David Riggs World of Christopher Marlowe

ISBN 13: 9780571221592

World of Christopher Marlowe

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9780571221592: World of Christopher Marlowe

This is the definitive book about the man who revolutionised English drama and English poetry - and was murdered in his prime. David Riggs evokes the atmosphere and texture of Marlowe's life, from the stench and poverty of a childhood spent near Canterbury's abattoirs to the fanatical pursuit of classical learning at school. Marlowe won a place at Cambridge University, where he entered its world of eighteen-hour working days, religious intrigue and twilight homosexuality. The gifted student was not immune to the passions and fears of the wider society, and Riggs describes the mood of England in those years when Elizabeth's crown was anything but secure, and Spain and the Papacy were determined to overthrow her regime. Looming above everything is the Elizabethan state and its spy rings, with which Marlowe was already involved by the time he left Cambridge. His undercover missions brought him into contact with Catholic conspirators who were plotting to kill the Queen; yet as a playwright and thinker he was attracted to the most unorthodox and threatening idea of all - atheism. Marlowe brought a wonderful new lightness and musicality to English verse, but was held in little esteem during his lifetime and his works were scrutinised for heresy. As a writer of plays, he was literally on the margins of London life, working on the edge of the city where prostitutes and thieves scratched a living. Eventually, the combination of espionage, dangerous knowledge, homosexuality and suspected treason proved deadly to him. Marlowe's brief life was enigmatic, contradictory and glorious - and this magisterial work of reconstruction and scholarship illuminates it with immense richness.

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About the Author:

David Riggs is Mark Pigott OBE, Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. His previous books include Ben Jonson: A Life. He lives in California with his wife, a native of Sussex.

From The Washington Post:

William Shakespeare, according to Keats, possessed "negative capability," that is, he was able to become so fully each of his characters that his own personality remains permanently elusive. As a result, we can never quite picture the creator of "Hamlet," "Henry IV" and "As You Like It": He contains multitudes, though he probably thought of himself as just another hard-working theater professional, a businessman of letters.

Biographical information about Shakespeare is frustratingly sparse, and no more plentiful for his great contemporary Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), stabbed to death at age 29 in an argument over a tavern bill. But where Shakespeare is everyone and no one, Marlowe has passed into history as the most glamorous figure of England's literary Renaissance. Read his plays, and their melodramatic heroes -- the wizard Dr. Faustus, the conqueror Tamburlaine, the homosexual Edward II, the duplicitous Barabas -- might all be played by their flamboyant, youthful creator.

For in his time, and ever since, Marlowe has been viewed as the epitome of the intellectual over-reacher -- "I count religion but a childish toy,/ And hold there is no sin but ignorance." So says Barabas in "The Jew of Malta," but voicing what seems Marlowe's own opinions. Born in Canterbury, the young man first soaked up learning as a poor scholarship student at Cambridge, then became a translator, poet, playwright, atheist, sodomite, streetfighter, counterfeiter, spy and finally a man who knew too much for his own good. One afternoon Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer and Nicholas Skerres -- their very names are sinister -- enticed him to the Widow Bull's in Deptford, where they all ate and drank, then quarreled over "the reckoning." A struggle ensued, only to stop when Marlowe's own dagger, with his hand still around its hilt, was driven back through his right eye deep into his brain. Was it a contract killing, as many scholars now believe? "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight." Christopher Marlowe's life was suddenly over; his legend had just begun.

From the very first, "Kind Kit" Marlowe inspired deep emotions, affection from fellow writers like Thomas Nashe (who worked with him on "The Jew of Malta") and Thomas Kyd (his sometime roommate and the likely author of an early play about Hamlet, as well as "The Spanish Tragedy") but also envy, animosity and hatred. Yet even when his enemies attacked this upstart, they somehow portrayed him as insidiously attractive, an Elizabethan Rimbaud or Jim Morrison. His former school chum Gabriel Harvey tut-tutted that he neither "feared God, nor dreaded Div'll,/ Nor ought admired, but his wondrous selfe." Thomas Warton asserted that his translation of Ovid's Amores conveyed "the obscenities of the brothel in elegant language." (Quite true: In one love poem Marlowe boldly writes, "Lo, I confess, I am thy captive I,/ And hold my conquer'd hands for thee to tie"; another takes up sexual impotence.) It seems appropriate that this same genius should also have composed the most limpidly beautiful lyric of the age, "Come live with me, and be my love."

According to C.S. Lewis, in a memorable summation, Marlowe is "our great master of the material imagination; he writes best about flesh, gold, gems, stone, fire, clothes, water, snow, and air." Certainly, his one long poem, "Hero and Leander," portrays a delicious holiday-world, where beauty and sensuality are one. As Leander reminds the virginal Hero, acolyte of Venus:

. . . . The rites
In which love's beauteous empress most delights,
Are banquets, Doric music, midnight revel,
Plays, masques, and all that stern age counteth evil.

Many readers will recognize this poem's most famous couplet: "Where both deliberate, the love is slight;/ Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight?" Yet this "erotic epyllion" shimmers with sensuous passages, like this provocative description of Hero and Leander making love: "She trembling strove; this strife of hers (like that/ Which made the world) another world begat/ Of unknown joy." As always with Marlowe, he is particularly good at depicting the power of youthful male beauty. Of Leander he concludes that "Jove might have sipp'd out nectar from his hand" while he later describes a beautiful shepherd boy who "of the cooling river durst not drink,/ Lest water-nymphs should pull him from the brink."

Something of this elegant love-banter continues in the earliest of Marlowe's dramas, "Dido and Aeneas." Not as admired as his later tragedies, it is nonetheless a kind of stately opera in prose (and one that occasionally recalls Purcell's musical masterpiece of the same title). Consider any of Dido's last pleading speeches before Aeneas abandons her to sail for Rome. The heroine's sentiments are universal, and echo modern Country-and-Western heartbreakers as much as Vergil:

Why look'st thou toward the sea? The time hath been
When Dido's beauty chain'd thine eyes to her.
Am I less fair than when thou saw'st me first?
Oh, then, Aeneas, 'tis for grief of thee!
Say thou wilt stay in Carthage with thy queen,
And Dido's beauty will return again.

Marlowe's most celebrated play is doubtless "Dr. Faustus" -- the story of the scholar who sells his soul to the devil and then doesn't quite know what to do with the power and knowledge he acquires. Naturally, Mephistopheles diverts his victim with sexual romps:

Marriage is but a ceremonial toy;
And if thou lovest me, think no more of it.
I'll cull thee out the fairest courtesans,
And bring them ev'ry morning to thy bed:
She whom thine eye shall like, thy heart shall have,
Were she as chaste as was Penelope,
As wise as Sava, or as beautiful
As was bright Lucifer before his fall.

Note, however, the unexpected shift to male beauty in the last line, the same kind of slither that takes place in the latter part of the gorgeous soliloquy about Helen of Troy ("Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?"):

O, thou art fairer than the evening's air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear'd to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azured arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour.

Some have held that "Edward II" -- about that king's passion for his minion Gaveston -- is a better-made play than "Dr. Faustus"; certainly its scene of Edward's murder -- with hints of violation with a red-hot poker -- make for horrifying and powerful theater. To my mind, "The Jew of Malta" might well be regarded as Marlowe's meditation on espionage, since Barabas practices all the skills of the spy and the double agent. It is also a play that Shakespeare must have seen, for at one point the merchant exclaims: "But stay: What star shines yonder in the east?/ The loadstar of my life, if Abigail." In our own time, the play's most famous exchange provided T.S. Eliot with an epigraph: "Thou hast committed -- / Fornication; but that was in another country;/ And besides, the wench is dead."

Great as all these works are, for Elizabethans Christopher Marlowe was above all the dramatist of "Tamburlaine," the shepherd turned conqueror, the wind from the east, the Scourge of God:

I hold the Fates bound in iron chains,
And with my hand turn Fortune's wheel about
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.

This vast two-part historical drama established blank verse -- what Ben Jonson called "Marlowe's mighty line" -- as a medium for drama, and related its hero's whirlwind career with subtlety and feeling. Tamburlaine may rant, but he can also express himself in exquisite poetry, as when the dread warrior rejects a last-minute plea for mercy:

I will not spare these proud Egyptians,
Nor change my martial observations
For all the wealth of Gihon's golden waves,
Or for the love of Venus, would she leave
The angry god of arms and lie with me.
They have refused the offer of their lives,
And know my customs are as peremptory
As wrathful planets, death, or destiny.

Discoveries about Kit Marlowe have produced some of the most exciting works of 20th-century literary scholarship: Leslie Hotson's ground-breaking The Death of Christopher Marlowe; John Bakeless's capacious two-volume Tragical History of Christopher Marlowe (chockablock with documentation); and, not least, Charles Nicholl's award-winning recreation of the shadow-realm of Elizabethan espionage, The Reckoning. To this company we must now add David Riggs's The World of Christopher Marlowe, the best one-volume introduction to its subject's life and times. As his title suggests, Riggs supplements our paltry factual knowledge about Marlowe by describing his various milieux: Canterbury and Cambridge, the London theater scene, the world of religious and intellectual iconoclasm and, finally, the dark realm of terrorist plots and political assassination. It is a good and reliable book.

But it lacks the sheer excitement of the earlier works just mentioned, as it does the pleasure of two fine novels based on Marlowe's life: George Garrett's Entered by the Sun and Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford. Still, Christopher Marlowe is one of those figures about whom one wants to read everything written, and Riggs's book is now the best starting place -- if we exclude the dramas and poems of Marlowe himself, "infinite riches in a little room." Now, if only some scholar would discover the texts of Marlowe's two lost and suggestively titled plays, "The Maiden's Holiday" and "Lust's Dominion."

Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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