Christopher Marlowe's Poems

Christopher Marlowe's Poems Themes

Illicit love

The whole of Amores is concerned with an adulterous love affair. The lovers attempt to conceal their trysts and deceive Corinna's husband at every turn; nor are the lovers faithful or truthful to one another. The embarkation of this affair seems to have caused the two lovers no moral misgivings. Never do Corinna and her lover wrestle with their consciences, or voice concern about Corinna's deceived husband. The complete absence of sexual and social conventional morality is a bit surprising in a poem more than two thousand years old. These elegia were part of a Roman poetic convention; the love poetry of illicit relationships was a poetic trope that was much explored by Ovid and other writers of his day. That Marlowe chose to translate it, however, speaks somewhat of his taste in iconoclastic themes.

Hero and Leander, too, a poem devised by Marlowe from the framework of an early myth, is concerned with a doomed love affair. The separation and desperation of the lovers (on a different scale of personal integrity, but still with the same sort of angst) in Hero and Leander is dwelt on the same way as Ovid expresses his striving and frustration for Corinna in Amores. Love denied is a powerful dramatic subject, and Marlowe liked to address it in his longer poems.

Classical poetry translations

Marlowe chose a short but nevertheless difficult poem to translate in Ovid's Amores. Classical translations were in vogue at the time (the appearance of Henry Howard, Lord Surrey's partial translation of Virgil's Aeneid some years before this had made a mark in literary circles) and a task that a young poet would likely set himself to. The translation is not an easy one; classical Latin was a very mature language and many times more compact than Elizabethan English. The meanings of words in Latin were sometimes multi-layered and used in ways that Elizabethan scholars of Latin, such as Marlowe, were not always able to grasp. In addition, the putting of one style of verse (Ovid's alternating hexameter/pentameter unrhymed lines) into another (blank verse English rhyming couplets) is a difficult task at best, and one that would have honed Marlowe's skills in English verse as well as Latin translation.

Apprenticeship of Marlowe

The translations of Ovid and Lucan were made when Marlowe was very young. He was still an undergraduate student at Cambridge when he began them. The Latin translations, though at times extremely witty and apt, do contain significant errors. Marlowe, though doubtless a classical scholar, was not a complete master of Ovid's extremely refined Latin, and Marlowe's treatment of Lucan's sometimes more awkward language is compounded by errors. The Amores were particularly admired in the medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the people who read them sometimes missed the cynical and playful side of Ovid's poetry. Marlowe seems to have fewer of these illusions (for example, he often translates Ovid's puella, "girl", as "wench", which had similar connotations in Marlowe's day as it does now,) but Marlowe nevertheless was unaware of some of the Roman poetic conventions and the more polished double- and triple-meanings that the poet of the Augustan age employed in his verses. The translations of Ovid and Lucan, though ambitious and certainly telling of potential talent, were still, to some extent, schoolboy exercises. There is no doubt, however, that the studying of these ancient writers and the conversion of their Latin into English verse helped greatly to develop the ability of the future writer of Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta.

Cynical view of romantic love

The entire relationship between the lover and Corinna in Amores is a sophisticated, realistic, somewhat jaded, and definitely cynical one. Corinna is married, and there is no talk of her divorcing her husband (though divorce was legal and practiced in the Rome of Ovid's day.) It is plain that at least part of Corinna's attraction to the lover is his wealth, and Corinna, though praised for her physical charms, is continuously scolded and made to look foolish. Neither lover is shown to be in the least bit heroic or even admirable -- though the feeling of passion is there, with attendant sentiments. It is clear that Ovid is chronicling a sordid adulterous affair. The lovers deceive each other and those around them. There is nothing redeeming about the relationship, and love certainly does not "conquer all." Physical gratification, and perhaps the thrill obtained from conquest and deception, seem to be the only ends and purpose of the relationship.

Hero and Leander pursue, though not nearly as cynical, a similarly doomed and pointless love affair. They are so innocent as to not be able to consummate their love immediately, and, though the poem is unfinished, their deaths are predicted in the opening lines of the poem. Much of Renaissance romance tended toward the tragic, so it is not surprising that Marlowe chose subjects with unhappy rather than conventionally happy endings.


Especially in Hero and Leander, but in much of Marlowe's oeuvre, the notion of fate is a common theme. References to the mythical Fates (or Destinies -- the three Greco-Roman goddesses who decided the character and length of each human being's life) occur often, and it is used as rhetorical device to convince that something is "meant to be". This may or may not have been Marlowe's own particular view of life. Since his religious views tended toward the heretical, if not outright atheism, it may be that he believed more fully in free will than the old classical idea of a fated existence. The Catholic church, too, while acknowledging free will, insisted that God's will be the dominant one. Since much of Marlowe's poetry is wry and tongue-in-cheek, the mentions of Fate may well be largely ironic.

Folly of humanity

Especially in Lucan's First Book, but also in Amores and Hero and Leander Marlowe takes pains to point out the folly of humanity. He chooses translations and tells stories in which the faults in the main characters are obvious and usually avoidable. The poet usually tells us at the outset what the problems of the main actors are, and the tragic ending is often foretold. This kind of lack of narrative suspense was common in Classical literature, and also in the drama of the Elizabethan stage.

High classical culture

Marlowe translated and composed in Latin, and his reverence for the ancient world was obvious both in his choice of literature to translate, and his original work. Marlowe didn't choose mediocre or obscure Latin poetry, but the works of Ovid and Lucan. These writers were the pinnacle of their culture, and their Latin was dense, erudite, and difficult to translate. In addition, some of the situations and stories of these authors were very far removed from types of stories told in Renaissance England. Marlowe kept the essential truths in these classical works, but he adapted them just enough to make them more accessible to his readers.