There was a discussion in The Guardian fairly recently, occasioned by the 450th anniversary of Marlowe’s birth, over whether Marlowe hadn’t shown more promise in his first seven plays than Shakespeare; and if he hadn’t been so untimely ripped from the world, might he not now be our national playwright, and Shakespeare some imitator and also-ran.
I’ve read the first four Marlowe plays now in his collected works (Dido, the two Tamburlaines, and Doctor Faustus), and I can’t say I agree in the least. Even if we exclude the seventh Shakespeare play (going by Wikipedia’s chronology), the much revived Richard III, there’s still far more of interest in the remaining six than anything I’ve found in Marlowe. There’s the whole of The Taming of the Shrew for instance, particularly the dramatic counterpoint of its two lead characters; and who in their right mind would conceive the two Tamburlaines to be better history plays than the Henry VI plays.
There seem to me to be two things lacking in Marlowe. First is the language. Marlowe’s verse in metronomic and monotonous; he is nowhere near in the same league as Shakespeare in his use of the English language; he is nowhere near Jonson or Middleton for that matter, or Kyd. There’s barely a memorable line in any of it.
But by far the graver sin is that Marlowe doesn’t seem to understand drama in the least. A thought which comes to mind reading these plays is, were these ever actually produced on the stage? – I suppose they were, but they don’t seem to have been written with the stage in mind: there is barely any drama in them. They’re so static, full of long Senecan speeches: Dido just renders Aeneid Bks I-IV into dialogue much as they were written (Marlowe can’t even be bothered at times to translate it out of Latin); the Tamburlaine plays read more like history books (now they fought a battle here, and now they fought another battle over here); and Doctor Faustus is more a pageant than a play: it’s just a serious of sketches (many quite uninteresting) on what it would be like to have unlimited powers. Marlowe doesn’t introduce the least dramatic element into it: there’s no conflict – or what conflict there is – between the Good and Bad Angels – is so weak, is so peripheral to the substance of the play, that it cannot possibly engage the audience.
I sense that Marlowe, unlike Shakespeare, had no sense of what makes good drama; he just transposes his source material onto stage [Ed. no doubt some further investigation into this would be useful]. Sometimes Shakespeare himself does this, hence we get things like Pericles, or he retains elements of his sources which don’t work as well on stage (so the sub-plot of The Merchant of Venice, or the second half of Timon of Athens); but in general Shakespeare is marvellous at abstracting from his sources the essence of the dramatic situation.
Doctor Faustus, though – the essence of drama in Faustus is that he’s sold his soul to the devil for a time-limited pleasure, and at some point he’s going to repent and realise it wasn’t such a good idea. But does Marlowe concentrate on that? Oh, he tries to work it in every now and again – like your literary novelist tries to work “themes” into his dull story – but it’s always at the edge of the story, rather than the story itself.
Come on, Marlowe: you start the play a few days before Faustus is due to die – then you can have Faustus spend the entire play repenting / defiant / or what you will, but tormented, in a quandary, so there’s some kind of essential drama in the thing – and then work the scenes of pleasure through some kind of flash-back – maybe he’s explaining to someone (his daughter, perhaps, by Helen of Troy, whose reputation is about to ruined by the notoriety of her father’s devil-worship) because they don’t really understand, why he entered into the bargain in the first place and what he got out of it personally, and then have him attempting to renege on and finally accepting his fate or whatever – and give him a wise fool for a confident; – and you could even work in stuff about how we’re all like this, seeking pleasure for most of our lives, and only looking spiritual things and salvation when we sense Death approaching. – Jesus, it’s not difficult!
(Now I come to think about it, The Merchant of Venice is actually the same play, but executed in the manner of drama).