Friday, 21 February 2014

Happy 450th Birthday, Christopher Marlowe

Dramatist, poet and spy, Christopher Marlowe, was born 450 years ago, one of the most prodigiously talented, controversial and yet enigmatic figures in English literary history. He is remembered today for his masterpiece, Doctor Faustus, and for the violent and mysterious manner of his death aged only 29 at the very peak of his success as a playwright.

Christopher Marlowe (Febr 21? 1564 - May 30 1593)
(Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

In The Reckoning, writer Charles Nicholl explains the fascination Marlowe held for his contemporaries and continues to hold for us nearly five centuries later.

"In his brief heyday, Marlowe was probably the most popular dramatist in England. On one level his success was shrewdly commercial. He gave people what they wanted: spectacular action, exotic locations, patriotic sentiments, plenty of violence. He thrilled them with poetry and he fascinated them with a series of charismatic heroes who were usually more villain than hero. But for part of his audience there was always something more than this grand guignol. They heard other, more complex messages, that layer of doubt and debate which lies beneath the surface, which at a time of rigorous state censorship had to be beneath the surface. They admired Marlowe, as we do today, for those cool sub-texts of irony and disaffection.

He is remembered not just as a writer but as an atheist and blasphemer, a dissolute homosexual, an Elizabethan "roaring boy" who lived fast and died young. This side of Marlowe is to be found perhaps within his plays but more explicitly in the reports of snoops and spies, in Privy Council papers and criminal charge-sheets. It is known that Marlowe was mixed up in some sort of espionage, that he found employment in the shadier strata of "government service".

Marlowe was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer (known to be involved with the English secret service) at a house owned by a widow, Eleanor Bull, in Deptford, London, allegedly during an argument over the "reckoning" (the bill). A jury later accepted Frizer's claim that he had acted in self-defence. Nicholl argues that:

"(Marlowe) did not die by mischance and was not killed in self-defence. He had become an impediment to the political ambitions of the Earl of Essex, who had tried to frame him and get him imprisoned and tortured, to use him as their instrument against Walter Ralegh. They had failed. His mouth, if it could not be made to say what they wanted it to say, must be stopped. He died in the hands of political agents, a victim, though not an innocent victim, of the court intrigues that flourished in this "queasy time" of change and succession. The final truth about Marlowe's death lies hidden under these layers of reconstruction, much as the landscape where it happened lies hidden under the tower blocks and container-yards of modern Deptford.

Arthur Darvill as Mephistophilis and Paul Hilton as Faustus
(last year's production of Doctor Faustus, at the Globe Theatre)

In "Marlowe's Ghost", in The Genius of Shakespeare, critic Jonathan Bate argues that, born in the same year as Marlowe, the relatively late-developing William Shakespeare "only became Shakespeare because of the death of Marlowe":

"The first we hear by name of Shakespeare as an author is the dedication to his poem, Venus and Adonis - a work published at a time uncannily close to the day of the Deptford killing. It is not a coincidence that Shakespeare's career took off at exactly the moment when Marlowe's came to an untimely end. Shakespeare only became Shakespeare because of the death of Marlowe, which gave Shakespeare the opportunity to emerge from the shadow of Marlowe's mighty line; but for many years afterwards the Canterbury grammar school boy (born February 1564) continued to haunt the Stratford school boy (born April 1564). Some of Shakespeare's greatest works are antithetical readings of Marlovian precursors."

Bate argues that Richard II is Shakespeare's reply to Marlowe's Edward II; Richard III and The Merchant of Venice are his reponses to The Jew of Malta (as are the characters of Iago and Aaron the Moor in Othello and Titus Andronicus); Henry IV Parts I and II mirror Tamburlaine Parts I and II and Shakespeare's Henry V is the Tamburlaine Part III that Marlowe did not live to write. Marlowe's Massacre at Paris influences Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and his Dido, Queen of Carthage pervades Antony and Cleopatra.

"However, it was not until his very last solo-authored play (written nearly two decades after Marlowe's death) that Shakespeare finally came to grips with Marlowe's masterpiece, Doctor Faustus. Unable to surpass its representation of black magic, he created a white magician instead. When Prospero says "I'll drown my book", he is clearly echoing Faustus' last unfulfilled promise, "I'll burn my books." The fact that the quotation bobs up to the surface of The Tempest shows that Shakespeare is still haunted by Marlowe. The one play that he was unable to drown was Doctor Faustus. And, sure enough, that is the one pre-Shakespearean play to endure in the theatrical repertoire."

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