Shakespeare bestrode his world, and indeed the whole world of English literature, like a Colossus. Hence 12 essays on him, when I have contented myself with one each on the 30 writers discussed previously. They were of a later period, and many of them still have much to say that we can readily understand, which is why I dealt with a large number of those who wrote in the last two centuries.
The case is different with those of the previous period, so I shall look at fewer than a dozen writers in the period between Shakespeare’s age, the end of the 16th century, and that of Wordsworth, at the end of the 18th. Three of these however will be contemporaries of Shakespeare, which suggests how brilliant was that efflorescence of English writing, during the Elizabethan period.
First of these was Christopher Marlowe, who has even been suspected of being the writer of the Shakespearian canon. But this is a particularly absurd supposition, for Marlowe was a genius in his own right, with a very different perspective from that of Shakespeare, who covered such a wide range of human nature and experience in his works.
Marlowe on the contrary had in essence just one subject. That was the study of individuals who sought to achieve more than the usual limits set by the world allowed. From the moment Tamberlaine burst upon the stage, Marlowe made it clear that what he was concerned about was the attractions, and the relentless consequences, to oneself as well as to others, of excess.
I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove;
And yet a shepherd by my parentage.
But, lady, this fair face and heavenly hue
Must grace his bed that conquers Asia,
And means to be a terror to the world,
Measuring the limits of his empery
By east and west, as Phoebus doth his course.
And in the second Act he expresses his ambitions in a couplet that reverberates in its combination of the pomp of what he aims at, and the simplicity of his approach –
Is it not passing brave to be a King,
And ride in triumph through Persepolis?
Excess of course plays itself out in different forms. The Jew of Malta, a precursor to Shakespeare’s Shylock, was a monster who exulted in both greed and villainy, as in his celebration of the death of the nuns he had poisoned –
There is no music to a Christian’s knell:
How sweet the bells ring, now the nuns are dead,
That sound at other times like tinkers’ pans!
I was afraid the poison had not wrought,
Or, though it wrought, it would have done no good,
For every year they swell, and yet they live:
Now all are dead, not one remains alive.
But it was resentment at the exploitation he had suffered as a Jew that pushed him over the edge into such vicious excesses
What, bring you Scripture to confirm your wrongs?
Preach me not out of my possessions.
Some Jews are wicked, as all Christians are:
But say the tribe that I descended of
Were all in general cast away for sin,
Shall I be tried by their transgression?
The man that dealeth righteously shall live;
And which of you can charge me otherwise?
Marlowe’s best know hero, Faustus, exemplified a very different desire for what lay beyond the usual confines of humanity. A scholar devoted to knowledge, he moved from that to the desire for power, and achieved this through a pact with the devil Mephistopheles. But having achieved power, he found that its exercise was not such a wonderful thing. Contrasted with Tamburlaine’s celebration of power based on his own energies, supreme enjoyment for Faustus seems to lie most satisfyingly in the beauty of a long dead Helen
Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium—
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies!–
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
And what is most memorable in the end about Faustus is his awareness of the consequences of his exchange with the devil, his fears when the hour of reckoning approaches, when Mephistopheles is going to take away his being and his soul
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente, curite noctis equi. 1
The stars move still, 2 time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul—half a drop: ah, my Christ!
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him: O spare me, Lucifer!
Marlowe then was remarkable too in his depiction of vulnerability, in contrast to the reverberating defiance of his Jew when faced with defeat. And vulnerability is perhaps the principal subject of his other great play, Edward II, where the excess of the hero is an excess of romance.
I use the word romance here rather than love, for the essence of Edward’s excessive indulgence of his love was his sense of romance, the feeling that he was defying all norms because of the unusual nature of his affection. This was because of his homosexuality, that led him to dally first with Piers Gaveston, whose account of how he plans to enchant the king borders is outrageously excessive
I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please:
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masks by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay;
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see
After Gaveston is murdered by the nobles, Edward indulges his affection for another young man with even less restraint, which leads to deep resentment, so that his discarded wife, and her lover, overthrew him. But they had to do so in terms of legitimacy, so his successor was his son, Edward III. And though Marlowe followed through with the story that completed Edward II’s humiliation, by having his killed in a manner that imitated the more mockable aspects of his sexuality, he was revenged by his son. The play ends with him dealing summarily with his mother and her paramour, who had violated the concept and the body of royalty.
Sweet father, here unto thy murder’d ghost
I offer up the wicked traitor’s head;
And let these tears, distilling from mine eyes,
Be witness of my grief and innocency.
While Marlowe’s reputation rests on these powerful plays, I should note too that he was a poet of great skill. His long narrative poem, Hero and Leander, about the young man who lost his life in swimming the Hellespont to reach his lady love, is more lyrical than Shakespeare’s narrative poems, though typically of Marlowe, this is most apparent in his description of Leander
Amorous Leander, beautiful and young,
(whose tragedy divine Musaeus sung,)
Dwelt at Abydos; since him dwelt there none
For whom succeeding times make greater moan.
His dangling tresses, that were never shorn,
Had they been cut, and unto Colchos borne,
Would have allured the vent’rous youth of Greece
To hazard more than for the golden fleece.
Fair Cynthia wished his arms might be her sphere;
Grief makes her pale, because she moves not there.
His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;
Jove might have sipped out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the taste,
So was his neck in touching, and surpassed
The white of Pelop’s shoulder. I could tell ye
How smooth his breast was and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back, but my rude pen
Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men,
Much less of powerful gods.
And the lyrical Passionate Shepherd to his Love is a gem of romance that deserves to be quoted in full
COME live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
There will we sit upon the rocks 5
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies, 10
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle.
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold, 15
With buckles of the purest gold.
A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love. 20
Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.
The shepherd swains shall dance and sing 25
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.