By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

7. The World of Christopher Marlowe, pp. 159-189

The World of Christopher 
MarloweChapter Eight: Proceeding in the Arts
In 1587, turning twenty-three, Marlowe "suddenly vaulted into the tripartite roles of wayward scholar, secret agent and innovative poet-playwright." He completed his work for the M.A., which required attending "lectures in philosophy, astronomy, optics and the Greek language," as well as participating in eleven public disputations. And he somehow did this while taking multiple leaves of absence.

One thing the M.A. course curriculum did was teach students "to conceive of the cosmos as a poetic and theatrical spectacle." The field called "optics" included math, geometry and cosmography, which was a mixture of geography and history; its focus on the rise of the Roman empire inspired Marlowe's Tamburlaine, which is about world conquest. When Tamburlaine besieges Damascus, he speaks of it terms of map-making: His "poetic understanding of mapmaking glosses over the horror of what he is about to do. Were Zenocrate sees the destruction of an existing city, Tamburlaine appeals to the root sense of geo-graphy as 'world-writing.'"

Elizabethan England was on the verge of its own campaign of world conquest: "The impending war with Spain intensified the need for cartographers, navigators and military engineers." These were generally recruited not from the aristocracy, whose "sense of class privilege made them wary of science, which was hard to do, morally dubious and smacked of artisan labour," but from the ranks of the educated lower classes. "The mental labour of actually doing calculations in physics and astronomy could be left to the scholars. For them, the MA course opened up new opportunities for advancement." Marlowe's friends Thomas Hariot and Walter Warner were both employed by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, as mathematician and physician respectively. Thomas Watson also was acquainted with Northumberland, and Marlowe claimed that he was "very well-known" to this "scion of a noble Catholic family with a long record of hostility to the queen," which made him "an excellent target for a would-be spy." Although study of the sciences was still bound up with religion, "Instead of seeking God in the heavens, Marlowe's generation charted the earthly course of imperial conquest."

Study of the classic poets also tended to lead away from religion toward science. In his pastorals Virgil invoked "Silenus, the Orphic bard who 'sang how, through the vast void, the seeds of earth, and air, and sea, and liquid fire withal were gathered together; how from these elements all nascent things, yes all, and even the young globe of the world grew together.'" Virgil also paid homage to Lucretius for study of the laws of nature, and Lucretius honored Epicurus, whose study of nature overcame superstitious beliefs. "Epicurus liberated humanity from the fear of the gods and the spectre of divine punishment after death.... Epicurus and Lucretius were primary sources for what the Romans referred to as 'impiety' and the Renaissance called 'atheism.'"

The celebration of the Orphic bards "reinvigorated the classical myth of the poet-seer." Horace asserted that "Orpheus, the first poet, had conveyed divine wisdom from the gods and elevated the human race from savagery to civility." Marlowe portrays Tamburlaine as a kind of poet-seer who, at the end of the second part of the play "becomes the Epicurean poet-hero who ascends the heavens in order to conquer his fear of death."

When Tamburlaine overthrows the king of Persia, he says, "What better precedent than mighty Jove?" Jupiter had devoured his father, Saturn, who had in turn killed his father, Uranus. But Tamburlaine identifies more with the Titans than the Olympians. Marlowe had begun translating Lucan's Civil War, in which the Titans "personify the destructive and creative forces that bring the degenerate Roman republic to ruin." The Titans were "imprisoned beneath Tartarus -- the word meant both 'hell' and 'central Asia' -- but still had the capacity to break loose in winds, earthquakes and storms." Tamburlaine's enemies refer to him as "Tartarian thief" and his men as "Tartarian rout" and "base born Tartars." And Tamburlaine "likens his sword to a force of nature now unleashed," and at the end imagines Jove as "pale and wan" when beholding him. "Tamburlaine has reduced the Olympian gods to a state of abject fear."

The study of astronomy overlapped that of astrology, which M.A. candidates studied even though it "had no formal place in the university curriculum." The brother astrologers Gabriel and Richard Harvey were on the university faculties. Unfortunately for Richard, he made a prediction of some major event when Jupiter and Saturn conjoined on April 28, 1583, and suffered ridicule when nothing significant took place. Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene and Marlowe were among those who mocked Harvey. But Marlowe retained his fascination with astrology, at least as a vehicle for metaphor, using it in Tamburlaine's speech about "A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres / That guides his steps and actions to the throne."

Astrology led to the study of magic. "John Case and Everard Digby, the pre-eminent natural philosophers at Oxford and Cambrdige, introduced students to the occult principles that controlled the natural world. Both men spent their careers synthesizing Aristotle's scientific works with texts about the universe of spirits." Continental books on magic by John Dee and Giordano Bruno sparked an interest in conjuring, which "was not a freak diversion at Oxford and Cambridge" but "a foreseeable outcome of the MA course.... This turn from study to sorcery supplies the rudimentary plot of Dr Faustus."

The last year of Marlowe's M.A. course, 1587, was the one in which the university authorities investigated the rumor that he had gone to the seminary at Rheims and the Privy Council was moved to defend him. The letter vouching for him was signed by Lord Treasurer Burghley, Archbishop Whitgift, Lord Chancellor Hatton, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and Sir James Crofts. There is some ambiguity in the letter. For one thing, after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Duke of Guise withdrew his patronage of the Rheims seminary, which ceased to be a center of espionage. Antwerp had been conquered by the Duke of Parma in 1585, and Brussels became a staging area for plans to move into northern Holland and from there invade England. Burghley, Whitgift, Hatton and Crofts were involved  in negotiations with Parma to prevent that from happening. So it would have made more sense to send Marlowe to Brussels. And it was there that he might have become acquainted with the Faust legend: The German History of John Faust was published in 1587 and was "an overnight sensation in northern Europe."
Marlowe's Faustus, like his real-life counterpart, is German, [but] he unaccountably places himself in Holland during the opening scene of the play.... Marlowe's Dr Faustus vows to 'chase the Prince of Parma from our land.' Whenever he wrote these lines, Marlowe was thinking about -- and like -- a recent graduate who found himself in the Low Countries soon after Parma's conquest of Antwerp.
Marlowe was not unique among Elizabethan poets in doing this sort of spywork: "Samuel Daniel, Thomas Watson, ... and Ben Jonson all carried messages for the government." But of these only Marlowe had been accused of going over to the Catholic side. Burghley and Walsingham often recruited people who had been part of the Catholic intelligence network. In his accusations against Marlowe, Baines claimed that Marlowe had spoken approvingly about Catholicism. "Bear in mind, finally, that Marlowe always appears in the government documents as an object of surveillance."

Marlowe's role-playing as a spy dovetails neatly with his career in the theater: "he was the first university graduate to forge a lasting professional bond with the adult players" in "the newly erected London theatres." Jobs in the field for which he was nominally prepared, the church, were growing scarce. "The going rate for a minor parish priest was ten pounds a year. Against this backdrop of exclusionary job placements and low-paying work, Marlowe's decision to become a professional writer looks like a shrewd career move." He "belonged to the group of poets who were born around the time of Elizabeth's accession, attended grammar school and university during the early decades of her reign and flourished during the 1580s and early 1590s." Sir Philip Sidney stood out from this group as an aristocrat. Others in this company include Edmund Spenser, Abraham Fraunce, George Peele, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Watson and John Lyly. All of them "kept a safe distance from the disreputable adult acting companies."

Marlowe seems like a rebel in this respect, and also because he set himself up in opposition to Spenser, "the English Virgil," by taking Ovid as his model. And his "fascination with ancient models of anti-authoritarian writing soon led him to the kindred of Lucan," whose Civil War he began to translate into English, completing the first book in 1592-93. Lucan is a major influence on Tamburlaine, which Marlowe wrote in 1587. Marlowe's Tamburlaine, like Lucan's Caesar, has the gift of oratory that persuades others to follow him.
Lucan's panoramic view of soldiers flocking to join Caesar's army foreshadows the hordes that rise in response to Tamburlaine's call: "All Asia is in arms with Tamburlaine ... All Afric is in arms with Tamburlaine." .... Marlowe was about to cross his professional Rubicon.

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