Looking for Christopher Marlowe.
Article Type:
Book review
Books (Book reviews)
Lenker, Lagretta Tallent
Pub Date:
Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Wntr, 2007 Source Volume: 34 Source Issue: 1
NamedWork: Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy (Book); The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (Book); The World of Christopher Marlowe (Book)
Reviewee: Honan, Park; Cheney, Patrick; Riggs, David

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Riggs, David. 2004. The World of Christopher Marlowe. New York: Henry Holt and Co. $30.00 hc. 411 pp.

Cheney, Patrick, ed. 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe.

Cambridge University Press. $75.00 hc. $24.99 sc. 312 pp.

Honan, Park. Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy. Oxford University Press. $32.50 hc. 421 pp.

Renaissance drama continually fascinates our postmodern sensibilities. On the most obvious level, the study and near-worship of all things Shakespearean has grown to the status of an industry, ranging from ever-evolving, highly theoretical scholarship to play productions (one can hardly call them revivals) and films of varying quality, to the near-theme park atmosphere that surrounds those revered landmarks, the Globe Theater and the Stratford-Upon-Avon properties. It is no wonder that this fascination continues to flourish--Shakespeare plays both exude the hope and joy of life (Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It) and ruminate on the dark, mysterious aspects of human existence (Hamlet and King Lear). And anyone who has read or seen the plays recently realizes that both light and dark elements almost always pervade each play in the tragic-comic milieu that constitutes the hallmark of Shakespeare's art. We find, no doubt, much in these plays that reflects our own postmodern condition, which boasts of near-miraculous advances in technology and science and simultaneously presents scenes of unimaginable horror with the advent of global terrorism. If we examine more closely the Renaissance canon, however, we may conclude that the dramatist whose work more nearly mirrors and recognizes our world of beauty and terror is not the Bard, but his immediate forbearer, Christopher Marlowe. The recognition of this postmodern affinity with the work of the "bad boy" of the Renaissance forms one of several links among the three volumes reviewed in this essay. Each work also acknowledges and participates in a shift in the focus of Marlowe scholarship from the traditional and understandable absorption in Marlowe's sketchy but oh-so-intriguing biography to an attempt to forge a more singularly critical response to his poems and plays. Of course, the persona of the seemingly irredeemable malcontent pervades Marlowe scholarship, consciously or unconsciously; however, these works, two single authored books and a collection of essays, acknowledge this predilection and attempt to overcome its temptation. Yet each work, of necessity, also participates in the murky, uncertain study of a man about whom little is known and much is suspected. In fairness to anyone searching for the historical Marlowe, many barriers exist, including the seven variations on his surname that have been connected with his life and work. To compensate for this troublesome situation, for years critics concentrated on the more sensational aspects of Marlowe's life, his glorious poetry--his "mighty line"--and his singularly important contribution to English prosity--iambic pentameter blank verse.

However, beginning in the late 1990s, possibly with Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning (revised in 2002), Renaissance biography (and consequently scholarship) took a different direction. Sometimes labeled "speculative biography," this new approach sanctions the supplementation of historical facts about the subject and his or her writings with plausible explanations of events using general cultural conditions or historical events. This approach unsurprisingly draws fire from purists and praise from contextualists; perhaps the true value lies in the via media, in a blend of appreciation and skepticism for emphasis on both solid historical knowledge about an individual and the evidence offered by the record of the times in which he or she lived.

David Riggs had the ill-fortune to publish The World of Christopher Marlowe soon after the premiere of Stephen Greenblatt's Will and the World. Had the situation been reversed, The World of Christopher Marlowe might have received wider critical acclaim. For while Riggs follows the expected biographer's course of considering the known facts about his subject's life and of linking the circumstances of that life to themes and plot lines of the poems and plays, this biographer also conjectures about how the times in which his subject lived influenced his art. This strategy, also employed in Greenblatt's book, makes engaging reading but also draws the ire of critics and other biographers who long for more concrete facts about the Renaissance and one of its most elusive figures. Nevertheless, Riggs hones his work with scrupulous attention to detail and consequently paints a credible, if speculative, portrait of his subject and those who influenced his life and work. Riggs centers his exploration of the Marlovian legend on several key factors, including Marlowe's early years, his family's poverty, and Marlowe's resulting self-consciousness about social status; his Cambridge education with its religious emphasis; the sixteenth-century meaning of the word "atheist" and how it relates to Marlowe and his peers; and a detailed examination of the political plots of the day and how Marlowe and his acquaintances (Richard Baines, for example) figured in these intrigues. Riggs concludes that rigorous academic study, government service, and playwriting became mutually reinforcing activities for Marlowe.

Riggs's work offers particular insight in placing Marlowe among his fellow early-modern dramatists and situating them--Sir Phillip Sidney, George Peele, Robert Greene, Thomas Watson--at various levels of the social strata while discerning a common agenda. They translated classical and modern European works; they composed poetry and court entertainments; and they cultivated "the amateur genres of the school play, the court entertainment, and the closet drama ... and they kept a safe distance from the disreputable adult acting companies" (186). According to Riggs, Marlowe distinguished himself by becoming the first university man to maintain a professional relationship with those adult players, an alliance particularly suited to a government agent hired to create dissention by giving voice to sedition and heresy so that the Elizabethan authorities could exercise their power. Riggs also probes the link between Marlowe's Roman education (Ovid and Lucan) and the charges ultimately leveled against him by Thomas Kyd and Richard Baines.

The Cambridge curriculum found roots in classical literature that treats male friendship and homoerotic love with absolute indifference, as a fact of life. The Tudor government considered sodomy a crime but only enforced related laws when a child was harmed; when the homoerotic behavior interfered with established institutions, like marriage; or when the sodomite was engaged in treasonous behavior against the establishment. However, in the shadows of his own life and in both Dido, Queen of Carthage and Edward II, Marlowe celebrated the progression of male friendship to homosexual love in a manner considered scandalous at the time. Riggs notes that the question of whether or not Marlowe was homosexual is misleading--in the Renaissance, the term denoted aspects of a crime, not personal identity. Similarly, the charge of atheism so often leveled at Marlowe may have roots in the Cambridge curriculum. Riggs explains that the claim that religion is often used to keep humans in awe, when attributed to Marlowe, in reality echoes the work of Marlowe's frequent subject, Ovid, and of other Latin texts. Renaissance scholars inherited the "Roman view" that philosophers and statesmen were entitled to a sphere of private unbelief, and Marlowe's offense may have been in circulating these liberal attitudes among the general public. Riggs posits that in Tudor England the state religion was a matter of behavior, not belief, and that Marlowe's violation of the code of silence surrounding this practice led to his downfall. Riggs also believes that Marlowe's running afoul of the state springs from his Roman studies to a greater extent than previously recognized. According to Riggs, Marlowe's translation of Lucan aligned the poet with a famous classical anti-authoritarian who wrote of armed resistance to a famous monarch and both the ancient and the Early Modern writers paid a violent price for verbalizing that struggle. Riggs also recognizes that in the eyes of the Tudor government, both atheists and Catholics were considered heretics, and he suggests that Marlowe's supposed atheism and tenuous links to the Catholic faith placed the playwright in a peculiar double bind with state authorities.

Riggs also examines the Marlowe plays, contextualizing each with a problem faced by early modern society. For example, Dr. Faustus incorporates problems of belief into the eponymous legend of the famous scholar; Edward II studies the idea of counterfeiting nobles; and Tamburlaine I & II challenge the limits of acceptable human behavior. The Jew of Malta, however, may most clearly support Riggs's claim that playmaking is an ideal profession for a spy. Both Barabas and Ithamore represent a new class of intelligent agents "shuttling back and forth between two sides," while remaining loyal only to themselves, perhaps a trademark of Renaissance espionage. Riggs avers that this public discussion of dangerous ideas collided with the heresy hunt of 1593 and caused "God's hand to come down on blasphemers and over-reachers," including its most prominent victim, Christopher Marlowe.

Critics have charged Riggs with minor factual errors and his dogged examination of each tenet of the "Baines note" has been labeled "tedious." However, any serious scholar of the early modern period will appreciate both the challenges Riggs faced with this biography and the resulting work. Riggs wisely acknowledges earlier efforts to capture Marlowe through biography and reports that for centuries the central question for a biographer has been: "can a bad man become a good writer?" Until recently the answer has been "no," with the Victorians who rediscovered this sixteenth-century mystery man explaining that he was really a gentleman in disguise castigating his fellows for their philistine ways. Contemporary critical thought places Marlowe as "the other" who gave voice to his counterparts in early modern society--blasphemers, sodomites, and unemployed scholars. Riggs believes that Marlowe thrilled his audiences with spectacular representations of epicurean and underclass values and that just when he became visible as a figure of opposition, he was murdered. Even so, for Riggs, because most of our information about Marlowe exists in second-hand reports from unfriendly witnesses or from his fictitious imaginings in his poems and plays, the questions of who was Christopher Marlowe and why did history choose him to play this peculiar role remains open.

Published between the two biographies considered here, comes the always valuable Cambridge Companion. Editor Patrick Cheney's edition on Marlowe presents essays concerning both the poet/playmaker's life and works, and his introductory essay and the sixteen chapters that follow purport to "reflect variously on the enigma of Marlovian genius" and to produce multiple, sometimes conflicting, assessments of the "most enigmatic genius of the English literary Renaissance." Cheney's edition is divided into three segments: the first provides orientation to essential features of the life and work of Marlowe--hallmarks of his life and career, questions about his texts and authorship, discussion of his singular and innovating writing style, and a description of the cultural contexts of the 1580s and 1590s. Part Two offers critical analyses of his poems and each of his plays, and Part Three provides critiques of Marlowe's distinctive use of the genre of tragedy, of themes of the "new learning" found in Marlowe's art, and finally of Marlowe's legacy or "afterlife."

In his introduction, Cheney attempts to establish the Marlowe chronology, a problematic task that has led contemporary editors to employ various methods of ordering the plays and poems with many relying on publication dates instead of conjectures about dates of composition. Cheney concludes that Marlowe's canon does not merely remain continually in motion but was, in effect, truncated by his early death. Marlowe's standing in English literary history has a singular feature: "his absolute inaugural power." Cheney offers as proof of this claim, the number of times that the word "first" is applied to Marlowe and his work over the centuries that follow his death. Cheney next presents a valuable summary of Marlowe's literary reputation from the early modern period to our own, recalling that in pervious times, Marlowe was often labeled as a first-rate poet but a "mad-cap dreamer," one whose powerful imagination took him far from reality. Cheney marks a new era of Marlowe scholarship with the publication of Clifford Leech's Twentieth Century Views series Christopher Marlowe (1964). This volume showcases Marlowe as an intellectual worthy of study, whose work offers a complexity not previously recognized and whose plays are stage worthy in the contemporary theater. Cheney credits Leech with launching a virtual scholarly Marlovian juggernaut, with works published considering Marlowe's subjectivity, sexuality, politics, and religion. According to Cheney, the newly recognized value of the works of Marlowe places him within the broader European context of Marguerite de Navarre, Lope de Vega, and Torquato Tasso. Cheney positions Marlowe, along with Shakespeare and Jonson, as the progenitors of a new standard of English authorship that "extends through Milton and John Dryden to George Eliot and W.H. Auden, even to Derek Walcott and Sam Sheppard." Also, this editor depicts Marlowe as England's first canonical dissident writer because of his study and translation of Rome's counter-imperialists, Ovid and Lucan. Cheney also credits Marlowe with being the first English author to foreground his own homoerotic experience in Edward II and Hero and Leander. Cheney suspects that Marlowe had some sense of his own inaugural status because he used the word "first" over 130 times in his canon and because he records an unusual number of first happenings (for example, "cursed be he that first invented war" Tamburlaine I 2.4.1) Yet despite the singular elements of style and topic that Cheney attributes to Marlowe, for this editor, the most striking feature of his work remains his characteristic linking of literature and violence.

This theme continues throughout many of the essays in the collection. While all of the essays deserve mention, especially those treating the often-overlooked Dido, Queen of Carthage and Massacre at Paris by Sara Munson Deats and Marlowe's poems by Georgia Brown, space limitations permit only a brief overview of three essays in this review. "Marlowe and Style," by Russ McDonald, continues Cheney's notation of the linking of multiple forms of violence and literature in Marlowe's works by discussing the poet's combination of the "transgressive and the conventional." Calling Marlowe a Janus-faced dramatist who combines his love of the classic with his fascination with the new learning of the modern world, McDonald attributes the "distinctive texture" of Marlowe's language to this intellectual curiosity, which often fixed on themes of power, alienation, masculinity, ambition, and the violent means by which these attributes were achieved--or overcome--by Marlovian heroes. Much of McDonald's essay concentrates on the power of controlled language that produces a quality of both restraint and audacity--a mixture of self- control and of Marlowe's obvious love of words--that was often parodied by Marlowe's fellow dramatists. However, as Tamburlaine's Mycetes avers,"[Marlowe's] words become swords," thus producing violence not only in action but also in language. McDonald studies Marlowe's echo effect, produced by various types of reiteration--repetition of proper nouns and multi-syllabic words and the use of the trope antistrophe. Of course, McDonald pays obligatory homage to Marlowe's adaptation of blank verse, but only after tracing the poetic style's English history as a means of translating the classics (Virgil) into the English vernacular. Marlowe's success with blank verse led to its becoming the "default mode for dramatic speech" in Renaissance plays. From this much discussed topic, McDonald molds a concrete appraisal of Marlowe's contribution that is helpful to scholars and students alike. He cogently identifies the salient elements of the form--uniformity, structured but unanticipated language, and expressive rhythm--and Marlowe's employment of each. According to McDonald, Marlowe's enduring role in English dramatic poetry is the lasting versatility of blank verse and his ability to link action and language.

In Part Two, the "works" section of the collection, Julie Reinhard Lupton opens her essay on The Jew of Malta with the inevitable lament of ubiquitous comparisons of Barabas and Shakespeare's Shylock. Lupton critiques various reading of Jew; its place in English theater history; its contribution to portrayals of Jews; and its exploration of Mediterranean culture and politics in the English frame of reference. This chapter examines "the Jewish question" as considered on stage and studies the play's representation of that question through various social, religious, and economic alliances formed by the characters in the play and the violent conclusions of those alliances as Barabas weaves his murderous web of hatred in both word and deed. Lupton rejects categorization of Barabas and his associates into the Self and the Other in favor of probing the "intersecting circles" of association that provide the energy of the play. In her critique of Barabas, Lupton identifies Marlowe's Barabas as an initially individualized subject who quickly loses that identity as he descends into the allegorical figure of the Vice/Stage Machiavel. She sees Barabas's "infinite riches in a little room" as emblematic of his entrapment in the curse of self-interest, a possible caricature of the history of Jewish survival. Lupton reads Barabas's daughter Abigail as demonstrating the "key exit strategies from Judaism"--marriage and conversion--yet sees her "doubling" of both suitors and conversions as undercutting the seriousness of her intentions both with potential mates and with her religion. Just as Abigail turns Christian, Ithamore supposedly rejects Islam in favor of Judaism in a countermove that further demonstrates the confusion incorporated into the play's religious milieu. Lupton concludes with an examination of Barabas the Jew as representative of the "actor" with both forming "uncivil" alliances that place them outside the social norm but that nevertheless can provide occasion to engender new, more creative connections both on stage and in society.

Part Three considers, among other themes, Marlowe's fascination with the new learning, represented in a chapter by Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., which focuses on the growing field of geography. Earlier chapters emphasize Marlowe's use of proper nouns and place names, but Sullivan's chapter goes farther, linking the playwright's fancy for "old" and "new" geography with the importance that Marlowe places on the relationship between identity and locale in his characters. Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas each derive much of their sense of self from locales in which they find themselves or wish to be, and often these geographical sites are places of violent interaction with invaders or inhabitants of certain areas. Sullivan cautions that Marlowe is not consistent in his dramatic approaches to the new study of geography and that the violent "transgressiveness" of his heroes attempts to produce new geographic models. Tamburlaine's vow to remake the "triple regions of the world" illustrates his use of a scheming character's desire to re-create their worlds no matter what the human cost. The linkage of character to place (Barabas and Malta) or the presentation of the character as a vagabond scheming to rename cities after himself and his beloved (Tamburlaine and Zenocrate) provides "raw material" for Marlowe's dramatic experiments and his society's attempt to understand its earthly home.

This Cambridge Companion, valuable for its breath of Marlowe material and for the scholarly reputations of its contributors, who form a veritable who's who of Marlowe scholarship, completes the presentation with a Marlowe chronology, reading list, and listing of reference works.

Another contribution to the recent plethora of Marlowe scholarship is Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, by Park Honan, noted Renaissance scholar and biographer of William Shakespeare. Honan's major thesis, given in the title of the book, connects the playwright's double life as literary genius and secret agent. Honan persuasively argues that these seemingly disparate professions, in reality, are extremely complementary and that Marlowe profited at both "jobs" by his engagement in each. Honan graciously acknowledges the biographical works of scholars, including the work of David Riggs, whose previous scholarship provides the foundation for his own efforts: And in his brief introduction, he identifies the portion of his work that he believes provides new material or insight into many facets of the Marlowe legend, including Marlowe's "extraordinary loyalties"; his formal training; his relationship to the theater and actors, especially Thomas Watson; his dependence on Thomas Walsingham, his patron; and his questionable death. He places special emphasis on details about Marlowe's biological family and, later on, on a different sort of kinship with the members of the various spy networks operating at the end of Marlowe's life.

Honan pursues his subject chronologically, beginning his biographical quest to "bring our sense of [Marlowe] up to date." Like others before him, Honan speculates about how Marlowe's early life in Canterbury influenced his plays; for example, Honan suggests that Marlowe's childhood influenced his portrayal of family in Edward II and that his early relationship with women colors the female characters in The Jew of Malta. Honan surmises that the rich history of Canterbury played a major role in the formation of Marlowe's sense of self and the very course of his life, even suggesting similarities between the murders of Becket and of Marlowe. Honan also puzzles over how Canterbury could produce both Marlowe, the age's "greatest theatrical innovator," and Stephen Gosson, "its best theatre opponent," and suggests that religion was a primary influence on both men.

Honan reviews known facts about the education of children in Canterbury and connects this knowledge to Marlowe, who apparently read both Old English romances (from which he learned to admire vignettes about armies) and Greek and Roman classics (from which he gained appreciation of Lucian's "cool irony"). Honan concludes that Marlowe's early life in Canterbury encouraged his genuine love of learning, including fostering his excitement about books and sharpening his powers of observation--since Marlowe was interested in how people looked.

While reviewing Marlowe's Cambridge years, Honan concentrates on both the playwright's scholarly endeavors and his recruitment into espionage. In addition to his selection as a prestigious Parker Scholar, which obliged the student to concentrate on Greek and Latin as well as the Dialectical of Petrus Ramus, Marlowe began his writing career while at Cambridge. Honan attributes All Ovid's Elegies, Lucan's First Book, Dido, and Tamburlaine I to Marlowe's Cambridge years. During this period, Marlowe probably also became involved in two of his more infamous interests, atheism and espionage, which may have overlapped. Honan reports that some believe that the Cambridge Arts course of Marlowe's day bred atheists with its emphasis on the classics and instruction in dialectical argumentation. He also credits the Cambridge curriculum with fostering Marlowe's sexual proclivities--"sex, after all, had been the theme of his [classical] training." Honan appears most interested in Marlowe's relationship to the several spy masters circulating around Cambridge, including Walsingham, who took great interest in writers and the theater. Honan speculates that traces of Marlowe's probable spy master may be found in the playwright's darker characters, such as the Duke of Guise and Mephistopheles. Also, the ability to create fictitious characters and credible dialogue are assets to both playwright and spy. This biographer pinpoints Marlowe's fascination with the will to power and the benefits of power--sexual, political, and personal--as central to works such as Tamburlaine I & II and Edward II. Understandably, Homan is on safer ground when discussing Marlowe's plays (I found his discussion of Tamburlaine I & II especially persuasive), and his writing becomes even more engaged and lively. These supposedly authentic texts are more tangible and accessible than the shadowy record of Marlowe's life. Honan delivers salient observations about the dramatist's interest in death in Tamburlaine I & II and The Jew of Malta and suggests the connection of Tamburlaine II and the ideas of the anti-Puritan Richard Hooker. He also considers themes of magic in Doctor Faustus and avers that magic can come from within the human psyche and from human choices. Interestingly, Honan posits that Marlowe appears to change genres from act to act in The Jew of Malta, and he notes that despite Marlowe's reputation, none of his plays appear to have been censored.

Yet speculation abounds in this biography, possibly, as has been suggested, in an attempt to refocus our gaze from the popular persona and legendary rake to the serious dramatist. The results of Honan's project are mixed: while he advances our understanding of the plays and poems, the attempt to place Marlowe in his own milieu often confuses, as both major and minor figures in Marlowe's life are scrutinized in perhaps excessive detail. Honan considers the possible relationship of Shakespeare and Marlowe, believing that issues of class would have clouded any such connection. He speculates on his central issue of Marlowe as spy; on Marlowe's possible need for friendship, even a "male gang"; and on the physical person of Christopher Marlowe--what Marlowe actually looked like.

Perhaps Honan's most obvious speculation concerns Marlowe's supposed atheism and his death. Honan believes that as a "famous atheist" who associated with Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Harriot, and others, Marlowe became a liability to the spy network and to his patron, Walsingham. Thus, the infamous murder of Marlowe was probably carried out to provide cover for a nobleman or network involved in clandestine activities. In his last years, Marlowe came perhaps too close to the element which Honan says fascinated him most--power--and it cost him his life. Fittingly, "power" is the last word in Honan's book.

These three volumes offer precious few, if any, new facts about Christopher Marlowe himself. Rather, the contribution of these three valuable volumes is to illuminate Marlowe's world and those with whom he shared it. We still glimpse the playwright through the reflected light of his times and hope someday to view the entire picture of the man himself.

Lagretta Tallent Lenker teaches at the University of South Florida and writes about early modern and Victorian drama and is a member of the executive board of the Marlowe Society of America.
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