Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE LIFE

CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE.

Marlov/e was the only dramatic poet who obtained any great degree of celebrity previously to the appearance of Shakespeare's plays; we hardly meet with a single scene in the dramatic productions of Marlowe's predecessors which is calculated to call forth the passions of grief, or terror, or astonishment. They are all written either in the dry didactic style of Ferrex and Porrex, or in the extravagant vein of King Cambises. The dramatists, indeed, who pre-\ ceded him had no dominion over the passions—they were extravagant and bombastic, instead of being pathetic or natural. Peele and Greene, the friends and contemporaries of Marlowe, exhibited only slight and occasional indications of feeling in their dra— matic compositions. Marlowe was the first who made any impression upon the hearts of the audience. ~ He possessed more genius and refinement, and drew his materials from a purer source, than any former

dramatic poet. His career was melancholy and

brief, but he has left sufficient testimonies of power

to convince us that if he had lived longer he would

have contested the palm with the most celebrated poets

of the age of Elizabeth, who, in the dramatic art, must

! be considered rather as his successors than contem

: poraries. Marlowe had the honour of being the

- first to adopt a more natural and chaste model, and that is no slight praise at a time when taste wavered

• between extravagance and pedantry. Notwithstanding the backward state of tragedy in England before Marlowe's time, it is remarkable that comedy had made considerable progress. The dramatic writings of John Heywood are of a most facetious and comic kind, and Gammer Gurton's Needle is exquisitely droll and humorous.

The time of Marlowe's birth is matter of conjecture, but is placed by Mr. Ellis in 1562, and by Malone, with greater appearance of probability, about : 1565.* Oldys on the contrary carries it as far back i as the former part of the reign of Edward VI. He was entered of Bennet's College, Cambridge, and took his Bachelor's degree in 1583, and that of Master of Arts in 1587. Marlowe, on leaving the University, came to London, and, like many of the

• MS. Notes to the collection of Marlowe's Plays in the Bodleian Library.'''

scholars of his age, became, according to Phillips
and Warton, at once an actor and a writer for the
stage. Malone, however, is of opinion, that there is —
no sufficient authority for the assertion, that Mar-
lowe was ever on the stage, as he is not mentioned
as an actor by any of his contemporaries. He has
been equally the subject of high panegyric, and the.
sport of scurrilous abuse, esteemed for his verse and
hated for his life—the favorite of the learned and
witty, and the horror of the precise and religious.
The praise applies to his intellectual and the censure
to his moral character; what the latter really was
may be difficult at this time to determine with ac-
curacy, although the accusations are not of a nature
to be entitled to any great weight, Marlowe's fa-
miliar appellative was Kit, which may be considered
as evidence of a kind disposition, or a companionable
nature. "That elemental wit Kit Marlowe" is the
expression of one writer, and Thomas Heywood, in
his ' Hierarchy,' informs us that

"Marlowe renowned for his rare art and wit,'
Could ne'er attain beyond the name of Kit."

The testimonies of his contemporary poets in his \ favour are numerous and highly laudatory. Nash, } speaking of Hero and Leander, expresses himself thus:—"Of whom divine Musseus sung, and a

diviner Muse than he Kit Marlowe;" and Heywood calls him " the best of poets." Peele, in his Honour of the Garter, thus speaks of him :—

"Unhappy in tbine end,

Marlowe the muses' darling for ihy verse,
Fit to write passions for the souls below
If any wretched souls in passions speak."

In The Return/ram Parnassus he is characterised in these words:—

"Marlowe was happy in his buskined muse,

Alas! unhappy in bis life and end:

Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell,

Wit lent from heaven but vices sent from hell."

Drayton describes him in a still higher and finer strain:—

"Next Marlowe bathed in the Thespian springs,
Had in him those brave translunary things
That your first poets had: his raptures were
All air and fire, which made his verses clear;
For that fine madness still he did retain
Which rightly should possess a poet's brain."

We will now exhibit the reverse of the picture, from which, if the representation be correct, we must conclude Marlowe to be a blasphemer and an atheist, a scoffer of God, and a standing monument of his justice. Thomas Beard, in The Theatre of God's Judgments*, a zealous puritan, and an arch-dialectician, holds him up as a notable example of the danger of speaking lightly of religious mysteries. "Not inferior," says he, "to any of the former in atheism and impiety, and equal to all in manner of punishment, was one of our own nation of fresh and late memory, called Marlowe, by profession a scholar, brought up from his youth in the University of Cambridge, but by practice a play-maker, and a poet of scurrility, who by giving too large a swing to his own wit, and suffering his lust to have the full reins, fell (not without just desert) to that great outrage and extremity that he denied God and his son Christ, and not only in word blasphemed the Trinity (but also as it is credibly reported) wrote books against it, affirming our Saviour to be a deceiver, and Moses but to be a seducer of the people, and the Holy Bible to be but vain and idle stories, and all religion but a device of policy. But see what a hook the Lord put in the nostrils of this barking dog: so it fell out that as he purposed to stab one whom he ought a grudge unto with his dagger; the other party perceiving, so avoided the stroke that withal catching hold of his wrist, he stabbed his own dagger into his own head, in such sort that not

* We quote from the 4to. edition, by Thomas Beard and Thomas Taylor, p. 92, 1668, fol. •

« PreviousContinue »