Marlowe’s Influence on Shakespeare

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Marlowe establishes a landmark in the history of English Drama. An ardent student of ancient classics, he explored the infinite possibilities in indigenous drama and helped to set up a native tradition. He literally paved the path for the emergence of Shakespeare.

(1)  According to the Greek composition of tragedy, the hero should be a Man of Moment – one whose destiny is closely tied with that of our own. Marlowe makes a glaring deviation from the path trodden by the Greeks. His heroes are men with whom we have a close kinship. Tamburlaine is a Scythian Shepherd, Barabas a Mediterranean money-lender, and Faustus an ordinary German Doctor. While Shakespeare follows the Greek convention in most of his major tragedies, we notice the conspicuous exception in Othello who though he speaks of himself as “hailing etc.” is after all a moor of Venice.

(2)  The Greeks insisted on the observance of the unities as an essential concomitance of tragedy. Marlowe boldly violates the rule with impunity. (a) Tamburlaine’s conquest takes well-nigh 24 years. The action of Faustus dating from his signing of the bond to Lucifer. The duration of the exploits of the Jew, too, exceeds the limit set by the ancient. (b) The scene, too, shifts from one country to another in Tamburlaine. Faustus travels around the globe. Shakespeare, taking the clue from Marlowe, proved conclusively that dramatic verisimilitude can never be disturbed by the violations of the unities of time and place.

(3)  Quite contrary to the established Greek convention Marlowe mingled the comic and tragic elements in Faustus, even though in Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta we do not see it freely employed. Though many of the Wagner scenes are supposed to be interpolations by other hands, particularly Chapman, Marlowe cannot disown the authorship of these scenes completely. He had before him the primary aim of providing comic relief to the overtaxed minds of the auditors. But as we know, from our reaction to the Porter scene, the grave diggers scene, the appearance of the clown – and the rustic – these scenes by emphasizing the scene of contrast, only accentuate our tension. Further, with true dramatists’ insight into human life, Marlowe wants to point out that life consists in laughter and tears. To think of man’s life being burdened by unrelieved tragedy is starkly unimaginable and unreal.

(4)  It was Marlowe who first presented on the English State The Titanic Struggle which rages in a man’s soul. The tempest in a soul is the very essence of Shakespearean tragedy. The struggle between the forces of good and evil in Tamburlaine, Faustus, and The Jew of Malta stands boldly in comparison with similar effects in Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth.

(5)  Marlowe, however, did not regard heroism as synonymous with virtue. His heroes are by no means patterns of human excellence overtaken by tragic frailty as in the case of Hamlet, Othello and King Lear. They can be relegated to the category of “hero-villains” – a type popularized in Elizabethan England. But these figures move before us as grand specimens of humanity overtaken by passion for reason. Tamburlaine takes to a career of conquests; Faustus turns to necromancy and so defies Mammon. In Shakespeare we have the classic instance of Macbeth who is the direct descendent of Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine, while Shylock is the dramatic foster-child of Barabas.

(6)  Marlowe is an astute craftsman in the effective use of suspense – a consciousness that the fate of the hero is sealed right at the outset. When Faustus signs the bond with the devil, he is actually flirting with fate even as Macbeth does when he interviews the witches. Until the play moves to its ultimate catastrophe suspense grips us – a feature common to Shakespeare and Marlowe.

(7)  Again, Marlowe’s ability to compose death scenes is almost unparalleled in modern drama.

According to Thorndike:

“In the deaths of Faustus and Edward II Marlowe’s dramatic power reaches its highest point. Death synonymous with tragic catastrophe was revealed to the future dramatists as something more than physical horror at the end of existence. Death became the loss of active and glorious living, the negation of individual power, the expiring struggle of the drama of life, its last defiance and its most irresistible appeal to pity and horror.” The death scenes in hamlet and Othello derive directly from Marlowe’s inspiration.

(8)  Marlowe, however, refrained from exhibiting physical horror upon the stage. The deaths of Faustus, Barabas and Tamburlaine are either implied or narrated, but not enacted. The gruesome murder of Desdemona and of Antony are related to us; but the greater genius of Shakespeare for tragic poignancy did introduce scenes of physical horror at times, as in the slapping of Desdemona by Othello, the blinding of Gloucester in Lear and the stabbing of Macduff’s children in Macbeth.

Edward II is an exception: In the words of Havelock Ellis “In nothing has Marlowe shown himself so much a child of the true Renaissance as in this to touch the images of physical horror.

(9)  Marlowe’s treatment of the supernatural is unique and considerably influenced Shakespeare. He gives human touches to his supernatural beings which catch our eyes. Mephistopheles is capable of human feelings. His appeal to Faustus literally to adjure the devil has a tinge of pathos about them. Marlowe, at this moment, reminds us of Ariel attempting to stir the steely heart of Prospero. Even in his portrayal of the witches in Macbeth and the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare is highly indebted to Marlowe.

(10)  The device employed by Marlowe to represent the tempest of the emotions in the hero’s heart is unique and dramatically very effective. The good and the evil angels appearing as two characters to reflect the inner conflict was a bold invention on the part of the dramatist. Shakespeare frequently resorts to soliloquy in his tragedies. We hear also the incorporeal voice bidding Macbeth “sleep no more.” The dagger with its handle drawn towards Macbeth, the ghost of Banquo, and the ghost of Ceasar appearing to Brutus with the words: “I’m thy evil spirit” – all these are actually an objective mirror of the heart, but are incapable of giving a kaleidoscopic picture.

(11)  By far the greatest contribution by Marlowe to the development of tragedy is the way he employs the medium of Blank verse. Blank verse is the only instrument capable of representing subtle shades of thought and feeling. Much of Shakespeare’s greatness is dependent on the poetry in his plays. Marlowe was the pioneer of blank verse in drama, Shakespeare was its complete master especially in the use of its various ramifications.

(12)  We notice certain deficiencies in Marlowe’s tragic design, fortunately absent in Shakespeare. Marlowe concentrated his entire attention on the development of a single character and so was almost indifferent to the rest. In Shakespeare every character has a positive individuality. We remember the passive Horatio as well as the turncoat Enobarbus.

(13)  Marlowe was also ignorant of the feminine heart. Zenocrate is merely a shadow. Helen appears as a vision. On the contrary, Shakespeare’s acquaintance with the working’s of a woman’s mind is so profound that Ruskin, Arnold and Mrs. Jameson even contend that Shakespeare was primarily concerned with his heroines.

(14)  Out of the physical activity and intellectual inquisitiveness of the Renaissance, there grew up a body of literature which was remarkable for its power and force. Marlowe was, perhaps, the truest representative of this literary and dramatic efflorescence. He embodied in his four plays, man’s inordinate love of physical power, his greed for intellectual wealth and his passion for material wealth and also his love of human passion. He devised a suitable medium to project his fiery soul and that was his well-known Blank verse. If Shakespeare had not Marlowe’s shoulders to stand upon he would not have been recognized as one of the greatest dramatist in the world. Shakespeare honoured his master both by imitation and direct quotation.