Remarks on Christopher Marlowe and Elizabethan Theater

Continued ...

Classical Roots

During the Renaissance, universities emphasized the study of classical works, especially those of the Roman poets, playwrights (although that word did not come into use until the middle of the seventeenth century), philosophers and rhetoricians. Not all the philosophers were welcomed since, after all, they were pagans and discussed some issues that sounded an awful lot like heresy and atheism. The word "atheism" seems to have come into use in the mid-1500s. In 1553 Archbishop Cranmer (who would not much later be burnt at the stake during the reign of the Catholic queen Mary I) drafted the first English law that distinguished atheism from heresy. Heresy, of course, goes way back. As early as the mid-200s C.E. there was the famous and wide-spread Manichaean heresy that St. Augustine later wrote against. The first European state-sponsored suppression of popular heresy was in England in 1166, in the reign of Henry II.

Most likely while still at Cambridge, Marlowe had written a rhymed iambic pentameter translation of a work by Lucan. Marcus Annaeus Lucanus lived in the turmoil and danger of Rome during the reign of Nero. Lucan had been a friend of the emperor (using the word "friend" loosely) but had the poor judgment to defeat him in a public poetry contest. There followed a failed plot against Nero and the persecution of those who might have been involved. Lucan was ordered to commit suicide, which he did. He wrote the Pharsalia, a five book partial history of the civil wars that centered around Julius Caesar. Marlowe translated the first book. This is still in print as part of Marlowe's poetry and is worth reading to understand better Marlowe's interests. Briefly put, the first book starts with a panegyric to the murderous Nero and then moves through Julius Caesar's military threat to Rome and the flight of the city's inhabitants. It paints a painful picture of civil war and of the personas of the rulers and their competitors who sacrificed the lives of Romans to their ambitions. Shakespeare, later, would write his Julius Caesar - more about Brutus than Caesar - (1599-1600), Antony and Cleopatra (1606/7), and Coriolanus (1607/8).

Among those not warmly received was Epicurus and his poet-disciple, Lucretius. Epicurus had taken the after-life on directly, claiming that on the basis of his atomic theory everything had a finite lifetime and would dissolve. The soul was co-equal with the body and it, too, would vanish when the body did. Lucretius wrote his “On the nature of Things” to explicate Epicurian philosophy, adding his own twists as he went along. While a student at Cambridge, Marlowe translated Roman authors and wrote classic-inspired poetry. We can presume that he was familiar with Lucretius. The opening of On the Nature of Things appeals to Venus (even though the Epicurians did not believe in the “standard cults”). Lucretius writes [in the 1910 translation of Cyril Bailey]:

“Bring it to pass that meanwhile the wild works of warfare may be lulled to sleep over all seas and lands. For thou only canst bless mortal men with quiet peace, since 'tis Mars, the lord of hosts [armies], who guides the wild works of wars, and he upon thy lap oft flings himself back, conquered by the eternal wound of love; and then pillowing his shapely neck upon thee and looking up he feeds with love his greedy eyes, gazing wistfully towards thee, while, as he lies back, his breath hangs upon thy lips. Do thou, goddess, as he leans resting on they sacred limbs, bend to embrace him and pour forth sweet petition from thy lips, seeking, great lady, gentle peace for the Romans.”

Therein I suggest you will find the outline of Tamburlaine's engagement with beauty, and what we will see as his love, Zenocrate, appeals to him for pity.

Who Was Seneca and Why Should We Care?

The tastes of London playgoers changed quickly once the public theaters were opened in 1576. Shakespeare retired about thirty-five years later and we might think that he said "enough" of trying to satisfy a play-hungry public. The first big successes came to the stage in the later 1580s. These were Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Two quite different plays but they had something in common. They both were strongly influenced by "revenge tragedies" written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca in the years between 40 and 60 CE. These plays probed the depths of human misfortune, They were studied at English universities and were also accessible to men like the less well educated playwright Kyd. You can see Seneca pop up in some of Shakespeare's plays, like the forgettable early play Titus Andonicus, and the later Hamlet (which may be modelled on a lost play by Kyd) and Othello. We can appreciate why Seneca's plays were so dark - he lived during the reigns of Caligula and Nero and was in close company with these murderous rulers.

Fortune, the ups and downs of chance, was important in Seneca's time and in much later times also. Tamburlaine's enemies repeatedly reassure themselves, and warn him, that Fortune will bring him down just as it raised him up. Here is one passage from Seneca's play, Thyestes, where Fortune's ways are described:

O you, to whom the ruler of sea and land has given unbounded right o’er life and death, abate your inflated, swelling pride; all that a lesser subject fears from you, ‘gainst you a greater lord shall threaten; all power is subject to a weightier power. Whom the rising sun hath seen high in pride, him the setting sun hath seen laid low. Let none be over-confident when fortune smiles; let none despair of better things when fortune fails.

[attr: Chorus starting at line 607, transl. Frank Justus Miller,]

The same but in a version that would have been available at the time (Marlowe would not have needed a translation):

o ye, whom lorde of lande and waters wyde,
Of lyfe and death graunts here to haue the powre,
laye ye your proude and lofty lookes asyde :
What your inferiour feares of you amys,
that your superiour threats to you agayne.
To greater kyng, eche kyng a subiect is.
whom dawne of day hath scene in pryde to raygne,
Hym ouerthrowne hath scene the euenyng late,
let none reioyce to muche that good hath got,
Let none dispaire of best in worst estate.

[attr: Chorus in Act II, page 221 of Jasper Heywood and his Translations of Seneca's Troas, Thyestes and Hercules Furens edited from the octavos of 1559, 1560 and 1561, H. de Vocht, 1913,]

Marlowe's Tamburlaine, as well as the historical one, managed to evade defeat at Fortune's hands. Aside from losing Zenocrate and being disappointed in one of his sons, the Tamburlaine of the play does quite well. He even dies painlessly in his bed. It seems that the quite real Tamburlaine was disposed of the same ending.

Marlowe's Poetry

Marlowe wrote poetry that was not published until 1598. For years, scholars have struggled with the question of when Hero and LeanderThe Passionate Shepherd to his Love, and the translation of the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia were written. While Marlowe was at Cambridge? After Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus? It makes a difference not just so that we can follow his growth as a poet and playwright, but also because his plays and poems have references to each other. How frustrating it is not to know whether the cart is in front, or behind, the horse.


The Elizabethan view of women considered them to be easily susceptible to temptation and, frankly, not very rational. They needed the protection of men, which included prohibiting them from reading romantic novels, avoiding being unchaperoned in the company of men and while on the street, and so on. Did the long and lonely (unmarried) reign of Elizabeth I cause some second thoughts. We should also remember Shakespeare's treatment of women in Richard III, one of his early plays, written in 1592 or 1593. That play, with the transfixing poetry of its opening soliloquy, has women who are portrayed awkwardly and tentatively. Women seemed to have presented problems to both these young playwrights. Later plays of Shakespeare, like The Merchant of Venice (1596/7) made fun of the view of women as helpless, or hapless, creatures (although Portia had to dress like a man to make her legal arguments acceptable).


One critic describes Marlowe's play as moving on "a galleon-like course," that is, wallowing in the sea. We can compare that with the mature Shakespeare's King Lear, written 1605/6. Yes, there are similarities of a typological or structural kind. Both Lear and Tamburlaine are subject to repeated forces put in motion by their antagonists, both seek what is at the core of their existential selves, and both find that love is an inescapable part of that meaning. Shakespeare's creation sails with tragic grace. Perhaps if Marlowe had had another ten years we would have seen some different and more complete humans created by his pen.

Extra Credit - A View of English Censorship

In 1558 Elizabeth became queen; in 1559 a royal proclamation was issued, entitled Announcing Injunctions for Religion. It is very long and detailed as it carefully continues the re-establishment of the True Religion. Along the way it includes a paragraph of interest to us:

"Item, because there is a great abuse in the printers of books, which for covetousness chiefly regard not what they print so they may have gain, whereby ariseth great disorder by publication of unfruitful, vain, and infamous books and papers: the Queen's majesty straightly chargeth and commandeth that no manner of person shall print any manner of book or paper of what sort, nature, or in what language soever it be, except the same be first licensed by her majesty by express words in writing, or by six of her Privy Council, or be perused and licensed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishop of London, the chancellors of both universities, the bishop being ordinary, and the archdeacon of the place where any such shall be printed, or by two of them whereby the ordinary of the place to be always one. And that the names of such that shall allow the same to be added in the end of every such work for a testimony of the allowance thereof. And because many pamphlets, plays, and ballads be oftentimes printed wherein regard would be had that nothing therein should be either heretical, seditious, or unseemly for Christian ears: her majesty likewise commandeth that no manner of person shall enterprise to print any such except the same be to him licensed by such her majesty's commissioners, or three of them, as be apppointed in the city of London to hear and determine diverse causes ecclesiastical, tending to the execution of certain statutes made the last session of parliament for uniformity in order of religion. And if any should sell or utter any manner of books or papers being not licensed as abovesaid, that the same party shall be punished by order of the said commissioners as to the quality of the fault shall be meet. And touching all other books of matters of religion, or policy, or governance, that hath been printed either on this side of the seas or on the other side, because the diversity of them is great and that there needeth good consideration to be had of the particularities thereof, her majesty referreth the prohibition or permission thereof to the order which her said commissioners within the city of London shall take and notify. According to the which her majesty straightly commandeth all manner her subjects, and specially the wardens and company of stationers, to be obedient."


Updated 2014-03-20