By Charles Matthews

Sunday, July 25, 2010

11. The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, pp. 274-292

The World of Christopher 
MarloweChapter Thirteen: The Counterfeiters
In the winter of 1591-92, Marlowe went to the town of Flushing, in the Netherlands, where he lodged with Richard Baines and a goldsmith named Gifford Gilbert. They started turning out counterfeit, which constituted treason punishable by death in England. When they put one of their Dutch coins into circulation, Baines went to the English authorities to reveal what was going on. He claimed that they had urged Gilbert to make the bogus money out of curiosity, a desire "to see the goldsmith's cunning."

The Dutch had given the English control of Flushing in exchange for military help against Spain. The town was governed by Sir Robert Sidney, who reported to Lord Burghley, the head of the English secret service, that Marlowe and Baines each accused the other of planning to continue counterfeiting after the first test. They also accused each other of planning to go over to the enemy, the Catholics who were plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and invade England. One of the means of financing this plan was counterfeiting. So both Marlowe and Baines may have been spying on the plotters.

Lord Strange was thought to be involved in the plot, and Marlowe was in a good position to provide information about Strange because of his work with Strange's theater company. After getting cold feet about the counterfeiting, Baines may have decided that Marlowe really was going to go over to the enemy. Or maybe the impecunious Marlowe really did plan to go "to Rome." Sidney placed Marlowe and Gilbert under arrest, but let Baines go. By doing so, "he implied that the scholar and the goldsmith were the guilty parties, while Baines was merely being sent back for questioning. On the other hand, if Marlowe was an English agent, putting him under arrest reduced the likelihood of blowing his cover." All three men were sent back for questioning by Lord Burghley, who had the power to hang them. But there is no record "that Marlowe underwent any punishment or received a pardon." The likelihood is that Marlowe was being kept alive until he could be of some use.

In May 1592, Marlowe was in court again for making "threats against a constable and beadle," facing the same Justice Owen Hopton before whom he had appeared on suspicion of murdering William Bradley. Marlowe was placed under bond to keep the peace and to appear at the next session of the county court, or forfeit twenty pounds.

Strange's Men had revived The Jew of Malta in February, and it and Kyd's Spanish Tragedy were the most popular plays in the repertory until the first part of Shakespeare's Henry VI was staged in March 1592. It was performed fourteen times before the theaters were closed in June. Its success apparently inspired Marlowe to write his own history play, Edward II, that year. It joined the repertory of the Earl of Pembroke's Men in 1593-94, along with Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and adaptations of the second and third parts of Henry VI and The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare probably also acted with the company. "The Earl of Pembroke is the only English aristocrat that Edward II portrays in a favorable light.... The earl's wife, Mary Herbert, née Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, was a major literary patroness and a dramatist in her own right."

There is no record of Marlowe's acquaintance of Shakespeare, and as a university man he was a notch on the social ladder higher than the glover's son from Stratford. Shakespeare would allude to his work seven years after Marlowe's death, but the influence of Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta is evident in his early work. "Indeed, for two centuries the pervasive debt to Marlowe's style and sensibility persuaded scholars that Marlowe actually did write most of Henry VI." But Marlowe's debt to Shakespeare is seen in Edward II, which like Henry VI is based on Holinshed's English Chronicles, where Marlowe "found yet another story of a strong king (Edward I) whose weak son (Edward II) is destroyed by over-mighty barons (Mortimer) and a masculine queen (Isabella). The 'weak king' formula was well-suited to Pembroke's Men, who lacked a leading actor of Edward Alleyn's stature."

Marlowe departed from Holinshed in making the Gaveston affair the central crisis in Edward's rule. "Edward II is the only Elizabethan play that portrays a homosexual relationship in the terms in which orthodox moralists conceived of it -- as illicit, compulsive and intolerably destructive." In Richard II, another "weak king" play, "Shakespeare suppresses, where Marlowe emphasizes, the homoerotic overtones of his chronicle sources." In Marlowe's play, the crisis is not caused by homosexuality so much as class:  "What enrages the hereditary nobles is that a commoner should enjoy the lucrative offices that would ordinarily fall to them. The base-born Marlowe presses hard on this issue.... Since both of Edward's lovers are lowly interlopers, the king's decision to elevate them above his peers inevitably provokes civil war." The characters most akin to Marlowe are Spencer and Baldock: "Because of their superior education, both men have a special facility with rhetoric and elocution; both are also ready to 'stab, as occasion serves.'"

Marlowe's treatment of Edward's imprisonment and death differs from Holinshed's. Edward is jailed in the sewer of the castle, covered in shit, "the stigmatic regalia of an anal sodomite." But the violation of the king with the red-hot spit depicted in Holinshed is muted in Marlowe's treatment:
Critics and directors usually assume that Lightborn finishes him off with the red-hot poke (Derek Jarman's brilliant film adaptation is a notable exception.) But Marlowe's text, whether by accident or design, stubbornly omits to supply this implement. When the time comes to use it, the spit remains in the other room.... The last act of Edward II, with its brooding, introspective soliloquies and drawn-out scenes of bodily torment, marks a shift in Marlowe's sensibility. His new subject is physical suffering and resistance. He sympathizes with the victim. Despite Edward's follies, Marlowe grants the unrepentant sodomite a measure of redemption in the end. This development coincides with a comparable shift in the course of Marlowe's own fortunes. During the fourteen months of life that remained after his return from Flushing, Marlowe himself would be cast in the role of victim.

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