By Charles Matthews

Thursday, July 15, 2010

1. The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, pp. 1-24

The World of Christopher MarlowePrologue: Reinventing Marlowe. Chapter One: Citizen Marlowe.
"This is a book about Marlowe's life, his works, and his world," David Riggs tells us.

Marlowe was present at the creation, or "born on the threshold of modern theatre, before the words playwright and dramatist had entered the English language." The English theater was a "rickety start-up venture" for which he created "a thrilling repertory of poetic tragedies" that dealt with such matters of concern to the theater-goers as "grinding poverty, class conflict, erotic desire, religious dissent, and the fear of hell." He had friends like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, but lots of enemies who claimed that he was "a proselytizing atheist, a counterfeiter, and a consumer of 'boys and tobacco.'"

Riggs begins with the most familiar speech in Marlowe's best-known play, Dr. Faustus, the speech in which the scholar Faustus summons up the spirit of Helen of Troy, "the most beautiful woman in the best book ever written, Homer's Iliad," and asks,
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, 
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? 
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Riggs notes that the answer to Faustus's question is both yes and no -- no because "From the standpoint of an early modern Christian, what Dr Faustus sees is a succubus." And, "The contrast between the hero's bookish fantasy life and the exterior world that he is up against gives Dr Faustus a subjective depth that was new to European theatre." He contrasts Marlowe's Faustus with Cervantes's Don Quixote:
Dr Faustus inhabits an older, more supernatural plane of reality than his Spanish contemporary does. The enchanted landscape of Dr Faustus is haunted by demons that expect the audience to believe in them. Where Dr Faustus is possessed, Don Quixote is crazy. Where Dr Faustus comes at the end of a waning tradition of Medieval religious drama, Don Quixote marks the birth of the modern novel.
 And he likens Marlowe to his "younger contemporary Caravaggio,"whose painting The Conversion of St Paul turns a spiritual moment into a very physical one:

"Marlowe too conceived of Scriptural events in entirely physical human terms. The core of Marlowe's atheism lay in his refusal to read the Bible 'after the spirit'. In taking Scripture literally, he read it 'after the flesh.'" But of course his atheism -- whatever it consisted of -- along with the allegations that he was a pederast and a spy put him in trouble with the Elizabethan authorities, and may have led to his murder when he was only 29.

Marlowe was forgotten for a long while after the theaters were closed during the English Civil War in 1642, but he was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, and Victorians went out of their way to portray his accusers as spiteful and malicious or to turn him into "a prototype of the romantic poet who lived for his art, suffered for his excesses, and died young. His immorality, like that of Byron and Shelley, was part of the artist's unrelenting search for the truth." Dr. Faustus began to be hailed as a moral fable.

In the twentieth century, moralizing went out of favor, and New Historicist scholars "have recently shown that Marlowe's writing voiced the aspirations of blasphemers, sodomites, foreigners, unemployed scholars and the mutinous poor in Renaissance England." Researchers have uncovered evidence of his criminal record. "We now know that Marlowe was a counterfeiter and landmark figure in the history of atheism and sedition" and that his murder may have been ordered by the authorities. "Within the history of modern unbelief, Marlowe bestrides the moment when English atheism comes out of the closet and acquires a public face."

Riggs's aim is to "describe the culture that created the wayward master lurking in the archives" by focusing on "the institutions -- city, church, grammar school, university, secret service and public playhouse -- that taught Christopher Marlowe what transgression was."

He begins with Christopher's father, John Marlowe, arriving in Canterbury in the mid-1550s. Because the Archbishop of Canterbury is the leader of the Church of England, the town had been the center of the religious troubles that had afflicted England. "During the reign of 'Bloody' Mary, Canterbury saw more executions for heresy than any place in England, apart from London. John Marlowe came to a city in crisis."
All told, the English state religion changed three times between 1547 and 1558: from the Anglo-Catholicism of the ageing Henry VIII to radical Protestantism under his short-lived son Edward VI; then to the reactionary Roman Catholicism of his elder daughter Mary I; and again to moderate Protestantism under his younger daughter Elizabeth I. Canterbury felt the full shock of these seismic alternations. 
In Canterbury, sometime in 1559 or 1560, John became an apprentice shoemaker. He married Katherine Arthur in 1561, and their first child, a daughter they named Mary, was born a year later. Canterbury was also the home of two future Elizabethan playwrights, Stephen Gosson and John Lyly. John Marlowe's son Christopher, born in February 1564, completed a Canterbury triumvirate. (Shakespeare was born two months after Marlowe, in Stratford-upon-Avon.) 

John Marlowe did not get involved in religious conflict. "The father's wary detachment gives the first inkling of his son's ironic, uncommitted stance on questions of religious belief.... Christopher Marlowe, the son of immigrants situated on the margin of their community, spent most of his life in a place where elementary structures of religious belief were constantly being discredited." In his plays, religion is treated "as a site of conflict ... between Muslim and Christian, Christian and Jew, Christian and Epicurean, and Protestant and Catholic."

John Marlowe rose from apprentice to master shoemaker in 1564 when his master died during an outbreak of bubonic plague, and had set up his own shop by 1565. Shoemakers were ranked lower middle class, but John had a distinction in that he was able to read and write. The former skill was less rare than the latter: In 1536 Henry VIII had "ordered all parents and masters to teach their children and servants the Lord's Prayer, the Apostle's Creed and the Ten Commandments" and to show them the texts in writing or print. But by learning to write as well, John had been "Educated beyond his station."

Katherine Marlowe bore nine children, six of whom survived infancy. When his sister Mary died at the age of six, four-year-old Christopher became the eldest child and at that time the only son, giving him a "privileged position" in the family.

John Marlowe seems to have been involved in numerous legal quarrels with his neighbors: He went to court ten times in 1573 alone. This gave him "a rudimentary knowledge of pleas, writs and depositions" at a time when "Literate tradesmen often found work as freelance law clerks." He began to do legal and clerical work and became a "professional bondsman, especially for couples seeking wedding licenses." Learning the value of education by becoming a "litigant-entrepreneur," Riggs says, made him conscious of the importance of seeing to it that Christopher was educated.

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