By Charles Matthews

Monday, July 26, 2010

12. The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, pp. 293-315

The World of Christopher 
MarloweChapter Fourteen: Waiting for the End
The playhouses were shut down as "a menace to public safety" on June 23, 1592, and remained closed when the plague arrived in August. In the meanwhile, Robert Greene wrote an anti-theatrical open letter, published in A Groatsworth of Wit Bought With a Million of Repentance, to Marlowe, Nashe and Peele, urging them to stop writing for the theaters. Greene accuses Marlowe of a Machiavellian atheism and predicts he will come to a bad end.

Marlowe returned to Canterbury that summer, and in September was charged with brawling in the streets. He was sued by William Corkine, a tailor, who said Marlowe attacked him. Marlowe's lawyer countered with the charge that Corkine had attacked Marlowe. The case was settled out of court.
Marlowe was accumulating a substantial criminal record. He had been arrested and jailed on suspicion of murder. He had been taken for coining and remanded to Lord Burghley. The justices of Middlesex Country and the City of Canterbury knew him as a street fighter and violent man. He had failed to keep his bond. He had been publicly accused, albeit under an alias, of atheism, a crime punishable by death. To make matters worse, the attacks on the stage, coupled with the resurgent plague, threatened his livelihood.
During the theatrical hiatus, Marlowe returned to Ovid and to verse, responding to the Countess of Pembroke's wish for Ovidian poems. He set out to retell the story of Hero and Leander, basing his poem on the version by Musaeus. "Marlowe's narrator weaves in and out of Musaeus's story, embellishing his Greek source with decorative tableaux, meandering digressions and seductive ploys." Hero and Leander "taught Elizabethan readers everything they needed to know about sex but were afraid to ask -- both normative and illicit, heterosexual and homosexual." The first edition, published posthumously in 1598, was dedicated to Thomas Walsingham by the printer, Edward Blount, who claimed that Marlowe would have wanted it that way. (Shakespeare, too, was using the period when the theaters were closed to write verse such as Venus and Adonis and to hunt for patronage.)

Marlowe's translation of Lucan's Civil Wars was also probably done about this time, and was also published posthumously. Lucan was on the side of the Republic, and his work "sides with the losers, Brutus, Cassius, Cato and Pompey.... If the Aeneid is about the creation of the Roman empire, the Civil Wars looks toward its destruction.... Writing rapidly, and under a virtual death sentence, Lucan portrays a world governed by accident, where radically contingent events destabilize te master-narrative of the imperial regime."

The theaters reopened in at the very end of 1592, and at the end of January Marlowe's last play, The Massacre at Paris was performed by Strange's Men. The existing text seems to be a "memorial reconstruction," based on the actors' recollections of the play and the roles they played in it. It is half the length of each of the parts of Tamburlaine and of The Jew of Malta and Edward II. It covers the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 and the conflict between the Duke of Guise and King Henri III that took place in 1586-88. Marlowe's intent was "to set the most shocking aspects of the French religious wars before English theatregoers."

Although his play follows the historical record, Marlowe introduces the fictional murder of the Protestant philosopher Peter Ramus by the Duke of Guise, again to demonstrate the abuse of a base-born scholar. And the story of Guise and Henri III follows the same pattern as Edward II:  "Henri takes up Edward's part, Gaveston, Spencer and Baldock metamorphose into Epernoun, Mugeroun and Joyeux; Mortimer becomes the Guise; and the young Edward III finds his counterpart in the Protestant King of Navarre."

Some of the material in the play is based on Marlowe's firsthand knowledge of the conflict between the king and Guise, which he had obtained during his work as a spy. "The brief documentary scenes that succeed one another in The Massacre at Paris resemble diplomatic dispatches; these were the raw material of intelligence fieldwork.... His dramatization of Henri's final testament includes at least one detail that appears only in Lyly's confidential report to Queen Elizabeth about the assassination.... To judge simply from what the actors remembered, Marlowe was evolving away from the stage and towards a more direct confrontation with the history of his own times."

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