Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE LIFE

OP

CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE.

MARLOWE 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 preceded hiin 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 dramatic 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

[ocr errors]

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 contemporaries. 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 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. Márlowe, on leaving the University, came to London, and, like many of the 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 Marlowe 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 accuracy, although the accusations are not of a nature to be entitled to any great weight. Marlowe's familiar 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

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

• 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 Musæus 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 :

66

Unhappy in thine end,
Marlowe the muses' darling for thy verse,
Fit to write passions for the souls below
If any wretched souls in passions speak.”

In The Return from Parnassus he is characterised in these words :

“ Marlowe was happy in his buskined muse,
Alas! unhappy in his 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

« PreviousContinue »