As a Renaissance Playwright, Christopher Marlowe is known as a precursor and contemporary of Shakespeare. He was born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare, but died much earlier at the age of 29 in a tavern brawl. Some believe his death may have resulted from political intrigue and that he was a government spy. Prior to his death, a warrant was issued for supposed blasphemous statements based on accusations by Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, and a government informer named Richard Baines, both of whom testified that Marlowe mocked scripture and was antagonistic towards religious ideas.
Dido, Queen of Carthage is the first play Marlowe wrote. It is mostly a retelling of the Dido episode from Virgil’s The Aeneid, even copying in translation copious amounts of language from the original. For this reason I found it uninteresting, reading the first three acts, and then skimmed the rest. Marlowe shifts the more serious tragic tone of love and happiness abandoned for the sake of duty and fate found in the original Epic Poem into a farcical comedy. The opening of the play features Jupiter flirting with Ganymede and complaining about Hera’s jealousy; this imaginative addition was not found in the original poem and adds to the burlesque tone, showing how uncaring the king of the deities is for heroes like Aeneas, as Zeus is too caught up in his own selfish pleasures.
Tamburlaine The Great, Part I is the story of a shepherd turned warrior named Tamburlaine who rises to power as he conquers Persia, Turkey, Arabia, and Egypt. Each of the five acts features him conquering a new major kingdom as each king arrogantly believes they will be the one to defeat Tamburlaine. Running through the play is Tamburlaine’s seduction of Zenocrate, a beautiful princess and daughter of the Sultan of Egypt, who initially is alienated by Tamburlaine’s violence and warmongering, but slowly falls for him and becomes impressed with his success. Tamburlaine the Great, Part II continues the story. In the second half, Tamburlaine now has imprisoned the son of Bajezeth (the Emperor of Turkey who he defeats and captures in the first part) and has three grown sons by Zenocrate who Tamburlaine wants to accompany him during his wars to prove their manhood. Bajezeth’s son escapes with the help of a traitorous prison keeper and they rally the troops in what remains of Turkish lands to attempt to defeat Tamburlaine. Zenocrate dies early in this play, which leads to Tamburlaine burning down an entire village as a funeral pyre in honor of his dead love. The atrocities do not end there. He defeats the new kings that stand in his way and ties them up with bits in their mouth like horses to convey him around in his chariot. He burns holy books and mocks the heavens. Eventually Tamburlaine’s enemies pray to heaven for curses to befall him. While he is completing the siege of Babylon, an inexplicable sickness falls over him and he dies.
The play explores religious themes. Each king believes God will support their bid against Tamburlaine. Meanwhile, Tamburlaine sees himself as the “scourge of God,” implying that he believes heaven sent him into the world to conquer it and bring fear to others. This is a commentary on the way people in power and nations always believe God is on their side and their own actions are morally righteous (or at least justified by whatever higher power they believe in). The cause of the death of Tamburlaine at the end is left ambiguous. Maybe God is finally punishing him for his misdeed in response to his enemy’s prayers or maybe it is happenstance. Nobody ever manages to defeat him on the battlefield. In Part II, there is a sub-plot where the Turkish forces want to ally themselves with some Christian Kings in order to defeat Tamburlaine. Initially they agree, but the Christian kings decide to betray the Islamic kings, justifying their actions that an oath to Jesus doesn’t count when heathens are involved. The Islamic forces defeat them, but the dialogue right before the battle reveals that the Islamic kings had planned to keep their oath, believing it sacred and are scandalized that the Christian Kings who hold oaths to their holy figures so lightly. The play presents its Renaissance Christian audience with a vision of honorable Islamic Kings and dishonorable Christian ones.
The kings take for granted their divine rights, believing they are superior to others simply as a matter of ancestry. The Kings view Tamburlaine as an upstart (a reoccurring descriptor the kings use for him in the play is a “thief”). A sub-plot of Part I involves the brother of the King of Persia plotting a coup against his brother’s reign only to later to be betrayed by Tamburlaine who takes the throne for himself. The play suggests kings are just normal human beings who mistake their power as stemming from divine right and noble bloodlines, but in reality the play suggests it is violence and martial strength that gives one the right to rule over nations. Tamburlaine establishes his right to rule over these lands and kings by force of arms. Tamburlaine, who begins his life as a lowly shepherd, defeats all these kings and steals their kingdoms for his own. The kings protest his lowly origins in various speeches, call him an upstart, but their words prove futile in stopping him. The “might makes right” theme is emphasized further as Tamburlaine grows increasingly violent and devises new atrocities for his enemies as the two parts progress as if he grows less and less concerned about what heaven might think.
Doctor Faustus is a play about a scholar named Doctor Faustus who has grown discontent with the abstruseness and circumlocution of philosophy and theology, turning to sorcery as a way of fulfilling his desires and discovering the true secrets of the universe. In exchange for his soul, he makes a deal with the Devil to enslave the demon Mephistopheles who must obey his every command. He employs this demon to fetch him books to teach him about the true nature of the universe, those difficult questions touched upon by philosophy and theology, but never solved by those subjects. His deal allows him to play cruel tricks on his enemies, impress emperors, kings, and his fellow scholars, and even allows him to fetch Helen of Troy to serve as his paramour.
Marlowe again is exploring religious themes. Faustus’ problem is how little he values his soul compared to knowledge and physical passions. He views his soul as a trifle, rationalizing that hell is really just a mere extension of this physical realm of which he derives so much pleasure and not a place of pain and torture. His mistake is to value knowledge and physical pleasures when he should be valuing his immortal soul. So one way look at the play is as a story about misplaced values.
The play further offers subtle commentary on the nature of philosophy and theology, both of which attempt to address many of life’s deepest questions (the nature of the universe, the soul, and the origins of everything), but often fail to deliver conclusive knowledge. Part of why Faustus delves into sorcery and sells his soul is for the sake of true knowledge, the answers to the questions he was never able to answer definitively with philosophy and theology. He just can’t accept not knowing. The irony is that once he has the answer to his questions he realizes the value of his soul and wants to repent, but the demons continually prevent him with threats and false promises that make him want to keep his bargain a little while longer, until it is too late. The play warns that there are boundaries of knowledge, which humanity is not meant to cross. Knowledge is fine, until we cross the boundary where we attempt to appropriate what is only known to God. The play suggests some questions are beyond human grasp. For those not of a religious persuasion, you can also read the play as a warning about giving up your “soul” (allegorically standing in for your goodness and ethical capacity) for the sake of knowledge. In other words, the play raises the point that some questions we might be able to get answers by making a deal with the devil so to speak, but is it worth the price? Knowledge is important, but not at the expense of one’s own soul (whether you understand that as a literal soul or an allegorical soul representing a person’s morality).
In my estimation, The Jew of Malta is probably Marlowe’s best plays, with Doctor Faustus right behind it. It was a strong influence on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and like that play it is problematic for its anti-Semitic depiction of its Jewish characters. The Christian governor of Malta steals the wealth of its Jewish citizens in order to pay a substantial debt to Turkish overlords. The Jewish Barabas vows revenge against those who have wronged him after they steal all of his money and property. After confiscating his property, the authorities convert his former mansion into a nunnery. Barabas uses his daughter Abigail to enflame the passions of Mathias (the man she really loves) and Lodowick (the governor’s son). Fueled by a fake letter produced by Barabas, the two end up dueling over Abigail and killing each other. So begins Barabas’ cruel series of violent acts on any Christian, Jew, or Turk foolish enough to cross him. Meanwhile, stirred by an emissary from Spain, the governor decides to rebel against the Turks and simply keep the tributary money he stole from his Jewish residents.
Critics have debated the depiction of Barbas in the play for a long time. With some seeing it as a series of straight-forward anti-Semitic stereotypes, while others seeing his depiction as so over-the-top that these tropes must be parodies meant to challenge the prejudices of its Christian audience. One problem with this view is that if that were Marlowe’s intention it is predicated upon a sophisticated audience, but not all readers and audience members are necessarily sophisticated. Different people will likely view Barabas differently and the play leaves open many options. Another problem is that when Barabas declares he walks around killing helpless people underneath city walls and poisoning wells (typical anti-Semitic tropes), which some critics view as parody (i.e. Barabas regurgitating what he supposes Christians think of him rather than his actual actions and thus mocking their prejudices), we then have these bloodthirsty declarations reinforced by his actual violent deeds in the remainder of the play. Some of these critics justify this as Barabas responding to the Christian actions; the Christians by their dishonorable actions lead him to respond in turn with violence and dishonorable actions, yet a close-reading of the play shows Barabas is depicted as self-serving and an egomaniac fairly early in the play. On the other hand, unlike Shylock who just wants his pound of flesh from Antonio in Shakespeare’s play, Marlowe shows that Barabas is genuinely mistreated by society when the governor confiscates his property to pay off Malta’s debts. Making this even more complex is that Marlowe does not shy away from calling out Christian hypocrisy in the play usually through Barabas’ commentary.
This is yet another play then that deals with religion, pointing out its many hypocrisies, especially when it intermingles with politics and business. The play features a three way conflict between the three Abrahamic religions. The governor justifies his actions often on vague religious pretenses of the Jews being accursed, but the play gives the sense that his real reason for confiscating the property is because it is convenient and politically savvy. He manipulates religious sentiments to justify his self-serving political actions. The governor’s actions are a mockery of religious feeling. Likewise, there is a scene in the middle of the play where two friars learn of Barabas’ misdeeds and threaten to expose him. However, the moment he promises to convert to their order and give his vast wealth to them, they suddenly could care less about his violent misdeeds of the past and become greedy sycophants, even to the point of arguing with each other and denouncing the other. They want his gold! Indeed, the war that ensues between the Islamic Turks and the Christians of Malta involves money. Marlowe seems to be saying it is not religion that drives the world, but greed. Religion is a pretense that people use to justify or hide their vices.
Edward the II is a history play about the rebellion of the Duke of Lancaster, Pembroke, and Mortimer against the king due to jealousy over his close relationship with Piers Gaveston, which they perceive as an insult to themselves who should be the ones to be his close advisers. After coming into conflict with the king by banishing Gaveston through an act of Parliament only to have the king call him back, they manage to capture and kill Gaveston with an armed force, but then lose in battle to the King’s forces and are executed. Before Mortimer can be executed he is freed by the king’s brother, the Duke of Kent, and retreats to France where he leads the king’s son and the abandoned Queen to recapture the kingdom and depose Edward the II. Mortimer then reigns as regent for the king who is a minor, having both the king and the Duke of Kent executed, only to eventually have his comeuppance when Edward the II’s son comes of age and becomes King in his own right, desiring revenge for the unnecessary death of his father and uncle.
The story is loosely based on real historical events, but takes some liberties. The conflict centers on the tension between the nobility’s political power and the king’s political power. Both groups feel their rights are being infringed upon. The king believes he should have the right to spend his time with whomever he pleases, such as Gaveston, while the nobles believe their views should be heeded by the king. Edward’s tragic mistake is to put his own desires before his duties as a king. Edward wants the joys and privileges of a king without the responsibilities. The inept Edward the II makes a good contrast to the undefeatable Tamburlaine.