Author: Christopher Marlowe (1564−1593)
Editor: David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2008 Reissue)
Bought from: noQ Store


Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, England in the same year as William Shakespeare. Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe went to university and obtained a Bachelor of Arts (1584) and a Master of Arts (1587) from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Like Shakespeare, however, little is known about his personal life which has led to much speculation, fuelled largely by the mysterious circumstances of his arrest and stabbing death within a space of 10 days in 1593. What we do know for sure is that he wrote some of the period‘s most famous plays within a span of 6 short years. Perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay Christopher Marlowe is to note his influences in some of Shakespeare’s own plays. Students of the history of English literature will know him as the writer who popularised the use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter).

What is the story about?

The two-part Tamburlaine The Great was written around 1587−8. Part I was first performed on stage in 1587 and Part II possibly in the following year. Both parts were published together in 1590. The main character is based loosely on the historical Central Asian warlord Timur (1336−1405), better known as Tamerlane (Persian for Timur the Lame). At the height of his power, his empire ranged from Mongolia to Russia, India and the Middle East. On the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Timur was actually viewed as a potential ally by some European leaders after he defeated an Ottoman Sultan, something Marlowe alluded to (I 3.3.236-8).

Doctor Faustus, full name The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, is Marlowe’s most famous work. It was written around 1588−92 and was first performed on stage in 1594. Two versions of the play survive, one published in 1605 (called the A−Text) and a longer one published in 1616 (the B−Text). The protagonist is based on a character from German legend who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge and pleasure.The play has given us the term faustian which refers to the insatiable striving for worldly knowledge and power even at the price of spiritual values. The play is also the source of the description of Helen of Troy as “the face that launched a thousand ships” (A−Text 5.1.90) as well as the following description of hell as essentially a state of mind:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.
And, to conclude, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that are not heaven.
(A−Text 2.1.121−6)

This volume also includes The Jew of Malta (written c 1589−90) and Edward II (written c 1592). The Jew of Malta is often compared to Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice (1596−98).


One common thread in the first two plays is the hubris exhibited by the protagonists. To the blood-thirsty Tamburlaine, it was indeed (apologies to Mel Brooks) good to be king, even better than being a god:

A god is not so glorious as a king.
I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven
Cannot compare with kingly joys in earth:
To wear a crown enchased with pearl and gold,
Whose virtues carry with it life and death;
To ask and have; command and be obeyed;
When looks breed love, with looks to gain the prize—
Such power attractive shines in princes’ eyes.
(I 2.5.57−64)

He added:

The chiefest God, first mover of that sphere
Enchased with thousands ever-shining lamps
Will sooner burn the glorious frame of heaven
Than it should so conspire my overthrow.
(I 4.2.8−11)

And in a controversial scene, he ordered the burning of copies of the Quran and challenged Mahomet (the prophet Mohammad) to do something about it (II 5.1).

Just as Tamburlaine used a defeated enemy as a footstool to ascend to his throne, Faustus used arcane knowledge (referred to as necromancy or metaphysics) to become as a god himself:

A sound magician is a mighty god
Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity
(A−Text 1.1.64−65)

Tamburlaine’s arrogance did not appear to have adversely affected him. Faustus on the other hand paid a heavy price for his transgressions. He was dragged alive into hell by the devils (A−Text 5.2) or torn asunder by the devils, leaving only his “mangled limbs” (B−Text 5.3.17).

In Tamburlaine, Marlowe lionised a commoner, a sherperd, who challenged and defeated not one but four empires (Persian, Ottoman, Egyptian and Babylonian) to become the “scourge of God and terror of the world” (II 4.153). One can only wonderhow this was viewed by the Elizabethan palace.

Marlowe lived, worked and died during the Renaissance period which marked Europe’s transition from the Medieval Period (Middle Ages) into the Modern Period. The movement, which reshaped European arts, sciences and philosophy, originated in Italy in the 14th century before spreading to the rest of Europe over the next 100 years. In England, the Renaissance reached its pinnacle during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558−1603), dominated by the poetry of Edmund Spenser and plays of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. In a twisted sort of way, Faustus was the model Renaissance man, having mastered analytics (philosoply), Physic (medicine), law and divinity.

The religious landscape of England under Queen Elizabeth I that Marlowe lived in was shaped by the monarch’s immediate predecessors: the establishment of the Church of England by Henry VIII (1509−1547), the intensification of the English Reformation under Edward VI (1547−1553) and the prosecution of Protestants by Mary (1553−1558). Many of the challenges to Elizabeth’s rule (domestic as well as foreign) can be traced to these religious tensions. Nonetheless, Elizabeth is credited for calming the religious convulsions of the previous rules. Anglicanism shared many elements with Calvinism, a major Protestant denomination. In Marlowe‘s play, Faustus’ biggest sin was not making the deal with Lucifer in the first place but failing to repent. This may reflect the Calvinist doctrine that everyone is predestined by God′s plan to be either saved or damned. Those destined to fall are incapable of saving themselves by any action whatsoever since redemption is the work of God.

How is the book?

This is a volume in the Oxford World’s Classics series and includes an informative introduction and end notes.

It is not clear why the cover illustration of the book is a detail from Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe by German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471 − 1528).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s