The following article was originally published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 34.
THERE can be no question of the genius of Christopher Marlowe, nor of the far-reaching effect of his work on English drama. He dared disregard the classical unities in favor of a natural unity which comes from centering the action around one great character or great passion. He created an English drama in place of a slavish imitation of Greek and Latin dramas. He was, perhaps, the pioneer who blazed a trail for that still greater English dramatist born the same year, William Shakespeare.
Christopher Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker. He studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1583. Before he received his master's degree in 1587, his greatest tragic drama had been presented on the stage. Before he finished college he had also done at least part of the work of translating Ovid's Amores into English verse.
After leaving college he went up to London where he gained immediate fame as a poet and dramatist writing for the Admiral's company. He numbered among his friends the literary lights of the day, including Kyd, Nash, Greene, Sir Walter Raleigh and probably Shakespeare. This period of his life was characterized mainly by a revolt against conventional morality and established religion. His career came to an untimely end in a tavern brawl at a time when he was about to be arrested on the charge of heresy.
In his few brief years of maturity he had accomplished more than many men do in a lifetime, and he left a lasting impression on dramatic history. His Jew of Malta was performed 38 times in four years, a record for those days. This same drama finds an echo a few years later in The Merchant of Venice. His Dr. Faustus is the first dramatic treatment of the Faust legend, later made famous by the German Goethe. His most successful attempt at historical drama is Edward II. His beautiful poem, Hero and Leander was incomplete at his death as was also a tragedy on the subject of Queen Dido.
Marlowe followed the Italian Machiavelli in admiration for mental and spiritual freedom. He tried to show the inner spiritual struggle in his plays; "he made tragedy a matter of character, not caste." In addition, he greatly improved the blank verse that in his time was the recognized vehicle of tragic drama. But he had one important weakness: he lacked the ability to portray women and none of his plays treats the subject of love.
Swinburne's characterization of Marlowe is most revealing: "He came to London to seek his fortune . . . a boy in years, a man in genius, a god in ambition. Who knows to what heights he might have risen but for his untimely end?"