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Review: Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare by F. P. Wilson

Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare - F.P. Wilson

F. P. Wilson was a British scholar specialized in the Elizabethan era of drama. This collection of 5 lectures was delivered at Trinity College in Cambridge in 1951. Where appropriate and for the sake of contextualization, either in terms of a timeline or in terms of the quality/similarity of work, Wilson compares Marlowe to the early Shakespeare.

Those who are familiar with Marlowe's work will most likely be familiar about the many controversies surrounding this fascinating man, such as the way he lived his life, his supposed atheism, his work as a spy for the British monarchy, and the events surrounding his mysterious death. To the reader with this background knowledge, Wilson quickly stated in his introduction that: "We know we cannot write a biography of Shakespeare; we think we can write one of Marlowe." Furthermore, Wilson explains that only the first and second parts of the play 'Tamburlaine' were published during Marlowe's lifetime, to which Wilson explains that the remaining plays descended to us in "desperate corruption". And because of the lack of adequate records, there is also uncertainty in the chronology of Marlowe's plays. Finally, in his introduction, Wilson discusses extensively about Elizabethan drama and puts into context Marlowe and his play 'Tamburlaine'.

The second lecture is devoted solely to the two parts of 'Tamburlaine'. Wilson cites research that "Marlowe read voraciously, both in books and maps, to prepare himself for this work" and that there are borrowings in the play from two works yet unpublished in 1587, Spencer's poem 'The Faerie Queen' and Paul Ive's 'Practice of Fortification'. Generally speaking, Wilson pieces together the evidence supporting this play by citing sources such as the praise of the publisher, the research Marlowe undertook and so forth, and by comparing Marlowe's work to his contemporaries back then, and, finally, by citing and dissecting some of his more brilliant passages form the play. Clearly, Wilson's admiration shines on 'Tamburlaine':

"an heroic play, written by a poet who is already the master of rhetoric, not its slave, and in verse which matches in power the energy of the conception, verse which at its greatest has the unpredictability of a genius and surprises us by its fine excess."

In this extensive second lecture, Wilson diverges into the events surrounding Marlowe's life and death and, with what little evidence there is from character witnesses, concludes by taking Marlowe at his worst and at his best:

"Interpret everything for the worst and here was a man of a cruel and intemperate heart; malign; wishing and contriving ill for friend and foe alike; a blasphemous heretic and a dangerous rebel. Interpret everything for the best and here was a man beloved and revered by some, and especially by poets, feared and distrusted by others; of great intellectual pride and power yet keenly susceptible to beauty whether of mind or sense; more advanced to ideas than to people, and insatiably curious... at once repelled by dogma and fascinated by it, and better read in divinity than any other Elizabethan dramatist."

In the third lecture, Wilson discusses 'The Jew of Malta' and 'Doctor Faustus'. Wilson comments that 'The Jew of Malta' was the first English play to open in mid-speech and it had a dramatic opening soliloquy of 83 lines in which the character is doing something all the time and "the language and the rhythms are in vital relationship to the sense." Then comes the evidence in Marlowe's plays (with the exception of 'Tamburlaine') that there were other collaborators who may have written sections of the plays or changed/adapted them and so forth. In 'The Jew of Malta', Wilson explains: "There is little in the first two acts that could have been written by any other man: in the last three there is very little that could not have come from the pen of another writer - and a small writer at that." And the extent to which Wilson abhors the last three acts is explicit: "To suppose the same man who wrote the first two acts was wholly responsible for the last three is revolting to sense and sensibility, for these belong to a different world of art, if indeed they can be said to belong to the world of art at all."

Unlike 'The Jew of Malta', Marlowe's only play whose plot has not been traced to its source, 'Doctor Faustus' relies on the German book 'The History of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus.' The play was written by Marlowe in collaboration with at least one other playwright. Once again, we se the extent to which Wilson loathes the collaborators contribution (and since I have read this edition, I wholeheartedly agree):

"The middle of the play was always disfigured by comic and clownish scenes not only feeble in invention but grossly out of harmony with the tragic theme. The collaborator was a hack-writer, possibly also an actor, more closely in touch with the life of the theatre than Marlowe and much nearer the mental level and dramatic taste of actors."

But Marlowe's share of the play itself, all 825 lines, are sober to the German book and executed as only Marlowe would execute them, with "nothing of predestination or reprobation".

In the fourth lecture, Wilson discusses much more briefly the plays 'The Massacre at Paris' and 'Edward II'. Of the previous, Wilson says: "The Massacre at Paris is exceptional among the plays of that date in being based on contemporary European history. It is a kind of plot which Shakespeare did not touch." However, Wilson is yet again disappointed in the corruption of the play: "If 'The Massacre at Paris' had survived as Marlowe wrote it, much more than a word or two would be necessary. Some 1250 line of verse are all that have survived."

As for 'Edward II', Marlowe follows Shakespeare's example by going to the English chronicles. It is also a play that is not dominated by one character, a change in Marlowe's style conjectured either due to the change in production company or as an influence by Shakespeare's success of 'Henry VI': "where the dramatic interest is spread over a yet wider range of characters." Wilson's analysis of the play, like all his analyses in this book, informs us of Marlowe's style and the varying contexts in which he wrote his plays and the different sources from which he gathered his material, and, more importantly, makes us appreciate the voice of Marlowe.

In the last lecture, 'Marlowe and Shakespeare', Wilson's attempts to answer the self-posed question: "What is the relationship of Marlowe's historical play to Shakespeare's earliest historical plays?" But Wilson does not reach a clear conclusion here. Instead, after some historical investigation, and an overlook of speculation and conjecture, Wilson makes the following conclusions during his investigation: "...for all we know there were no popular plays in English history before the Armada and that Shakespeare may have been the first to write one", and "In any comparison between Marlowe and the early Shakespeare as dramatists there is a danger that Marlowe may suffer by reason of the degradation of his texts. He was ... a man with a vocation for the drama and no one could have met with his success who had not acquired a sufficient knowledge of stagecraft."

However, one cannot fail but to observe that Wilson's admiration of 'Tamburlaine' is not carried on with the same zest regarding Marlowe's remaining plays. Wilson's criticism shifts from the general, over-arching magnificence of a play as a whole and in its parts to only a viewpoint of the micro, searching for that genius passage scattered here and there in the other plays by the master poetic dramatist. The book is a good overall critical assessment of Marlowe's plays in general, and offers some well thought out explanations to the different conjectures that have surfaced in a few centuries, and the contextualization with Shakespeare's early works adds light to these two men, who were contemporary playwrights.


Samir Rawas Sarayji