Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

Our actual knowledge of his life could be knit up into a single sentence. We can seize but the facts of its obscure commencement, and of its tragic close. He has, indeed, a particular right to rank with Canterbury Poets, for in Canterbury, on a day in the February of 1564, he was born. The primroses of that April, amid the moss in Avon woods, had not yet lost their beauty before another immortal spirit entered our world-the Englishman, William Shakespeare. For all of us this must ever be a memorable year. Marlowe's father, a poor shoemaker, was yet able to find a place for his boy in the best school of the city, who passed thence with success to Cambridge. There, after study at Benet (Corpus Christi) College, he took his degrees of B.A. and M.A., leaving the university for London in 1587. Here, by his own choice, he soon became one of those “gentlemen who spend their wits in making plays.” Study only seems to have strengthened his repugnance to a disciplined life ; pleasure, the instinct of self-gratification, ruled him ; time and gains went, in the phrase from Villon's ballade, “ Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.” Those

brief years of riot are dark for us. It is believed that he was at first an actor, until a broken leg obliged him to write ; perhaps he published dreadful doctrines, railing at God and at religion; he may even have travelled abroad as a soldier : all these things are likely, and careful editors have produced evidence to prove their truth. Yet they are not as incontestably certain as the writing in the burial-record of a church at Deptford, where stand the sad words: “Christopher Marlowe, slain by Francis Archer, the 16th June 1593.” There, in a brothel, came the stop to his reckless life-a cruel stab in the eye while wrangling with a lackey for the kisses of a courtesan. Yet in those six riotous years he gave England six splendid plays : wild, intemperate, as was his own career, and still so charged with high poetry and passion, that the world will never willingly let them die. Greene, Nash, Peele, talented scapegraces all, were working in the same field, writing tales, pamphlets, and plays in hot haste to fend off penury. Marlowe easily distanced his rivals, and rose without effort to be that “famous gracer of tragedians" which

jealous Greene has named him. For while these his associates were but clever young playmakers, he was a great original genius. They scorned his “ braggart blank verse," his "drumming decasyllabon :” that was because his “Tamburlaine" had electrified the town. Nothing so new, so strong, so full of hot life and passion, had ever been witnessed in a London playhouse. The people were ready for it. They were beginning to lose interest in the cold Moralities and Mysteries that were really only lessons in Bible history-a sort of sermon in pantomime. Not puppets, but living men and women, with passions as their own, came now to claim their sympathy. “Tamburlaine" wrought a revolution not only in popular taste but in the history of our literature. It created the Elizabethan drama. This was the play that should point out a new and living way, a bolder, worthier method of making an English tragedy than by strict imitation of classic models. This was the play that saved us from lines, rules, and “the three unities.” But yet the new drama was to borrow something from the classic theatre. It took therefrom the form, the

metre. “ Gorboduc," our earliest known English tragedy, no doubt gave Marlowe hints as to verse structure ; but we need only take a passage from that drama and put it beside a piece from “Tamburlaine,” in order to feel how infinitely stronger and more beautiful the decasyllabic had become in his hands. We will cite these twelve lines from Sackville and Norton's play. It is Marcella's complaint-her voice is broken with passion :

O queen of adamant, О marble breast,
Il not the favour of his cornely face,
If not his princely cheer and countenance,
His valiant active arms, his manly breast,
If not his fair and seemly personase ;
His noble limbs in such proportion cast
As would have rapt a silly womau's thought.
If this might not have moved the bloody heart,
And that most cruel hand the wretched weapon
Even to let fall, and kissed him in the face,
With tears, for ruth to reave such one by death,
Should nature yet consent to slay her son ?"

Having read them, let us declaim the captive Bajazet's words of woe :

O dreary engines of my loathed sight,

That see my crown, my honour, and my name
Thrust unler yoke and thraldom of a thief,
Why feed ye still on day's accursèd beams,
And sink not quite into my tortured soul? ...
o

poor Zabina ! O my queen, my queen!
Fetch me some water for iny burning breast,
To cool and comfort me with longer date ;
That in the shortened seqnel of my life
I may pour forth my soul into thine arms,
With words of love.

This comparison not only serves to show the difference between the lifeless and the livingbetween lines that tire and lines that thrill. It also proves, if any proof were wanted, that English blank verse before Marlowe wrote it was hard, insipid, tame, and that he, with genius to guide him, shaped and fashioned it anew, giving it beauty, strength, and fire-making it "the supreme instrument of tragic poetry.”

In the words of a great critic:

Marlowe, first of Englishmen, perceived how noble was the instrument he handled-how well adapted to the closest reasoning, the sharpest

[ocr errors]
« PředchozíPokračovat »