Marlowe and the Greeks



Marlowe's combination of lyric violence with a spirit of irony and scepticism has always seemed somewhat paradoxical, but we may find an explanation for it in his debt to Greek. Greek language learning developed in England from the early 1500s onwards and was particularly strong at Cambridge under Sir John Cheke in the 1540s, when many of the teachers of the future generation of Elizabethan writers were trained. In the case of Marlowe, what Joseph Hall was to label ‘pure iambics’ can be seen to have Greek origins, and the plays in which these are first deployed (the two parts of Tamburlaine) almost certainly take Xenophon's Cyrpopaiedia as one of their models. But the ironic Marlowe is also evident in Tamburlaine, and the model here is not Xenophon but Lucian, whom Gabriel Harvey records as being a vogue author with Cambridge students in 1580, the year that Marlowe matriculated. Lucian also impacts on Doctor Faustus, and this becomes more evident if we read the famous line on Helen of Troy from the Dialogues of the Dead in the context of another passage from ‘The Judgement of the Goddesses’ from Dialogues of the Gods.