Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 11. Characteristics of his style

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VII. Marlowe and Kyd

§ 11. Characteristics of his style

The characteristics of Marlowe’s style which the traditional criticism has singled out and deplored—the persistent hyperbole, the weak construction of the plays and their one-man and no-woman limitations, the lack of humour—are not to be confounded with the faults which go by the same name in the work of weaker contemporaries. Nor is it enough to say, in partial excuse of the first, that all Elizabethans, including Shakespeare, are of necessity hyperbolic in habit, and that Marlowe’s excess is but the vice of that all-pervading quality. So much is certain: that the excess is not a mere makeweight or loading-on, to satisfy the clamour of the pit, and that the dramatist does not find an artistic pleasure in the mere use of bombast. There is always the sense of intimacy, even in the most extravagant passages, between the word and the situation which it expresses. The suggestion is literary; seldom, if ever, theatrical.

Indeed, we are on safer ground for the appreciation of Marlowe if we approach him from the literary side. Though he served English drama surpassingly well by giving it body and momentum, he rarely supplies a model in the technicalities of that genre. This is made clear, not only by the lack of variety in the choice of character and in the setting and construction, but by the absence of dramatic development in the portrayal of his heroes. What development we find is the outcome of a purely literary process, showing eloquence rather than action, a stately epical movement rather than the playwright’s surprises of situation and character. Even in the passage where Tamburlaine laments by the bed of his dying Zenocrate, the poet achieves great pathos not by the mere “stir” of the scene, but by that Miltonic knowledge of word values by the conscious, and rarely overconscious) delight in anaphora and line echo (“To entertain divine Zenocrate”), and by the climax of metaphor. We feel that by the sheer verbal music of the recurring name, as in the scene of the wooing, and, again in the great speech in part I, act V, sc. 1, the poet attains a dramatic effect undramatically. When has the magic of the word been used to better purpose than in the passage in which Tamburlaine, after hearing the speeches of Cosroe and Meander and catching at the parting lines of the latter,

  • Your majesty shall shortly have your wish,
  • And ride in triumph through Persepolis,
  • says,
  • “And ride in triumph through Persepolis!”
  • Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles?
  • Usumcasane and Theridamas,
  • Is it not passing brave to be a king,
  • “And ride in triumph through Persepolis?”
  • This is the word music which rings out of such lines as
  • By knights of Logres, or of Lyones,
  • Lancelot, or Pelleas, or Pellenore,
  • and gives Marlowe as well as Milton his place as an “inventor of harmonies.”

    Marlowe’s high seriousness (bluntly called lack of humour) suggests a further Miltonic analogy, and lends support to the view that his cast of thought, unlike that of many of his great successors in the drama, found readier expression in the processional of the imagination than in episode and the conflict of character. His contemporary, Kyd, had a stricter conception of the purpose and method of the playwright; but Marlowe’s gift of the secret of stateliness was the true capital and endowment of the Elizabethan drama.