M.A. degree. The Queen's Privy Council intervened on his behalf.

Marlowe's life was short but intense. His first play, Tamburlaine, written in 1587, introduces the main theme of all his tragedies: personal ambition swelled to overwhelming and ultimately tragic proportions. In the six years between his first play and his death, he wrote five more plays.

Marlowe is credited with introducing blank verse--iambic pentameter with no rhyme--as a dramatic line. Ben Jonson later termed it "Marlowe's mighty line." Shakespeare also used it in his plays, and it became the standard for drama.

Marlowe was repeatedly in trouble: he took part in a brawl in which a man was killed; he was accused of being a traitor and an atheist. His death came as the result of a stab wound in an argument over a bill at an inn. He was only twenty-nine years old.


The date of the composition of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus is not known. They play was first published in 1604 and published again in 1616, both times in very imperfect editions. No complete manuscript seems to survive from Marlowe's lifetime. An additional complication arises because some parts of the play were written by an unknown collaborator, who probably wrote most or all of the comic scenes. The very powerful opening scenes and the scene of Faustus's final damnation are clearly by Marlowe; they are the essence of the tragedy. The Faustus character is based on the German folkloric figure of a scholar/magician who sells his soul to the devil.

Act I. In act I Faustus is shown as an accomplished scholar who has mastered all the recognized and legitimate fields of human knowledge. In his opening soliloquy, he recapitulates his achievements in logic, medicine, law, and theology, but he acknowledges that none of this satisfies his intellectual ambition. Faustus's sin is rooted in pride; he wants to go beyond the limits of human learning. He therefore determines to take up the study of magic, which he sees as a means of acquiring godlike powers.

Act II. In act II, consulting magic books, Faustus conjures up Mephistophilis's, the first lieutenant of Lucifer, the archdemon. Mephistophilis's calmness and manipulativeness contrast with Faustus's restless curiosity. Faustus himself proposes the fatal bargain. He offers his soul to Lucifer, the chief of all devils, in exchange for twenty-four years of magical powers and self-indulgence. Part of his pleasure, think is Faustus, will be having Mephistophilis as his servant. In the second scene of act II, Mephistophilis has returned from hell to ratify their agreement with a deed, to be written in Faustus's own blood. Although his blood congeals and his Good Angel warns him against this action, Faustus signs the deed. But as soon as he begins to ask Lucifer to fulfill his promises, he drawbacks of dealing with devils become evident to him. For example, Faustus wants a wife, but since marriage is a church sacrament, Mephistophilis can provide only a whore. When Faustus asks questions about creation, the work of God, Mephistophilis becomes annoyed and conjures up a procession of the Seven Deadly Sins, the spectacular allegorical figures, to distract Faustus from his questions. Faustus is from time bothered by impulses toward repentance, but each time the impulses pass by unheeded.

The serious scenes between Faustus and Mephistophilis are mocked by parallel comic scenes with the clown, Robin, and his subordinate companion, Dick. They have stolen one of Faustus's book on magic, which they use to carry out petty theft. These scenes underscore the trivial nature of what magic can provide for humanity.

Acts III and IV. In acts III and IV Faustus goes abroad to Rome, where he plays silly tricks on the Pope, which appealed to the anti-Catholic sentiments of Marlowe's Protestant English audience. In act IV, Faustus has returned to the court of Emperor Charles in Germany. Faustus again shows off his magic powers but still accomplishes only trivial tricks and illusions. Robin and Dick are joined by other "fools" who challenge Faustus and lose. These comic scenes are theatrically good, as when Faustus has a leg pulled off and grows another, but they do little to advance the central discussion of Faustus' soul, except to show that what little he received in his bargain with Lucifer was not worth anything.

Act V. Act V focuses again on the main issues--damnation. After twenty-four years, Faustus faces the end. Having said farewell to his fellow scholars, Faustus locks himself up alone, rejecting the pleading of a mysterious old man that he give up magic and repent. Instead, Faustus conjures up a spirit in the shape of the beautiful Helen of Troy and makes a passionate love speech to it. Now in physical intimacy with an evil spirit, Faustus has sealed his damnation. Still, at the eleventh hour, Faustus begins a powerfully moving final soliloquy in which he curses himself and longs for nonexistence, begging the elements to swallow him up. At the ultimate moment, as midnight strikes, Faustus sees hell gaping before him. In his last line, when it is too late, he cries hysterically, "I'll burn my books." The devils surround him and carry him off, leaving the chorus to speak the moral of the play. Any audience who only half-believed in the presence of devils on earth would be shattered by the final moments of Doctor Faustus.

Marlowe was not the only writer active in the London theater of the 1590s. His contemporaries included Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Robert Greene, George Peele, and Thomas Dekker, all of whom produced successful plays of various kinds before the end of the century. Ben Jonson's early comedies of humors belong to this era, as do the early plays of Shakespeare. The London theater-goer could choose among revenge tragedies, chronicle history plays, comedies of London life, and romantic comedies. This was the most creative period in the history of English theater.
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Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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