Christopher Marlowe was the greatest of Shakespeare predecessors. He may be regarded as the true founder of English drama. He was born in 1564, two months before Shakespeare, in the town of Canterbury. He was the son of a poor shoe-maker. Through the kindness of a patron, he was educated at the town Grammar school and then in the university of Cambridge. Christopher Marlowe was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. Marlowe was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day. He greatly influenced William Shakespeare, who was born in the same year as Marlowe and who rose to become the pre-eminent Elizabethan playwright. He graduated at the age of nineteen; and then went to London where he became an actor, living in low-tavern atmosphere of excess and wretchedness. In 1587, at the age of twenty- three, he produced his first play, Tamburlaine, which brought him instant recognition. Thereafter, although he led a wretched life, he remained loyal to a high literary purpose. In five years while Shakespeare was serving apprenticeship, Marlowe produced all his great work. Then he was stabbed in a drunken fight and died wretchedly as he had lived. He was only twenty-nine when he died. The epilogue of Faustus could very well be inscribed on his tombstone:
Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, And burned is Apollo’s laurel-bough That sometime grew within this learned man.
Doctor Faustus, a talented German scholar at Wittenberg, rails against the limits of human knowledge. He has learned everything he can learn, or so he thinks, from the conventional academic disciplines. All of these things have left him unsatisfied, so now he turns to magic. A Good Angle and an Evil Angel arrive, representing Faustus' choice between Christian conscience and the path to damnation. The former advises him to leave off this pursuit of magic, and the latter tempts him. From two fellow scholars, Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus learns the fundamentals of the black arts. He thrills at the power he will have, and the great feats he'll perform. He summons the devil Mephostophilis. They flesh out the terms of their agreement, with Mephostophilis representing Lucifer. Faustus will sell his soul, in exchange for twenty-four years of power, with Mephostophilis as servant to his every whim. In a comic relief scene, we learn that Faustus' servant Wagner has gleaned some magic learning. He uses it to convince Robin the Clown to be his servant. Before the time comes to sign the contract, Faustus has misgivings, but he puts them aside. Mephostophilis returns, and Faustus signs away his soul, writing with his own blood. The words "Homo fuge" ("Fly, man) appear on his arm, and Faustus is seized by fear. Mephostophilis distracts him with a dance of devils. Faustus requests a wife, a demand Mephostophilis denies, but he does give Faustus books full of knowledge. Some time has passed. Faustus curses Mephostophilis for depriving him of heaven, although he has seen many wonders. He manages to torment Mephostophilis, he can't stomach mention of God, and the devil flees. The Good Angel and Evil Angel arrive again. The Good Angel tells him to repent, and the Evil Angel tells him to stick to his wicked ways. Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephostophilis return, to intimidate Faustus. He is cowed by them, and agrees to speak and think no more of God. They delight him with a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins, and then Lucifer promises to show Faustus hell. Meanwhile, Robin the Clown has gotten one of Faustus' magic books. Faustus has explored the heavens and the earth from a chariot drawn by dragons, and is now flying to Rome, where the feast honoring St. Peter is about to be celebrated. Mephostophilis and Faustus wait for the Pope, depicted as an arrogant, decidedly unholy man. They...
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