The World of Christopher Marlowe' (English)Pity the famous man born the same year as a more famous one: case in point Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) and William Shakespeare.
The World of Christopher Marlowe': A Brawler and a Spy
By JOHN SIMON
Published: January 2, 2005
Pity the famous man born the same year as a more famous one: case in point Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) and William Shakespeare. At their simultaneous centenaries, Marlowe was shamefully shortchanged. It would be no less a shame if a recent popular biography of Shakespeare eclipsed David Riggs's worthy ''World of Christopher Marlowe.'' Kit and Will are a pair of equal deservers.
With praiseworthy modesty, Riggs calls his book ''The World,'' not ''The Life'' of his elusive subject. Elizabethan poets (the word ''playwright'' was not yet invented) leave far fewer traces than biographers might wish for. This holds for Shakespeare as much as for Marlowe, though Marlowe benefited from being a brawler and a spy: there is nothing like getting in trouble for getting you into the record books.
Christopher's father, a shoemaker in Canterbury, was the rare poor tradesman who was both literate and litigious. In his son, literacy was transmuted into literariness, litigiousness into falling afoul of the law. These were hard times, when hanging, beheading, even burning at the stake were often deemed insufficient punishment: the hanged man might be disemboweled while still alive; London Bridge was decorated with the heads of presumed traitors; and no one was safe, the male favorites of the Virgin Queen no more than the wives of her much-married father. The boy Christopher could watch from his window as prisoners were carted off to the gallows. At 8, he may well have been aware of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants across the Channel: several of his future plays contain massacres.
Between 1547 and 1558, the English state religion changed three times, making Catholics and Protestants equal-opportunity victims. As for anyone suspected of atheism, the sin of sins, he would soon be racked with more than doubt, what with screws literally put on. From the tortured, confessions could be readily extorted, but were they true? When fellow playwright Thomas Kyd was hauled in for questioning about an allegedly antireligious book found in the lodgings he shared with Kit Marlowe -- his roommate, bedmate and quite possibly sex-mate -- Kyd ratted on Kit to save his own neck. Was Marlowe an atheist and a homosexual? The circumstantial evidence is compelling, but proof is lacking.
More relevantly, Marlowe was poor. His six years of early schooling, like the next six in pursuit of the Cambridge B.A. and M.A., were almost all on scholarship. No picnics, any of them. ''Six-year-olds who did no work,'' Riggs writes, ''were said to be 'idle.' '' Kit, to be sure, was in school by then, taught for long daily hours little beyond parsing and memorizing Greek and Latin texts, to be beaten by often ignorant teachers if he balked. Even during play, the boys were compelled to use only Latin or Greek. No wonder their English suffered; during his lifetime, even in official documents, Marlowe was known as Marlow, Marly, Marley, Morely, Merly, Marlen, Marlyn, Marlin and Merling; his only preserved autograph signature reads Cristofer Marley.
Ironically, the future Christ-basher was a scholarship student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It was, for a poor youth, a grueling privilege. ''The rich,'' Riggs tells us, ''could roist it out with impunity. . . . The poor scholar could not wear gorgeous apparel, nor frequent riotous company, nor make the excuse that he was a gentleman.'' For him ''plain black gown'' and ''18-hour days, from 4 o'clock in the morning until 10 at night.'' He had a bit of free time on Sunday, but could go out in the evening only accompanied by a proctor. His plain wool clothing had to be, if not black, some other ''sad color''; he was forbidden ''long locks of hair'' and had to seem, in the words of his friend Thomas Nashe, ''mortifiedly religious.'' All this, Riggs points out, sharpened Marlowe's ''awareness of social inequality.'' In his plays, ''to dress above one's station is an infallible sign of social mobility.''
As Riggs stresses throughout, the leads and chief supporting characters were usually poor youths who rose high through physical or mental prowess, even if this flouted historical truth. Thus the real Tamburlaine had never been a poor shepherd, and Marlowe invented similarly lowly origins for the scholarly Dr. Georgius Faustus, Edward II's male lovers, and Peter Ramus, the illustrious scholar murdered in ''Massacre at Paris.''
Disputation -- rhetoric in which one had to argue both sides of an issue -- was a staple of the M.A. curriculum, and disputation drove Marlowe's dramatis personae and the drama of his own life and death. But Christopher learned more than that at Cambridge. In their sparsely furnished digs, ''like other members of the college, Marlowe and his roommates would have slept with one another.'' The contemporary attitude toward homosexuality was, to put it mildly, schizoid. ''Love between men was intrinsic to the humanist educational program. Yet the medieval-Christian impulse to demonize homosexual acts persisted regardless. . . . The law too was equivocal on this issue.''
And what of atheism? In a paper, Richard Baines, a former roommate turned enemy of Marlowe's, summed up for the Privy Council an atheist lecture Marlowe may have presented to Sir Walter Raleigh's group of alleged atheists, who, among other naughty things, spelled the name of God backward. The poet asserted that Moses was a juggler who could easily fool the gullible Jews, that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest. Also that he, Marlowe, could come up pronto with a much better religion than the filthily written New Testament. Further, that St. John the Evangelist was Christ's bedfellow, who used him as the sinners of Sodom, and that they who loved not tobacco and boys were fools. Moreover, that he had as good a right to coin money as the queen.
These and similar charges leveled at Marlowe by several others are cited over and over again in Riggs's book, such repetitiousness being one of its few flaws. No doubt Marlowe's ideas about religion and hedonism were derived from the Cambridge curriculum. He had fallen for Ovid's sensual poetry (which he also translated) and the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius, as well as for hard-nosed history from Polybius and Livy. Virgil was another influence, and it was in seeking an English measure to match the Latin hexameters that he adapted Sackville and Norton's iambic pentameter from their clumsy play ''Gorboduc'' and created the powerful yet flexible blank verse that Ben Jonson dubbed ''Marlowe's mighty line.''
When he left university and had to make a living, Marlowe gravitated toward espionage for the Privy Council and writing for the stage. The two were hardly antithetical. Many playwrights -- including George Gascoigne, Thomas Watson, Anthony Munday, Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson -- espoused them both. As Riggs notes, ''The plots and counterplots of this era taught Marlowe that spies and scriptwriters had a lot in common.'' It was at the written request of the Privy Council that Marlowe got his M.A. -- by that time, he had often played hooky, mostly on the Council's behalf, employed as he was by them ''in matters touching the benefit of his country.'' The M.A., in turn, benefited Marlowe, and so, even more, did the theater.
Marlowe's ''base origins . . . and lack of any discernible gift for science and mathematics'' made him an unlikely candidate for political patronage; a clerical career was, of course, out of the question. ''The stage supplied Marlowe with an imaginative space commensurate with his intellectual reach'' and boundless ambition. His first major and most popular protagonist, Tamburlaine, proclaimed, ''I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains / And with my hand turn fortune's wheel about.'' And again, ''Jove, viewing me in arms, looks pale and wan, / Fearing my power should pull him from the throne.'' Tamburlaine's followers, Riggs observes, ''take him for a god and he fulfills their expectations: in performing the role of Tamburlaine, Edward Alleyn became the first matinee idol in English drama.'' The first Tamburlaine play was such a hit that a sequel was called for. No other Elizabethan or Jacobean playwright -- not even Shakespeare or Jonson -- could claim a comparable crowd pleaser.
Still, playwrights were held in such low esteem that the published edition of the work did not mention Marlowe on its title page. For most authorities, the shoemaker's son had made scant progress by switching from cobbler to scribbler, merely trading lasts for lusts. As Lord Mayor Roe warned Archbishop Whitgift, playhouses were attracting ''great numbers of light and lewd-disposed persons as harlots, cutpurses, cozeners, pilferers and such like.'' It was for this antitheatrical disposition, as much as for outbreaks of the plague, that theaters could be closed, and Marlowe's income dwindle.
Christopher's career as man of the thea-ter, postulant for patronage, double agent dangerously embedded abroad and in England among Catholic recusants or Puritan zealots, is too complicated even for summarizing here. Riggs excels in showing how, in the character of Tamburlaine, Marlowe pursued his dream of power; in the amoral and conniving Jew Barabas, he indulged his rebellious and Machiavellian fantasies; and in Dr. Faustus, dramatized his social and sexual appetites. Then, switching from victimizer to victim, he identified with Edward II and his minions as a troubled homosexual. Always, though, the poor scholar was eventually empowered and aggrandized, albeit at the price of a sticky end. Marlowe the lyric poet also gets Riggs's attention, both as passionate shepherd whose invitation to love may be read as to boy or girl, and as the somewhat detached observer of ''Hero and Leander,'' a poem full of digressions to delay the sad ending (a strategy learned from Lucan, whom Marlowe also translated), even unto leaving the poem unfinished. Here, too, Marlowe's master theme pops up, denouncing the Fates: ''And to this day is every scholar poor; / Gross gold from them runs headlong to the boor.''
At long last, Marlowe became more thorn in the side than trump in the hands of the Privy Council, as party to a murder, accomplice in counterfeiting, repeated street fighter and atheist proselytizer. Upon failing to keep a bond compelling him to stay within striking distance of the court, he seems to have elicited Elizabeth's death sentence (''Prosecute it to the full''), so that Marlowe's murder was almost certainly not over a disputed tavern bill, but a staged fight among disreputable drinking companions, one of whom gave him the fatal stab in the eye. That the queen granted the killer a speedy pardon confirms the thesis of a political assassination, to which both Leslie Hotson and Charles Nicholl have devoted distinguished books.
If you want a concise but thorough critical study of Marlowe's place in world literature, consult ''The Overreacher'' by Harry Levin, one of two teachers Riggs acknowledges in a note. But if you want an exhaustive account of the life and times, Riggs is your man. You may applaud Marlowe with T. S. Eliot as the ''bard of torrential imagination,'' or deplore with Graham Greene his legacy of ''a few fine torsos, some mutilated marble'' (all his plays subsist in corrupt texts). But bear in mind: had Shakespeare, like Marlowe, died at 29, he would have stopped at ''Richard III,'' and achieved rather less than Marlowe.
John Simon is the theater critic of New York magazine and the music critic of The New Leader. Three volumes of his collected theater, film and music criticism will be published in May=
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