Marlowe in London: the working playwright

The author of Tamburlaine

Marlowe moved to London in 1587, after his final graduation from Cambridge. It’s probable that by this time his first drama, Tamburlaine the Great, part 1, had already been produced by the Queen’s Men, with the celebrated actor, Edward Alleyn, scoring a notable success in the title role.

At the time, the theatre was dominated by courtly and rather tame plays. Marlowe’s explosive play, full of action, human passion and magnificent, declamatory poetry, made a tremendous impact. Tamburlaine, like all Marlowe’s plays, offers no easy solutions, but challenges its audience to arrive at their own judgement of the drama played out before them.

Marlowe’s reputation was, therefore, very quickly established and he was soon asked by the Admiral’s Men (who had replaced the Queens’ Men) to complete the second part of the play, a request which gave him the opportunity to write for actors whose abilities he knew – always an important factor in Elizabethan theatre.

Tamburlaine, part 2 was a different play from its predecessor, which offered a new perspective both on the action of the earlier play and particularly on its religious issues:

  • Tamburlaine in Part 1 is presented as a kind of Christian hero, who defeats the infidel Turks
  • Part 2, however, represents its Christian characters as lacking in moral strength.

It may be that it was this play that began to establish the belief, which was widespread after his death, that Marlowe was an atheist.

The celebrated dramatist

Marlowe followed the two Tamburlaine plays (published in 1590) with a remarkable succession of dramas:

  • Doctor Faustus was first performed and probably written in 1588-9 (published 1604, 1616)
  • The Jew of Malta (written in 1590) was first performed in 1592 (published 1633)
  • Edward II was first performed in 1592 (published 1594)
  • The Massacre at Paris written in 1592, was produced in 1593 and published in 1594.

Common features

These plays, like Tamburlaine, parts 1 and 2, have a number of features in common:

  • Each is different in its location and historical setting - all of them are remote in place or time from Elizabethan England
  • Each focuses intensely on a single individual whose speeches, many in the form of soliloquies or asides, dominate the play in which they appear
  • The plays break the boundaries of genre, mixing the comic with the tragic, high politics with everyday life
  • Similarly, the principal characters are represented with a mixture of sympathy and irony as they try to realise their own sense of themselves.

It was these paradoxical or contradictory qualities that made Marlowe’s plays so intriguing and popular.

The plays in the theatre

Marlowe’s plays were very popular in performance:

  • Doctor Faustus offered many opportunities for special effects, including the appearance of devils, ghosts, thunder, lightning and fireworks. It was performed very frequently in both England and in continental Europe by English travelling companies
  • The Jew of Malta, an extraordinary mixture of tragedy and slapstick farce, was performed thirty-six times between February 1592 and June 1596, more than any other contemporary play.
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