(From The Short Cambridge History of English Literature, by George Sampson, 1972 ed.)
Whether The Spanish Tragedy is earlier than Tamburlaine, as some suppose, does not greatly matter, for, historically, Kyd and marlowe are not easily separable; they both attained great popularity at the same time and both fell together.
The sentimentalists can no longer make a pathetic story out of Christopher Marlowe's life (1564-93). Additions to our knowledge have left us few illusions. Marlowe, son of a Canterbury shoemaker, passed from the King's School in his native city to Cambridge, where he absorbed the music and the legends of Latin poetry and indulged in some unusual reading and speculation. Though he lived as wildly as Greene and Nashe, he was never one of their fellowship. He was, in fact, a "university wit" who had made himself common, and appears to be pointed at with Nashe's finger of scorn. The facts about his life and works are as obscure as the circumstances of his death. He had become notorious for "atheism", and he was fatally stabbed in a Deptford tavern at the end of a long day spent with three men of very dubious repute. Some time before, Kyd had been arrested for "mutinous sedition", but was released after Marlowe's death, having shown that heretical papers found in his room belonged to Marlowe, whom he accused of blasphemy. There is no profit in speculating on what was behind Marlowe's death. He had lived dangerously and was such a man as could have written his plays. (The most reliable biography is The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe, 1942, by the American scholar John Bakeless). His literary life begins with an undated translation of Ovid's Amores, called Elegies by the publishers. This has more merits than is usually allowed. Like Shakespeare, Marlowe set forth on his way as a poet of classical amorism, but, unlike Shakespeare, he did not immediately find his natural magic and music. Marlowe's first original work was Tamburlaine the Great, in two parts, played in 1587 or 1588 and printed anonymously in 1590. The grandeur of the style, the powerful acting of Alleyn and the superiority of the piece to the plays which had so far held the popular stage gave Tamburlaine great popularity. Yet, save in one obscure and hostile allusion by Greene, the author is nowhere named. Even Heywood, who mentions both Marlowe and Tamburlaine in his Apology for Actors, does not clearly associate them. The dramatic excesses of the play were disliked by some, but, of course, the real offence was that Marlowe succeeded. Like Swinburne he carried the young men away by the irresistible force of his style. The Tragicall History of D. Faustus, of which the first known edition is the quarto of 1604, is assumed to be his next play and is dated c. 1588; but there is good reason for refusing it a date earlier than 1592. Faustus, however, is not so complete a thing as Tamburlaine. The comic scenes are almost abjectly bad, and prove either that Marlowe's excesses of humour are worse than his excesses of tragedy, or that his play has suffered from foolish theatrical additions. Nevertheless the greatest parts of Faustus show him at the height of his poetic and dramatic magnificence. The same difficulty is presented in another play, The Jew of Malta. It is mentioned as early as 1592; but as there is no evidence that it was printed before 1633, we have a reasonable excuse for disclaiming the poorer passages as playhouse alterations. In The Troublesome Raigne and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second (printed 1593-4), Marlowe gave us the first historical play of the type which Shakespeare followed in Richard II. The Massacre at Paris and The Tragedie of Dido Queene of Carthage complete the list of Marlowe's accepted dramas. The first known edition of the former is undated; it was acted in 1593; the earliest text of the latter belongs to the year 1594. The Massacre, badly transmitted, has fitful power. Dido, usually dismissed with undeserved contempt, bears the name of Nashe on its title as co-author; but of Nashe's hand there is little trace.
The supposed association of Marlowe with works attributed to Shakespeare or used by Shakespeare must be barely mentioned in a survey such as this. Assertions about composite authorship are easy to make and hard to establish or refute. Still, composite authorship and revision by several hands are known facts of the time. Readers should trust their own convictions and not accept attributions too readily. In Titus Andronicus and in Henry VI there is some show of argument for Marlowe's hand. The full-bodied verse of Titus and the soaring, defiant character of Aaron might be the work of the author of Tamburlaine, but might equally be the work of a young admirer. Marlowe may have had a share in Henry VI, but the nature and extent of that share (if any) cannog be discussed briefly. At this time of day it is impossible to distinguish between the verse of Marlowe and the verse of a young poet writing with Marlowe's infectious tune in his head. Arden of Feversham is one of the pseudo-Shakespearean plays in which some students have detected Marlowe's hand. The whole question is discussed in F. P. Wilson's Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare (1953).
Two other works, non-dramatic, remain for mention: Hero and Leander and Lucan's First Booke Translated Line for Line, both entered for printing in 1593. The first, unfinished, was published in 1598, afterwards with a completion by Chapman; the second appeared in 1600. The famous short poem "Come live with me and be my love" appeared first in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) and next, in a fuller form, in Englands Helicon (1600). The nearly simultaneous publication of these pieces appears to indicate an effort by friends to leave little or nothing of the poet's work unprinted. We gather, from various allusions, that Marlowe had friends and admirers in spite of his ill-repute.
The first duty of a historian is to dwell, not upon Marlowe's faults, but upon his achievements; and the fact to be recorded is that Marlowe is a prime creative force in English literature, and a creative force of a new kind. Till Marlowe's time no one had made possible and credible such daemonic figures as Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas, whose tragic doom is compelled by forves within themselves and not by mischances from without. Marlowe's heroes confront the fates; they are not the sport of destiny. Marlowe himself has the self-possession of the strong man, and could use his sources creatively. His violence is native, and the inequalities in his art are the effect of his strength, not the signs of undeveloped power. His work was finished at an age at which few poets have really begun. Edward II stands by itself among his plays. There is a temptation to overpraise it. because it is the first complete historical play of the stricter type without lapses into foolery, it is singled out as Marlowe's best dramatic effort. But it merely seems the best because it never sinks to the worst depths of Tamburlaine and Faustus. Just as certainly it never touches their greatest heights. In passion and word-music the play is inferior to the greater pieces; it lacks, too, the touch of caricature that gives them convincing vitality. Still, it is the first successful attempt we have at the interpretation of history on the stage; for a successful history-play must interpret history, it must not merely label figures with historical names. The earlier historical plays were only another form of the cautionary historical poems in A Mirror for Magistrates. After Marlowe's Edward II, Shakespeare's Richard II and its great successors became possible; but Marlowe could never have attained the all-embracing versatility of Shakespeare. Edward II showes his limitations as clearly as his powers. No one remembers its characters and scenes as one remembers the characters and scenes of Richard II.
Marlowe gave his age true tragedy. He also gave it tragedy's true instrument, great verse. Gorboduc had taught blank verse how to speak on the stage; Tamburlaine taught it how to sing. Indeed, it might be said that Marlowe's genius is operatic, and he obviously learned something of his music from Spenser. His famous passages are like great solos, superbly lyrical and appropriate, but not integrally woven into the texture of the drama. His dramatic blank verse unites the formal dignity of Gorboduc with the musical fluency of The Faerie Queene; and so it is rhythmically free and inventive, capable alike of magic and of majesty, always the master and never the slave of its metrical pattern. And though his daemonic figures may seem excessive in deed or aspiration, their poetic speech, however "mighty", is spontaneous, natural, and even simple.
Thomas Kyd (1558-94) appears to be the person held up to contempt by Nashe in his preface to Menaphon as an example of those who "could scarcelie latinize their necke-verse if they should have need". Kyd's great offence was that he had made an immense theatrical success with The Spanish Tragedy. The extent of Kyd's Latinity may not have been great; but though he "never ware gowne in the Universitie" he was a fellow pupil with Spenser at Merchant Taylors.' His translations from the Italian and French, which seem to have annoyed Nashe specially, are quite unimportant. The Italian work is a pamphlet, and the French a version of Robert Garnier's Cornélie under the title Pompey the Great, his fair Corneliaes Tragedie (printed 1594—there is no record of its being acted). Other works attributed to him raise too many bibliographical problems to be accepted readily. The First Part of Jeronimo, extant in a quarto of 1605, is possibly a "first part" to The Spanish Tragedie, but not very probably written by Kyd himself. The Tragedye of Solyman and Perseda (published 1592) may perhaps be his, for that is the subject of the play within the play in The Spanish Tragedie; but it is quite definitively inferior to that piece. Even the Tragedie itself is a problem. Its date is unknown. It may have been written just before 1588. By 1592 it was enjoying great popularity. Its first known quarto is dateless; but even that is described as "Newly corrected and amended of such grosse faults as passed in the first impression", so it may not be the first; the second known quarto appeared in 1594, and the third in 1599. None of them gives the least clue as to the author's name; and it is not till 1612 that "M. Kid" is named casually by Heywood, as the author, in his Apology for Actors. The play out-Senecas Seneca in its wild horrors and in the excesses of its style. But there van be observed a faint resemblance to Hamlet, not merely in details of the story, but in the halting, suffering, distracvted, self-communing character of Hieronimo, who was an entirely new kind of tragic hero. The Spanish Tragedy is the first example we possess of the Hamlet type of play.
Kyd can be easily underrated. His contribution to drama is intrinsically as well as historically important. He was the first English dramatist to discover the bearing of episode and of dramatic "movement" upon character, and the first to give the audience a hint of the development that follows from this interaction. In other words, he is the first English dramatist who writes dramatically. We have parted company with the older declamatory tragedy of the English Senecans, with the "operatic" tragedy of Marlowe, and we are nearer the manner of Shakespeare. That the young Shakespeare knew The Spanish Tragedy is evident. Was there a closer association? What are the "whole Hamlets" of "tragicall speaches" referred to by Nashe in 1589 and apparently associated with Kyd? Did Kyd write a play upon the well-known story of Hamlet? Dide Shakespeare make that play the basis of his own? Does the First Quarto of Hamlet (1603) carry over some sections of an older, non-Shakespearean play? There is no certain answer to any of these questions. Perhaps in some obscure library there lies unrecognized the lost Hamlet of Kyd, or another, as the lost Fulgens and Lucres lay unrecognized till 1919. Perhaps, on the other hand, there never was such a play.