By Charles Matthews

Saturday, July 17, 2010

3. The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, pp. 45-62

The World of Christopher 
MarloweChapter Three: Speaking Like a Roman
At 14, Marlowe began attending the King's School, which "provided scholarships for 'fifty poor boys, both destitute of the help of friends and endowed with minds apt for learning.'" The headmaster was John Gresshop. Before Christopher was awarded a scholarship, his father apparently paid the school fees by providing shoes and board for two students under Gresshop's care. The scholarship students received four pounds per annum: "entire families got by on less than that."

The King's School put on a play at Christmas every year, which may have been Marlowe's introduction to theater. He later wrote his first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, for child actors, and memories of the Christmas play may have influenced it. In Marlowe's play, Virgil's characters are treated irreverently. "Whenever Marlowe first conceived of it, Dido falls within the festive tradition of inversion and misrule. It affords a precious glimpse of the desires that grammar school tried to repress."

In the fifth form at the school, students had to learn to make speeches and compose poetry in classical Latin. "The best Scholars composed them out loud, as if they really were native speakers of that abstruse and difficult language." The ones who were looking for scholarships to Oxford or Cambridge "studied oratory and poetry side by side." Oratory was easier because the student simply needed to learn the "figures of thought," the elements of effective argument still found in textbooks on composition: "paraphrase, cause and effect, contrast, example and vivid description."

Versification was much more difficult because it was based on the length of vowel sounds: "In a well-made line of Latin verse, the quantity of every vowel in every word matches up with the set pattern of long and short vowel sounds that constitute the metrical line." But no one knew what classical Latin sounded like, and English speakers have no first-hand experience of vowel length as a part of the language. So students had to memorize a system of rules. They were expected to compose  hexameter lines orally because it was assumed that Ovid and Virgil had done so. At the King's School, the ones who were most successful at this were sent to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. These were, typically, the sons of the poor:
In a school system where social prestige was an acceptable substitute for work, the rich could hardly be told to slog through the thousands of syllable quantities that had to be memorized before one could speak the Latin of Ovid and Virgil "for the phrase, as they did." The gentleman's son sensibly refused to take the "pains and diligence" needed to attain this level of fluency in classical Latin, especially at a moment when the long-range value of such training had yet to be proven in the market-place. In the meantime, the labour-intensive regime of poetry lessons provided a convenient mechanism for distinguishing the deserving from the idle poor.
So Marlowe and the other upwardly mobile students set about memorizing these thousands of syllables, as well as "variant forms that could be used because, and only because, the best poets had used them" in moments of "poetic license." His success at this is reflected in the praise of his contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson's praise of "Marlowe's mighty line."
The early tributes to Marlowe never mention his plays; they refer instead to his innovative verbal craftsmanship. For his peers, Marlowe's great achievements were an English blank verse line that stood up to Virgil's stately measures, and a rhymed English couplet that reproduced the elegance and wit of Ovid's love poetry. These breakthroughs came about eight years later, in Marlowe's early twenties, but Master Gresshop's translation workshop instilled the habits of mind that underlay the later innovations.
There were "figures of poetry as well as figures of oratory" that included "fifteen schemes of spelling," "thirty-two schemes of syntax," and "nineteen species of trope." For example, Jupiter could be called Jove if the meter forced you to pick a one-syllable word. There was also hyperbole and "a multitude of stock expressions," from which Marlowe drew when he had Tamburlaine praise Zenocrate as "lovelier than the love of Jove, / Brighter than is the silver Rhodope, / Fairer than whitest snow on Scythian hills..." And finally there were "figures of thought," which were drawn from oratory and from Cicero, St. Paul and the Church Fathers.

"In the schools of ancient Rome, verse composition and prose oratory marked successive phases in the education of a well-rounded public speaker." But in Elizabethan England, the orator was valued over the poet. "If orators were advocates, poets were 'makers,' articulate craftsmen who fashioned pleasing verbal artefacts out of airy nothing.... The poet was the orator's disreputable younger brother."
The poet's powers of persuasion had no ethical agenda; his licence to recombine syllables and words into seductively beautiful works of art knew no limits. His object was delight, and his notorious mentor was Ovid, the celebrant of wanton love and continuous change. Critics viewed the maker with mixed feelings of fascination and disapproval.... In fact, making verses was an infinitely more more complex mental task than making speeches. It is the difference between composing a double sestina in the language of Provençal and writing a business letter in French.
But the Scholars were expected to master both, which led to a group of "base-born" poets who wrote for money: Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Jonson. In Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney argued that only gentlemen should write poetry. It was too important to be left to such lowlifes. Marlowe not only made his living from poetry, he also "formed strong personal attachments to stories about poverty, poetry and social mobility. The thundering eloquence of Tamburlaine's blank verse lines turns the Scythian shepherd into a mighty monarch and establishes Marlowe's supremacy in the London theatre of the 1580s at a stroke."

At school, Marlowe had a reputation for being "gentle and courteous." He conformed to the school's standards of behavior in order to make his way in the world. But after they left school, many of his fellow scholarship students became rebels against the establishment: The farmer's son Henry Jacob took two degrees at Oxford but "joined the Separatist movement and went into exile in Holland, .... later established a Congregationalist Church and founded a settlement in Holland." Samuel Kennet first became a Puritan and then converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit with a "mission to reconvert the English people." Benjamin Carrier became chaplain to James I before defecting to Rome. And Marlowe's accuser Richard Baines claimed that Marlowe planned to become a Catholic.

Moreover, many of the scholarship students found themselves unable to find work. Sir Francis Bacon argued that King James I should not found any more grammar schools because the produced young men "unfit for other vocations, and unprofitable for that in which they are brought up, which fills the realm full of indigent, idle and wanton people."
The worst cases of all were young men like Christopher Marlowe, who received their BA and MA degrees, but still proved unable, or unwilling, to fill a respectable place in society.

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