Christopher Marlowe’s Contribution to English Tragedy:We may begin by quoting Swinburne’s just and relevant remarks regarding Marlowe: “Before him there was neither genuine blank verse nor a genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival the way was prepared, the paths were made straight for Shakespeare.” After the Reformation Movement, Mysteries and Moralities lost all their influences on the audience. They were disliked by people because of their association with old church. In this time, the Revival of Learning and translation of the great Italian tragedies of Seneca left a deep impact on the development of the English drama. Following Senecan model grew the tradition of Revenge Tragedy that often involved long sententious speeches, lack of action, talkative ghost and horrible scene of gruesome murders. It required the mighty effort of a genius to free the Elizabethan drama from the dark and vulgar aspects of the Senecan Tragedy. In this situation, Marlowe appeared to give Elizabethan drama a distinct shape.
The first thing done by Marlowe was to break away from the medieval conception of tragedy that deals with rise and fall of royal personalities. Almost all the heroes of Marlowe – Tamburlaine, Faustus and Jew of Malta – are of humble parentage, but they are endowed with great heroic qualities. His heroes are fired with indomitable passions and inordinate ambition . His Tamburlaine is in full-flooded pursuit of military and political power, his Faustus sells his soul to devil, Jew of Malta absolutely discards all sense of human values with his blind and inordinate aspiration towards wealth as an ultimate end. Thus individuality and worldliness, two basic principles of Renaissance, coupled with intense passion and pitiless struggle with superhuman energy find expression in his heroes.
Another great achievement of Marlowe was to introduce element of conflict in two of his great tragedies Dr. Faustus and Edward II. Conflict may be physical as well as internal and spiritual. The spiritual conflict that takes place in the heart of hero is much greater, significant and poignant than the former. In this respect, Dr. Faustus is the first tragedy that dramatizes the agony of a conflict ridden soul in the history of English drama. Unlike the heroes of ancient tragedies, Marlowe’s heroes are not helpless puppets in the hands of blind fate. They are conscious of what they are doing and ready to embrace the consequences. That’s why Faustus says: “ ...Faustus hath incurr’d eternal death/ By despearte thoughts against Jove’s deity.”
Other remarkable achievement of Marlowe was to introduce a new type of blank verse in his tragedies. A new spirit of poetry was breathed into the artificial and monotonous verse of old plays. in the place of the verse of Gorboduc with its end-stopped run-on-lines, sometimes with regular feminine or weak endings, varied the accent here and there and shifted the caesura. He also created a wonderful rhythm of extreme flexibility and power by introducing feet other than iambic ones. Faustus' magnificently apostrophe on Helen with its poetic excellence, romantic rapture and musical cadence is probably the most celebrated verse paragraph in Elizabethan drama.
Marlowe discarded the conception of tragedy as it was distinctly moral one. In those dramas, aim was always to preach some moral lesson to the audience. But there was no such instructive morality in Marlowe's plays. The main interest in Marlovian drama centres on the towering personality of the heroes with their tremendous rise and fall.
Among other notable characteristics of Marlowe's tragedies is its high seriousness and lack of humour. According to many critics, these farcical scenes in Dr. Faustus are nothing but interpolations. The women characters are also conspicuous by their absence. Zenocrate in Tamburlaine, Helen in Dr. Faustus, Abigail in Jew of Malta are either figureheads or spirits or shadows. As regards plot construction, Marlowe followed the old chronicle tradition of separate episodes just loosely knit together in his Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus. Only in Jew of Malta and Edward II, he first attempted a regular plot and succeeded to some extent in the former and to a great extent in the latter. Most of the above features may be regarded as the drawbacks of Marlowe as a dramatist and probably due to this limitation Marlowe could not succeed in reaching the loftiest summits of the tragic art. But he was the pioneer or the "morning star" of Elizabethan drama. We may conclude by illuminating remarks of Schelling: " Marlowe gave the drama passion and poetry; poetry was his most precious gift. Shakespeare would not have been Shakespeare, had Marlowe never written or lived."