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The Complete Plays by Christopher Marlowe

The Complete Plays

by Christopher Marlowe

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Having watched the first session of the TV show "Will" about William Shakespeare, I've become intrigued by the character of Christopher Marlowe, as presented in the show. Of course the TV show is pretty much fiction, as so much about William Shakespeare's life is unknown, but the era, the intrigues, assassinations, religion (Shakespeare comes from a Catholic family and(here at least) is related to Robert Southwell) is enough to draw in anyone somewhat interested in the era and/or Shakespeare and his relationship to Marlowe. The depiction of Christopher Marlowe is fascinating and drew me to go read his plays, which I had never read, let alone seen on stage.

I was surprised by how few he had written, 7 total. In the show, he is the superstar of playwrights, everyone eagerly awaiting his next play. I wasn't exactly disappointed in his plays -- they are about people who disdain society's taboos to achieve either revenge or simply power -- but they seemed less than what I was expecting. Part of it was his language, which was completely readable. That is, I had absolutely no trouble at all understanding almost everything anyone was saying. This is not a bad thing at all, the language was quite modern and this may have been part of his genius. Compared to Shakespeare's language, Marlowe did not come close to the beauty, the wit, the double entendre, the sheer magnificence of it. The one play everyone talks about is the "Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" and I found the hero of this play ludicrous in his inane use of his powers and his cowardly vacillation between abiding by his agreement with Satan and repenting to save his soul. Maybe it comes off better on stage. My favorite was "The Jew of Malta" a play in which the (anti)hero destroys his own daughter in order to exact revenge against the injustice done to him.
Dido, Queen of Carthage
Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II
Doctor Faustus
The Jew of Malta
Edward the Second
The Massacre at Paris ( )
  Marse | Apr 18, 2018 |
Dido, Queen of Carthage


This is the first play printed in the Complete Works although it's not clear if it was the first historically performed or written, published only the year after the authors death. Mostly it's a dramatisation of the Dido story from the Æneid, which would have been been well known to the audience (quite a different situation from the other plays where the stories are more original).

But Marlowe (with input from Nashe) bulks up two elements in particular. First, he gives Dido herself lots more to do and say than Virgil did. She is his only strong female protagonist, and although she is hopelessly and irrationally in love with Æneas (who is not such an attractive character here) this is not because she is a weak woman, it is because she is being toyed with by the gods; having been set up in a difficult situation by divine caprice, she otherwise retains agency to the end.

To the core love story, Marlowe adds a number of other romances (again, unlike his other plays and unlike the original story). Most obviously, the play opens by showing us the man/boy relationship between Jupiter and Ganymede. But there are other non-standard relationships too, and I'm struck that Marlowe was not playing them for laughs but as real situations in the terms of the story.

I wasn't able to find any audio or video of Dido online. That seems a shame to me; it's not too complex and I think would be particularly good on audio. It was apparently first written (or at least first performed) by child (=teenage) actors.

Tamburlaine (both parts)


This is usually discussed as a single play in two parts, and I guess I agree with that, though it is notable that the two parts are set at least twenty years apart - the first ends with Tamburlaine marrying Zenocrate, by the start of the second they have three grown-up sons. I felt it had a tremendous energy; lots of violence and horrible death, a portrait of a monstrous leader who in the end is defeated not by battle but by illness. It's deliberately over the top, I think, and Shakespeare makes fun of the line "Holla ye pampered jades of Asia!" addressed by Tamburlaine to two captive kings harnessed to his chariot (in Henry IV part 2 II.iv).

A lot of commentators try to read Marlowe's own views into Tamburlaine, in particular extrapolating his supposed atheism from the scene in Part Two where Tamburlaine burns the Koran. It seemed pretty clear to me that this scene is about Tamburlaine breaking faith with his own former religion, just as he has broken faith with the Christian rulers in the first act and with his insufficiently violent son Calyphas, and we should not mistake the views and actions of the character for those of the author. That's not to say that Marlowe was not an atheist, just that I don't find this scene convincing evidence that he was (whereas I do find the opening scene of Dido convincing evidence that he was very comfortable with man-boy love).

I'm perfectly satisfied with Tamburlaine as a new form of entertainment rather than a political statement. This was apparently the first attempt to do an epic in blank verse; there's also vast amounts of conflict and spectacle - defeated opponents killed in various gory ways, Tamburlaine himself as a dominant character and aspirant force of nature, attempting to shape the world to his own liking and ultimately defeated not by Man but by entropy. It made Edward Alleyn's reputation when first produced. (It didn't make William Shatner's reputation, though he appeared in a Broadway production in 1956 as Tamburlaine's hanger-on Usumcasane.)

I've long been fascinated by the real Timur, and hope that some day I will be able to visit his tomb in Samarkand. Needless to say, Marlowe's narrative bears only the vaguest resemblance to the real history of his subject. Unlike Dido, where I think there's a didactic point about taking the Æneid and adding to it rather than varying, the point here is invention rather than history.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus


This is a play with a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning and the end are very good as Faustus makes his bargain with the devil and as he faces the inevitable price that he must pay. The middle is much weaker; having been granted immense power, all Faustus wants to do with it is play a series of silly practical jokes. The first of his targets is the Pope, but there doesn't seem to be any further point to Faustus's antics other than temporary humiliation of the powerful.

I guess it's partly an indication of the demands of the stage - "Chris baby, we've got these clowns in the company, you gotta write something for them, the crowd will love it" - but I felt that Goethe found more interesting things for his Faust to do, at least in Part I (Goethe's Part II rather disappears up its own erudition). Marlowe does try to turn this around to make it an Awful Warning about the price of knowledge and diabolical deals, but surely the average audience member will feel that we end up with a character flaw on Faustus's part, in that he doesn't seem to have considered how to use his great powers, rather than a general lesson for all of us.

Still, one can forgive a lot of Acts II, III and IV for the brilliance of Act I and especially Act V. At a rough estimate 95% of the well-known quotes from the entirety of Marlowe's works come from Faustus - including, I was surprised to see, "Che sera sera", but also the better known speeches: Faustus on Helen of Troy:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Mephistopheles, on Hell on Earth:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

As a lapsed historian of astronomy, I have to comment on one of the more obscure exchanges between Faustus and Mephistopheles, which I think Wikipedia gets wrong (and therefore others may get it wrong too):

FAUSTUS. How many heavens or spheres are there?
MEPHIST. Nine; the seven planets, the firmament, and the empyreal
FAUSTUS. But is there not coelum igneum et crystallinum?
MEPHIST. No, Faustus, they be but fables.
FAUSTUS. Resolve me, then, in this one question; why are not
conjunctions, oppositions, aspects, eclipses, all at one time,
but in some years we have more, in some less?
MEPHIST. Per inœqualem motum respectu totius.
FAUSTUS. Well, I am answered.

This is the secret of the universe, part of the new knowledge Faustus is getting as part of his deal. The Wikipedia entry suggests that Mephistopheles' answer to the third question ("Per inœqualem motum respectu totius" - "because of the unequal motion with respect to the whole") is evasive and demonstrates that he is fundamentally untrustworthy. I disagree; it is actually Faustus' question that is a really stupid one, and Mephistopheles' answer is pithy and perfectly reasonable and accurate. Perhaps it is from this point that Faustus realises that the secret of the universe is not really as interesting as it is cracked up to be?

The Jew of Malta


I just loved this. Barabbas, the Jew of the title, is screwed out of his substantial property by the Christian rulers of Malta, and exacts revenge upon his enemies - at great personal cost, in particular as regards his own beautiful daughter Abigail. I paused after reading the first act, rather hoping that Barabbas would find some way of delivering his Christian oppressors into the hands of the Turks; well, without undue spoilers, I was more than satisfied by the way it ended.

Despite the grim subject matter (large numbers of violent deaths on and off the stage) there's also a deadpan humour about it, and I felt Marlowe was satirising both the cliches of bloody revenge (which I think are accepted rather less sceptically in Tamburlaine) and the unquestioning anti-Semitism of his times - Barabbas does end up as a villain, sure, but it is very clearly the Christians who have pushed him into it through state-sanctioned theft and humiliation - and if any religious group is subjected to cliche, it is the monks and nuns who were of course a focus of fear and disgust in Marlowe's England. Machiavelli introduces the play by saying, "I count religion but a childish toy", and I don't think that Marlowe is necessarily agreeing with him but I do think he is stressing that Christians can be every bit as evil as non-Christians (Machiavelli was also of course a tremendously loaded figure in Marlowe's England).

I found Barabbas a better rounded character than Shylock, to whom he clearly is closely related. Of course the Merchant of Venice is probably better in the end - the plot is less linear and more interesting, the other characters apart from the lead better rounded out - but the dialogue between the two plays is more equal than I had realised. And Barabbas gets one of the best lines in the whole of Marlowe, brought up before a tribunal of Christian clerics and accused of all manner of sins:

FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed--
BARABBAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

I'd really love to see this, more perhaps than any other of Marlowe's plays. I think the resonances with our own time could be played out in a way that would make an audience of today justifiably uncomfortable.

Edward the Second


I'm often a bit suspicious of today's commentators trying to project their own interests onto past writers, often scrabbling in desperation from scraps of other evidence. I don't think Marlowe was an atheist, though I do think he interrogates the role of religion in society more than some did; I don't think Faustus is a coded commentary on Calvinism, though Marlowe presumably had his views.

But I do think that Edward II is consciously intended and written as an anti-homophobic text. There is zero room for ambiguity about the nature of the relationship between Edward and Gaveston (and later between Edward and the younger Spencer). Edward and Gaveston confess their love for each other to anyone who is listening (and many who are not). The opposition of the nobles to Gaveston's presence in the court is entirely about style rather than substance; in other words, it's purely that they object to the King having a male lover, rather than any policy decisions made by the King or influenced by Gaveston (or Spencer).

King Edward, of course, is not perfect - he is besotted to distraction with Gaveston; he is clearly being used by the Spencers in the middle section of the play; the immediate cause of his downfall is carelessness and hubris. But he gets some tremendous closing speeches as he awaits death in Berkeley Castle, and the message is very clearly that he is a martyr, who did not deserve what he got for being who he was. When I explained to my son that Marlowe is unusual in his portrayal of same-sex romance for his homophobic time, he replied with a pertinent question: "Why didn't he get killed, then?"

"He did," I replied.

The Massacre at Paris


(Have you noticed that the title character of every Marlowe play except this one dies horribly - I refuse to believe that Tamburlaine's death, though of natural causes, is easy - and this one, the exception is actually named after a massacre?) Unfortunately there's not really much else to say about it. The surviving text seems likely to be a reconstruction by actors or playgoers rather than Marlowe's own script, one page of which has apparently survived elsewhere. There is a sequence of bloody deaths, and hints that Henry III is rather close to his minions (which to me feels off-key and not explicit enough), and we end with Henry III murdered, giving way to the Protestant Henry IV.

It's all a bit breathless, perhaps because the events in question were so recent - the massacre which dominates the early scenes took place in 1572, Henry III was killed in 1589 and the play is thought to have been performed in 1593, when several of the characters portrayed on stage were still alive and well. Henry IV of course converted to Catholicism in July 1593, blunting the historical point, but by then Marlowe had been dead for two months so I think he can be forgiven for not writing that into the plot.

For what it's worth, I think The Massacre at Paris does locate Marlowe's religious views as not terribly exceptional for his time. The Catholics are baddies (with some ambiguity about Henry III) and the Protestants good guys. This is not the "plague on all their houses" approach of Tamburlaine or The Jew of Malta. The most effective scene for me is the one in which Ramus and two Huguenot colleagues are killed by the rampaging Catholics.

No Doctor Who fan can look at this play without comparing it to the 1966 First Doctor story, The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve. However the differences are so comprehensive that there is almost nothing useful to say. In Marlowe the massacre itself is at the start of the story; in Doctor Who at the end. Apart from the King, the Queen and the Admiral, there are no characters in common between the two - notably, the Abbot of Amboise, who is crucial to the Doctor Who story, does not appear in Marlowe (due to being completely fictional). There may be some resonance between the scholars Preslin in Doctor Who and Ramus in Marlowe, but even there the differences are more numerous: Preslin survives, Ramus is killed; Preslin is alone, Ramus has colleagues. I don't think that either John Lucarotti or Donald Tosh can have been very aware of the Marlowe play, which doesn't seem to have been revived until 1981.

Final thoughts

In summary then, after reading the entire surviving set of Marlowe plays: I regret that it took me so long to get around to reading them. I find Marlowe's style generally crystal clear and very energetic without being too florid. You know exactly what is going on, and why the characters are doing what they are doing. In particular, he's powerful at the ol' blank verse, and he loves spectacular stage effects. I would jump at the chance to see The Jew of Malta or Edward II on stage.

But in fact the ambiguity in some Shakespeare plays is what makes them more interesting. The Henry VI trilogy and a few others are inferior to most of Marlowe, but the majority of Shakespeare's works have moved on to be more complex and provocative - this becomes particularly relevant when you compare The Jew of Malta with A Merchant of Venice. And Shakespeare does more interesting stuff with his stagecraft - Marlowe characters strut around declaiming grand speeches, and then there may be a big bang and certainly someone will get killed; but there's a lot more going on with Shakespeare.

The two are clearly in dialogue with each other. I picked up a few references on my own, and I admire (and am convinced by) those who have tracked down many more tips of the hat to Marlowe in Shakespeare. And having read the Marlowe plays, I think I now have a better understanding of Shakespeare's intellectual setting and what he was trying to do - building a new vision of theatre which of course draws from many sources, but Marlowe being one of the strongest of them. However, I very much enjoyed reading Marlowe in his own right. He was only 29 when he died (as violently as one of his characters); what might he have achieved if he had lived longer? ( )
5 vote nwhyte | Dec 11, 2016 |
It's probably to be expected that the works of a Shakespearean contemporary would tend to be compared to Shakespeare; I have tried to avoid that temptation, but it isn't really totally possible. Besides, if you want to fit someone into their own time, the best place to look is the other writers of the time. While Marlowe undoubtedly was a brilliant writer, it is easy to see why Shakespeare is more frequently performed. These plays tend to be more disturbing, and much less possible to play in such a way to fit into the modern zeitgeist, either in the universality or themes or the political correctness. Shakespeare gives you some leeway to play Shylock sympathetically, for instance; Marlowe doesn't leave you as many choices, though I was a bit surprised to find that Edward II didn't really allude specifically to homosexuality; it was more inferred. The productions I've seen tend to make it much more obvious. Marlowe also seems to veer between conventional moralizing and kicking back against the morality of his own day, which gives the works an interesting blend, sort of like a word casserole. Not a light read for a sunny summer day at the beach; you'll have to work a bit. ( )
  Devil_llama | Oct 8, 2016 |
Plays are available as free audiobooks from https://librivox.org/ ( )
  captbirdseye | Mar 10, 2014 |
Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare, but died young, before he'd reached the age of thirty. So an edition of Marlowe complete plays only contains seven works, while the Shakespeare canon numbers 38 plays. When Marlowe was murdered on May 30, 1593, Shakespeare was thought to have written only about 8 plays, and none of them, with the possible exception of Richard III, would be considered among his best. Still ahead would be all the familiar titles: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Most believe Marlowe the lesser playwright--but if you compare the works by Marlowe, Dido, Tamburlane the Great, Dr Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, The Massacre at Paris, to early Shakespeare such as Two Gentleman of Verona, the Henry VI plays, The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus and even Richard III--his output over the same period--I'd say Marlowe wins handily. And I say that as an ardent fan of Shakespeare, not one of those who counts him overrated. Besides Faustus Marlowe's two Tamburlaine plays definitely made an indelible impression. There are plenty of quotes I could pull with all the resonance of Shakespeare--which in fact many might mistake as from Shakespeare. Note these quotes from Faustus:

When all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that are not heaven.

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!

O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.

Shakespeare has another unfair advantage with me over his rival--all the fine film adaptations and live productions I've seen. Even of the early Shakespeare plays listed above, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus and Richard III all have fine film adaptations I could recommend, with Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and Lawrence Olivier respectively. Marlowe I've only experienced on the page, and the words of a play are only scaffolding--there is no substitute for a performance, live or film. There is a 1969 film with Richard Burton of Dr Faustus, Marlowe's most celebrated and famous play, but I haven't seen it. So I can only judge by what is on the page. But even by that yardstick, one can see why many name Marlowe as Shakespeare's chief rival among his contemporaries. Such a pity he didn't live to create more plays of such stature. ( )
2 vote LisaMaria_C | Aug 22, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Christopher Marloweprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ribner, IrvingEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schlüter, WolfgangTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140430377, Paperback)

Blasphemy, perversion, defiance and transgression...in a series of compelling tragedies, Marlowe challenged every authority of heaven and earth. From the proud wrath of Tamburlaine, the tyrant of Asia, to the racked anguish of Edward II, himself in thrall to unspeakable desires; from God's own Machiavel, the Duke of Guise, to Barabas, the Jew of Malta, curse of Christianity: all are taboo-breakers, to be broken in their turn. And in the tragedy of Doctor Faustus we perhaps read Marlowe's own: a tale of brilliance and audacity - and of terrible, inexorable punishment.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:07 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Marlowe's seven plays dramatise the fatal lure of potent forces, whether religious, occult or erotic. In the victories of Tamburlaine, Faustus's encounters with the demonic, the irreverence of Barabas in The Jew of Malta, and the humiliation of Edward II in his fall from power and influence, Marlowe explores the shifting balance between power and helplessness, the sacred and its desecration.

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