By Charles Matthews

Sunday, July 18, 2010

4. The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, pp. 63-97

The World of Christopher 
MarloweChapter Four: Scholars and Gentlemen; Chapter Five: Thinking Like a Roman
In late 1580, almost seventeen, Marlowe left the King's School for Cambridge University, a seventy-mile trip that probably took about three days. Corpus Christi College was also known as Benet College, after the church of St. Benedict which was adjoined to it. The university had 1,862 students -- enrollments tripled while Elizabeth was queen. He was enrolled in the university in March although he wasn't actually admitted to study until the previous Parker Scholar had left in May. He may have supported himself as a manual laborer until the scholarship actually took effect.

The students who were "poor, like Marlowe, had forfeited their place in the artisan class, but stood a good chance of gaining a livelihood in the Church." The wealthy students "were out to have a good time, work on their tennis and acquire enough learning to qualify for the post of Justice of the Peace in their home counties." The poor ones were "required to wear the Scholar's plain black gown and put in eighteen-hour days, from four in the morning until ten at night" and could not go out at night. They were "expressly forbidden to wear silk," a regulation that "publicized their inferior social status."
Marlowe's six years at Cambridge sharpened his awareness of social inequality. At the King's School, everyone was, or wanted to be, a Scholar. The students all wore the same gowns, and, at least in theory, obeyed the same rules.... In Marlowe's plays, to dress above one's station is an infallible sign of social mobility. The base-born Tamburlaine magically enters the aristocracy when he exchanges the rustic attire of a shepherd for the shimmering armour of a gentleman.... Marlowe returned time and again to the mutual enmity between the scholar and the gentleman. The plebeian Dr Faustus torments an insolent knight and warns him to "speak well of scholars" in the future.
In Edward II, Baldock's villainy stems from his resentment of the restrictions he endured as a student. "Baldock's university education confirms his sense of alienation from the hereditary élite. 'My name is Baldock,' he tells the king, 'and my gentry / I fetch from Oxford, not from heraldry.'"
In the real world of Elizabethan society, a poor scholar's prospects of finding preferment at court were virtually nil. Lord Burghley, the Chancellor of Cambridge University, firmly believed that educational institutions should reinforce the existing social hierarchy. He even drew up legislation stipulating that no one could "study the laws, temporal or civil, except he be immediately descended from a nobleman or gentleman, for they are the entries to rule and government." ... [Poor scholars] were expected to remain in the lower echelons of the university and the Church. There were no more Cardinal Wolseys in Tudor England. 
The Parker Scholars were housed together in a small room with "two beds, two chairs, a table and three stools. Like other members of the college, Marlowe and his roommates would have slept with one another." This was not unusual: Until they married, which among men was typically in their late twenties or early thirties, people usually shared a bed with a member of their own sex. But at university, the curriculum also "familiarized students with the seminal ancient works on male friendship and homoerotic love" -- Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, and Plato.

In the Symposium and Phaedrus, Plato deals with "the main problem in homoerotic love, which is knowing when to stop." In the Problems, Aristotle "taught undergraduates that homosexuality is both an innate disposition and a cultural practice that can be learned under the right conditions." And "Ovid and his peers -- Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Tibullus and Gallus -- treat homosexual love with absolute moral indifference, as a fact of life." The problem lay in "the paradoxical status of Renaissance homosexuality."
The venerable custom of sleeping with a same-sex bedfellow, the exaltation of male friendship, the fear of being emasculated by heterosexual passion ... and the recovery of Greek and Roman gender systems, all served to legitimate homoerotic affection, especially in the universities. Love between men was intrinsic to the humanist educational programme. Yet the medieval-Christian impulse to demonize homosexual acts persisted regardless. The so-called buggers, pathics, ingles, cinaeduses, catamites, Ganymedes and sodomites who performed such acts were still regarded with horror and disgust. The law too was equivocal on this issue. Tudor parliaments made sodomy a crime punishable by death, but the offence was almost never prosecuted, and then only in cases where a man had raped a boy. 
Riggs comments that "the search for Marlowe's innate sexual identity leads nowhere," but he also shows how the tension between acceptance and condemnation inherent in the Elizabeth attitude toward the homoerotic informs his work. In Dido, Queen of Carthage, "which probably belongs to his Cambridge years," Jupiter's infatuation with Ganymede sets him at odds with his wife, Juno. Edward II hinges on "the king's homosexual love for his favourites," but it is the issue of class -- the king's favoring of his "base-born" male lovers -- that is at the heart of the conflict. Marlowe's other alleged transgressions -- "blasphemy, treason, counterfeiting, sorcery" -- made it easy for his accusers to add sodomy to the list, but we don't know what his sexual orientation was. Marlowe's "endemic poverty" prevented him from marrying before his early death. "In the glimpses of his domestic life after Cambridge, he is always sharing a room with a same-sex partner," perhaps out of economic necessity. "Unless Marlowe was celibate, the readiest outlet for his own sexual desires lay with other men."

"Aside from the odd hour on Sunday, when he could play football or tennis in the college, or go for a walk, the Scholar's life was all work and no play." Much of the work centered on "learning how to defend and attack a thesis." And that depended on a mastery of dialectic, "the skill of arguing credibly on any topic whatever." The study of the art of persuasion is reflected in Marlowe's poem Hero and Leander, in which "Lovestruck Leander wants to persuade Hero, who has taken a vow of chastity, that she ought to have sex with him." In the formal dialectical disputation, Hero plays the role of Answerer, the one who defends a thesis, and Leander that of Questioner, who attacks it. Leander finally wins the debate by having Hero admit that she swore her vow of chastity to Venus, which "puts her in the indefensible position of swearing to the goddess of love that she will never make love.... This is the Questioner's knockout punch; the disputation is over, the endgame of physical seduction can begin."
Dialecticians always kept before them the ancient logical paradox called "the heap," or "the argument of little by little": if one grain of wheat does not constitute a heap, then neither do two, or three, or (by extension) any finite number.... Dialecticians prized the heap precisely because it revealed the void that underlay their own methods -- so that, in Cicero's fine summation, "this same science destroys at the end the steps that came before, like Penelope unweaving her web.... If Shakespeare's King Lear requires a hundred knights to accompany him, how many does he have to lose before he turns into a mere mortal: one? fifty? ninety-nine? When does Tamburlaine cross the line that separates a mere mortal from a king? At what point does Dr Faustus join the ranks of the damned: when he commits the sin against the Holy Ghost? or signs a blood-pace with the devil? or has sexual intercourse with a demon? or makes his final exit with one? The same radical instability haunts modern debates about abortion. When does an embryo become a person? 
The study of dialectic was "a prolonged education in scepticism." And eventually that skepticism had to  extend to religion. "Marlowe's works assess the rival claims of Muhammad, Christ and the classical gods, or of Christian, Muslim and atheist beliefs, without arriving at any definite conclusion."

The study of rhetoric was complementary to the study of dialectic: "the rhetorician clothed the logician's arguments in elegant figurative language." And Marlowe's "poetry and plays -- from his signature lyric "Come live with me and be my love" to Tamburlaine the Great to his erotic narrative Hero and Leander -- emphasize the power of persuasive speech to move the will.

But the key problem with the study of dialectic is that it becomes an end in itself -- "endless dialectical disputation," a duel that ends in a stalemate: "True and false were ... alien concepts in the Elizabethan arts course; for Marlowe and his fellow undergraduates, philosophy was the puzzles on each side of a question." Marlowe's Faustus "scarcely understands what logic is. He can only conceive of it as a way of arguing about philosophical problems because that is what the dialecticians have taught him to do. It never occurs to him that logic could be a way of doing philosophy, of actually solving problems." All the Elizabethans had for philosophy, an approach to a way of living, was poetry. "Dialecticians maintained that poems are repositories of scientific knowledge" because they presented approximations of reality. Ovid's Metamorphoses presented "a universal history of change," unfolding "in encounters between mind and matter, the warring elements, love and strife, lusty gods and reluctant maidens. ... Marlowe faithfully reproduced Ovid's materialistic, ever-changing cosmos in Tamburlaine the Great and Hero and Leander."

But Ovid was in contradiction to "the Bible's privileged status as the master code of revealed natural religion."  Moreover, "The ancient historians Polybius, Plutarch and Livy ... revealed that Roman statesmen had introduced the fear of the gods in order to fashion law-abiding subjects." Pythagoras, Epicurus and Lucretius promoted the idea that "hell is a fable, and belief in hell a craven superstition; the body metamorphoses into the elements after death; poets and rulers invented divine retribution to keep men in awe of authority. Renaissance divines understandably concluded that epicureans were atheists." Tamburlaine subscribes to Ovid's view of creation "and dies alluding to epicurean teachings on death." Faustus says "hell's a fable" and the Prologue to The Jew of Malta says, "I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance." Marlowe was presenting "epicurean ideas" to the theater-going public.

Even though the university "prepared graduates for careers in the Church" it didn't teach them about Christianity. Even Christian doctrine was subjected to dialectical pro and con arguments.
Since dialectical disputation took up "both parts of every question," one of the students had to argue that the style of the sacred Scriptures is barbarous, that there is no place of hell, that the reprobate truly call upon God, that God wants everyone to be saved, that the will does not act freely, and that things are done without God's prior consent and volition. Any doctrine could be made credible; none could be proven.
Moreover, since Calvinist doctrine asserted that there was a predestined elect and Queen Elizabeth, Lord Burghley and Archbishop Whitgift asserted that conformity, "external compliance with the rites and forms prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer," was essential to the social order, religion became "a matter of behaviour rather than belief." But within the university there was a Puritan opposition that promoted Christian education, including the radicals "who advocated total separation from the English Church." Some of them saw "dialectic as a self-referential language game based on bogus dichotomies." But the only student to defy authority sufficiently to be expelled from Cambridge while Marlowe was there was charged with blasphemy, not Puritanism, for an irreverent parody of the catechism.

Marlowe survived the four public debates that he had to participate in for the B.A. and completed the requirements for the degree in 1584. He could remain at Cambridge for three more years on scholarship to work toward his M.A. if he planned to enter Holy Orders. It was a deal he couldn't afford to turn down, even though the prospect of finding a job in the Church had worsened. "He needed to find an alternative career."

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