A. W. (Arthur Wilson) Verity.

The Influence of Christopher Marlowe on Shakspere's earlier style, being the Harness prize essay for the year 1885 online

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Online LibraryA. W. (Arthur Wilson) VerityThe Influence of Christopher Marlowe on Shakspere's earlier style, being the Harness prize essay for the year 1885 → online text (page 1 of 7)
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In writing the following Essay I have consulted the
usual authorities, two of whom ought perhaps to be
particularised. Mr Bullen's Introdiictioii to his edition
of Marlowe contains, I imagine, every fragment of
fact connected with the poet's life and works that has
been discovered, together with some careful criticism ;
I have laid him very largely under contribution. In
the account of the rise of blank verse I have followed
Mr Symonds, who in his SJiaksperes Predecessors, in
three essays appended to his Sketches and Studies in
Italy, and in an article in the Cornhill Magazine
(Vol. XV.) has discussed the question very fully. To
each of these writers my obligations are almost too
obvious to need acknowledgement. For the rest, the
terms under which the prize was awarded required
that the successful essay should be printed ; this, of
course, is my sole reason for publishing what otherwise
would have sought some friendly fireplace.


SCHLEGEL in his Dramatic Literature devotes a
paragraph of ten Hnes to Christopher Marlowe ; after
mentioning Lyly, he says, ' Marlowe possessed more
real talent and was in a better way. He handled the
history of Edward the Second with very little art it is
true, but with a certain truth and simplicity, so that in
many scenes he does not fail to produce a pathetic
effect. His verses are flowing but without energy :
how Ben Jonson could come to use the expression
^'Marlowe's mighty line" is more than I conceive.'
As an expression of Schlegel's own opinion the quo-
tation is not very significant ; he wrote, as Mr
Swinburne suggests, the epitaph of his criticism in
the egregious statement that The Yorkshire Tragedy,
Thomas, Lord Cromwell, and Sir JoJui Oldcastle
were not only Avritten by Shakspere — of that there
could be no doubt in the mind Schlegelian — but
V. I


should really be classed amongst the poet's ' best and
maturest works.' At the time, however, when his
remarkable dictum on Marlowe was given to the
world Schlegel was regarded as a great Shaksperian
critic, and that he should have dismissed the author
of Tainbtndaine with a few lines of benevolent con-
tempt is, I think, not a little significant. It is typical
of the strange ignorance which existed even beyond
the beginning of this century concerning some of the
greatest of our Elizabethan dramatists. The method
of comparative criticism was practically ignored.
Shakspere was treated as an isolated phenomenon,
independent of the contemporaries above whom he
towered ; they were lost in his shadow and met with
the barest recognition, or none at all. It never struck
the older commentators and critics that Shakspere
must have been profoundly influenced — at any rate
at the outset of his career — by the literary activity of
the dramatists round him, and yet we may be pretty
sure that there were a thousand influences moulding
the genius of the poet from the day when he may
have seen the 'Queen's Players' at Stratford in 1587
to the day when he finished his share in Henry VIII.
and gave up writing altogether. And of these in-
fluences none surely could exceed the effect which
the works of his contemporaries must have had on
his style and method, and of these contemporaries
who greater than Christopher Marlowe.'* To appreciate
the development of Shakspere's genius and art we


must see him affected by the example now of one
dramatist, now of another. It is one great family,
and we must study their works in common, precisely
as an artist deals with a school of painters. There
are many points of contact between the different
members; there is likewise much diversity. Special
characteristics are represented by special writers, and
all are summed up in Shakspere, the central sun, so
to speak, of which the others are but partial reflec-

To insist on this is to insist on what has become
the merest truism — ' I sing the Obsolete ' — but it is a
doctrine on which proper stress was never laid until
Coleridge^ Hazlitt and Lamb made the great dis-
covery that other writers besides Shakspere had lived
in what is familiarly called the Elizabethan era.
During the eighteenth century, of course, it was
hardly probable that our old dramatists would receive
much attention. Shakspere himself had fallen on
evil days — and evil editors. The public rested secure
under the benevolent despotism of the rhymed
couplet, the critics raised their ceaseless Ave Iniperator

^ Even Coleridge barely alludes to Marlowe in his Lectures, while
Scott in his essay on the drama has the following passage : ' The
English stage might be considered equally without rule and without
model when Shakspeare arose... He followed the path which a nameless
crowd of obscure writers had trodden before him. Nothing went before
Shakspeare, which in any respect was fit to fix and stamp the character
of a national drama.' How wide of the mark this criticism is my essay
will attempt to show.


to ' one Boileau,' and the poets — well, Keats has
described them for us :

' A schism
Nurtured by foppery and barbarism
Made great Apollo blush for this his land.
Men were thought wise who could not understand
His glories ; with a puling infant force
They swayed about upon a rocking-horse,
And thought it Pegasus' —

Pope felt no scruples in emending the text of
Shakspere much as a German editor handles the text
of Sophocles. Colley Gibber and others laid sacri-
legious hands on some of the plays and ' adapted '
them ; the public applauded, and even the great
Garrick was content to keep in his acting versions
what Lamb rightly calls the ' ribald trash ' of Tate
and his fellow-workers. Johnson himself in editing
Shakspere scarcely took the trouble to open the
works of Shakspere's contemporaries. But it is super-
fluous to multiply instances. The force of the classical
movement lasted a long time, and while it remained
it was not unlikely that the lesser dramatists, at any
rate, of Elizabeth's reign would continue under a
cloud. And this was so until towards the end of the
century. Then interest in forgotten works began to
revive. In 1773 Hawkins brought out his valuable
work, The OiHgin of the English Drama; in 1779
Steevens reprinted a volume of the old Chronicle
plays ; in the next year a still greater advance was
made with the issue of Dodsley's admirable Collec-


tion. The preface indeed to the last-mentioned
work is not a little instructive. The editor seems to
have felt that his publication of forgotten pieces
needed some apology, and accordingly he begins
with the remark — ' Our ancient dramatic writers have
suffered a very long and, some few excepted, a very
general neglect,' a state of things for which he endea-
vours — not very successfully — to account. Amongst
the ' some few ' to whom he alludes Christopher
Marlowe certainly can not be included. It was not
till 1826 that he was edited at all, and then the duty
fell to an editor who contested his claims to the
authorship of Tambtirlaine. But if, roughly speaking,
up till 1820 Marlowe was neglected, assuredly since
then his merits — and they are great — have been
freely recognised. At least three admirable editions^
of his works have been published, besides innumer-
able essays dealing with various aspects of his genius.
Praise has been awarded him unstintingly ; indeed it
may be questioned whether the rhapsodies of en-
thusiastic admirers have not been as great an injury
to his name as was the neglect of earlier critics. Mr
Swinburne has exhausted the resources of his perfervid
rhetoric in doing justice — perhaps something more
than justice — alike to Marlowe's own merits as a
writer, and to the influence which he exercised on his

1 Those of Dyce, Cunningham and Bullen. To these may be added
editions of separate plays, amongst which The Tragical History of Dr
Faustiis, edited by Professor Wagner, as also by Professor Ward, and
Edward 11. by Mr Fleay, may be specially mentioned.


still greater successor; Mr Symonds has echoed these
praises in a lower key, and recently Mr Symonds has
been followed by Mr Bullen. The field in fact has
been gleaned ; every fragment of fact has long
since been garnered, and scarcely a single point of
contact between Shakspere and Marlowe remains
uninvestigated. One cannot in bringing forward the
humblest view confidently exclaim with Touchstone,
' An ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own.' Mr Leslie
Stephen complains somewhere of the hard lot which
condemns essayists in general to utter paradoxes or
platitudes — ' the difficulty of saying anything new' is
so overwhelming ; and the difficulty is complicated a
thousandfold when Shakspere is the subject. The
ordinary writer has at the outset two alternatives, and
practically only two: he may determine to be eccentric,
and unhesitatingly ascribe, say, the whole of Titus
Androniciis to Shakspere, in the fond hope of being
thought original, or he may content himself with
saying over again what has been said before, and
doubtless said better. The latter seems to me the
preferable course ; hence most of this essay (where
right) will have been seen before, and a comprehensive
application of Mr Puff's ingenious theory of coinci-
dences will be quite essential throughout. •

Perhaps before passing to the narrower question
of Marlowe's immediate connection with Shakspere
it may be well to touch, first, on the position of the
English stage when Marlowe appeared before the



world as a playwright ; secondly, on the peculiar
character of his dramas judged on their own merits ;
it will then be possible to appreciate more exactly
the influence he exercised on his great successor.

When Christopher Marlowe left Cambridge, ' a
boy in years, a man in genius, and a god in ambition,'
and coming up to London threw in his lot with the
dramatists of the day, everything pointed to the
development of a great national stage. England had
passed through one of those crises that occurring
rarely in the history of a people must profoundly
affect its fortunes, for good or for evil. Such crises may
leave behind them a course of wreck and ruin, or
they may produce opposite results. They may rouse
and stimulate a nation to a sense of power and
strength hitherto undreamed of; they may kindle an
enthusiasm which must find vent, partly in action,
partly in artistic expression. It is impossible to
determine the laws which at such moments guide men
in their unconscious choice of a method of self-revela-
tion : we can only appeal to the past and be governed
by its teaching, and in the case of the drama ex-
perience shows us at least one thing. Great dramas
have arisen in different countries under different cir-
cumstances to which their various divergences may be
traced, but amid all external differences one vital
condition has always been observed — a great national
stage has never been developed in any country in a
period of national stagnation. The sine-qua-non of a


national dramatic literature is national life and
activity ; energy of thought and energy of deed go
side by side. It is only at some turning-point in its
fortunes, when dangers have been triumphantly sur-
mounted and a new era of strength and prosperity is
opening out before it, that a people can produce great
dramatists. Men have lived, have saved themselves
by action, and it is to the stage that they instinctively
turn as capable, in a degree unattainable by any other
art, of giving definite artistic expression to their pas-
sionate energy ; for the central idea of the stage is man
in action, and thence comes the strength of its appeal.
A great crisis, then, may not necessarily call into
being a great national stage, but without the former
history seems to show that the latter is impossible,
and through such a crisis the England of Elizabeth
had assuredly passed in its struggle with Spain.
There was, too, activity of thought. It was part of
the widespread Renaissance spirit, of that strange
quickening of latent and well-nigh forgotten powers.
On every side new forces were at work. The old
order was changing ; the spell was broken ; Europe
awoke from its long, long dream, and the nations
again were young, and strong, and stirred with
passion. In all directions the new learning began to
spread, and it was not likely that this country would
remain unaffected by the general movement. Since
the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII. its history
had been one long struggle. It was not till the ac-


cession of Elizabeth that men enjoyed anything hke
poHtical security ; then they reaped the fruit of long
efforts. Religion was free. The great Reformation
movement had been successful ; the Bible could be in
every man's hands. It was a time of transition, when
the miserable despotism of Rome was a thing of the
past and the equally oppressive rule of Puritan dogma
was still undreamt of And if there was freedom in
religion there was likewise comparative political free-
dom. Men looked back on the absolutism of Henry
VIII., they remembered the reign of terror established
by Mary, and they felt themselves fortunate in being
under the rule of a Queen like Elizabeth. There
were, too, other causes favourable to the rise of the
stage. There were masses of local traditions that had
never been employed for literary purposes, thoroughly
national ballads like the Robin Hood cycle still un-
touched. It remained for some dramatist to draw on
the every-day working life of the country people for
inspiration, to introduce on the stage the atmosphere
of rural England, to paint such scenes as those which
Shakspere has given us in the fourth act of The Winter s
Tale. Again, there was the wealth of foreign literature,
especially Italian, that poured into England. Trans-
lations of foreign books abounded ; the playwright
was not put to the trouble of inventing his plots ; the
bookstalls of London were covered with Italian^

^ Thus Ascham's ScJwoliiiastcr — printed, we may remember, in
1579 — is full of references to the influx of Italian books into England.


novels from which to borrow. Indeed the connection
between England and the Continent was one more
proof of the activity of the time. London itself, the
heart and brain of the nation, was a vast cosmopolitan
centre ; men of all nationalities w^ere to be seen in the
streets. It was an age of discovery and enterprise,
and commerce of every kind was centred in the
great capital, then, it may be remembered, not too
unwieldy to be moved by something akin to a
general public opinion. There is at least one other
point that deserves to be noticed — men w^ere uncritical ;
they did not at every turn call in question the drama-
tist's accuracy. When the Poet Laureate in his last
play, Becket, rearranged his materials to heighten the
dramatic interest, he was very generally condemned
for departing from history, and naturally, for the
modern, the critical, spirit craves for fidelity, for truth
even at the expense of artistic effect. It was not so
with an Elizabethan audience. They asked to be
amused, nothing more. They did not condemn
Richard III., because Richard is made to woo the
widow of the dead prince, Edward. The episode
added to the stage-effect ; it gave another aspect of
Richard's heartlessness, and dramatically that was
its justification. Again, men were credulous. Romance
was in the air. They were ready to accept wonderful
legends with a half child-like complacency and joy.
A modern statesman once laughingly excused his
ignorance of a new theory that had been mentioned


in his presence, on the ground that he was 'born in
the pre-scientific period.' Shakspere and his fellow
workers were in much the same position, and perhaps
it is well that they were. There may be something
after all in Macaulay's old paradox that imagination
declines as civilization advances. The critical spirit
will have nothing to say to the popular legends, the
illogical superstitions which supply the mind of a
Walter Scott with the most sympathetic material on
which to work. Science dispels the thousand and
one myths that cluster round mountain and forest
and river.

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven :
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine —
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender person'd Lamia melt into a shade.

Unfortunately not only the angel's wings are
clipped but — it is infinitely more important — the
dramatist's too. Thus a modern playwright would
be very shy of introducing into his work a device like
that of the magic crystal employed by Greene in
Friar Bacon and Friar Bnngay with the quaintest
possible effect, and yet it is just the scene where the
prince looks into the 'glass prospective,' and watches
the love-making of Margaret — one of Greene's best


characters — and Lacy, that we care for most ; it is all
delightfully incongruous, with the prince's running
commentary on the unconscious lovers. Greene could
introduce such an incident because at a time when
magic in all its branches was believed in many of the
spectators would not find the crystal so ridiculous.
But on the modern stage the whole piece would be
impossible ; the advice of the Friar — 'sit still, my
lord, and mark the comedy' — would scarcely be
followed. Again, with what terrible realism does
Marlowe treat the Faust legend. There is not a
shred of symbolism in the play ; from first to last it is
charged with the simplicity that attaches to everyday
life, for the supernatural in that age of universal super-
stition was hardly supernatural at all. People believed
— probably Marlowe did himself — that the devil had
actually carried off the great wizard to a crude accom-
paniment of stage-thunder and evil angels, and ac-
cordingly we move throughout in the atmosphere of
accepted facts. There is no philosophy to vex us —
no hidden meaning to be read between the lines.
Helena and Faustus meet, and we forget all about the
union of the classical and the mediaeval which in the
history of literature the incident is taken by Goethe
to represent. Helena, as Vernon Lee says, is only some
lovely mediaeval lady,

•divinely tall
And most divinely fair ; '

some Galataea-like statue into which the poet has


breathed the breath of Hfe ; what she is in the old
Faust-book that she remains in Marlowe's play. She
moves across the stage — she is passing beautiful — and
she means nothing. And Marlowe could handle the
legend with this nakedness of detail, this materialising
directness, because to him and to his audience the
whole story was not in the least degree out of the
way. Was it not all duly set forth in the famous
Historia von D. Johann FaiLsten, dent zveitbeschreyten
ZaiLberer nnd Schwartzkiinstlerf and if, as the shepherd
opines in TJie Winter s Tale, we may be sure that a
ballad in print is and must be true, who would hint
or hesitate a doubt against the Historie, newly im-
printed and in converiient places imperfect matter
amended, which the unknown 'P. F. Gent' (the OUen-
dorf of the age) kindly translated for the benefit of
his fellow-countrymen }

These, and other causes that might be mentioned,
pointed to the rise of a drama that should express
with the utmost imaginative fulness and force the
tendencies of the time. It was essential to the success
of such a movement that it should be in the v/idest
sense representative : to be identified with any par-
ticular school meant comparative failure. It could
not afford to court the patronage of the queen and of
the nobles, any more than it dared submit to the
pedantry of scholars. It had to deal with all aspects
of life; it had to appeal directly to the people at large,
and its style was bound to be romantic. That such a


drama did eventually spring up is a matter of history;
that it did not exist in 1587, when^ Taviburlaine was,
in all probability, first acted, is, I think, equally a
matter of history. On the contrary, the stage was
then 'encumbered with a litter of rude, rhyming
farces and tragedies.' Fortunately of these plays we
have some specimens, and if we compare them with
the first forms of tragedy and comedy, and with the
still earlier religious plays, we shall see that, up to
1587, the development of the stage had been slow,
but regular. As in all countries, its origin had been
religious. To begin with there were the miracle-
plays, which lasted to (about) the middle of the
fifteenth century. Originally, no doubt, they formed
part of the services of the Church, as a simple and
effective means of instructing the unlettered laity.
They were written and acted by clergymen, and it
was not till some time after their introduction, which
dates from the end of the eleventh century, that the
Trade-Companies performed them annually, as at
Chester, at their own expense. As was to be ex-
pected these plays dealt entirely with sacred^ subjects,
with the lives of saints, or stories from the Old and
New Testaments. The dramatis personse, it is worth
remembering, were real characters. In the reign of
Henry VI. these Miracles were in part supplanted by
the Moral Plays, or it might perhaps be more correct

1 Cf. Mr Bullen's IntrodiicHon, I. pp. xvi — xviii.

" Cf. Collier, History of Dramatic Poetry, Vol. ii. 123.


to say that the former developed by a natural process
into the latter, the transition being marked by the in-
troduction into the Miracles of allegorical characters.
'The change/ says Collier (ll. 259), 'was designed to
give Miracle Plays a degree of attraction they would
not have possessed, if year after year they had been
repeated to the same audiences precisely in the same
form.' As a matter of fact, however, the innovation
was fatal to the Miracles. Once the change had been
made these allegorical characters became more nume-
rous, the action of the piece was impeded, and as the
new figures were incompatible with the old the latter
gradually fell into the background, so that ' in process
of time what was originally intended to be a poetical
embellishment became a new species of theatrical ex-
hibition, unconnected with history.' Doubtless these
Moral Plays were infinitely more interesting than the
old pieces, which were merely sermons in disguise.
The fable or plot became more elaborate, the charac-
ters more life-like and tangible. Moreover they had
an extraneous interest; they served as satires on con-
temporary life. The Church was repeatedly the object
of their attacks, indeed we gather from them a clear
idea of the revolution of thought which changed the
England of Henry VI. into the England of Elizabeth.
Medisevalism dies out, and we see the gradual growth
of the Reformation doctrines, and later of the Renais-
sance. It was as satirical pieces covertly alluding to
popular prejudices and current events that these


Moral Plays continued to be acted up to the end of
the 1 6th century, although their performance after
1570 was comparatively rare. Indeed they did not
retain their undisputed sway later than 1520. Then
came, in Heywood's Interhides^ the first step towards
a regular comedy. These Interludes — the name is
appropriately chosen — were distinct from the Mira-
cles and from the Moralities, bridging, as it were, the
interval that separated the latter from the earliest
form of comedy as given in Roister-Doister. Of one
of these pieces — printed somewhere about 1533 —
Collier has a short sketch in his History (ll. 385),

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Online LibraryA. W. (Arthur Wilson) VerityThe Influence of Christopher Marlowe on Shakspere's earlier style, being the Harness prize essay for the year 1885 → online text (page 1 of 7)