By Charles Matthews

Thursday, July 22, 2010

8. The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, pp. 190-220

The World of Christopher 
MarloweChapter Nine: In the Theatre of the Idols
James Burbage built the first commercially successful theater (called the Theatre) in Shoreditch, by Finsbury Fields, in 1576. It soon acquired a neighbor, the Curtain. Yet another theater was built on the other side of the Thames at Newington Butts at about the same time. In 1587, Philip Henslowe built the Rose just north of London Bridge. These were all pretty "unsavoury places," near sewers and bear-baiting rings and brothels, and the actors and playwrights lived near their places of work. Marlowe's neighbors included James Burbage, actor James Alleyn, playwrights Thomas Watson and Richard Tarlton, and Shakespeare "probably moved to Shoreditch in the late 1580s. The theater companies "led a precarious existence on the margins of Elizabethan society." They were also subject to attacks from the pulpit: "the players were recreating the libertine culture of pagan antiquity on the outskirts of Protestant London. They had to be suppressed."

In 1583, the Privy Council banned Sunday performances, but also tried to bring the theaters under government control by authorizing Edmund Tilney, whom the queen had appointed Master of the Revels, to form a company called the Queen's Men. It recruited the leading players from the companies under the patronage of the Earls of Leicester, Sussex, Oxford and Derby, forcing the remains of these companies to support themselves by touring the provinces. The Queen's Men also toured, not only the London theaters, but also in the country. "Their repertory featured patriotic plays about English history, preferably with an anti-Catholic or pro-Tudor bias. They also specialized in old-fashioned morality plays and fairy-tale romances about long-lost aristocrats.... This state-sponsored version of wholesome morality and good clean fun was the high-water mark of English theatre when Marlowe came on the scene."

Those who wrote for the common players, like Richard Tarlton, Robert Wilson and Stephen Gosson, did so anonymously. Gosson, like Marlowe, grew up in Canterbury, attended the King's School and won a scholarship to Corpus Christi, and he had difficulty finding employment after he left the university. But after trying to become an actor and playwright, he turned against the theater and wrote tracts attacking it, such as The School of Abuse, which he dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney. In An Apology for Poetry, Sidney "had nothing but scorn for English playwrights." Even Thomas Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy is one of the early distinguished works for the popular stage, was "careful to cover his tracks."

And so was Marlowe, who would "expend the lion's share of his prodigious talent on popular plays" but "never publicized the fact. The first explicit ascription of Tamburlaine to Marlowe did not appear until 1609." But it was lucrative work: "The going rate for a new play was six pounds, a sum that compares favourably with the ten pounds a year Marlowe would have earned as a parson." Added to this was the extra revenue that came with a hit: "The players sometimes gave playwrights whose work proved especially popular the receipts for the second day's performance.... The receipts for the earliest recorded performance of Dr Faustus, for example, came to three pounds twelve shillings -- and by this time the play was already familiar to playhouse audiences."

Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine for the Lord Admiral's Men, a company under the patronage of Charles Howard, who had been Lord Chamberlain and arranged for Tilney, his cousin, to become Master of the Revels. The company included John Alleyn and his brother Edward, who were well-connected at court. Edward Alleyn performed the role of Tamburlaine for the Admiral's men, "most likely in its 1587 debut. Marlowe's work with the Alleyns "brought him close to one of the most powerful and sought-after patrons in England."

The play is based on the story of Tamburlaine the Great found in George Whetstone's English Mirror, which was published in 1586. Tamburlaine was looked on with favor by Christians because, by defeating Bajazeth, he ended the Turkish siege of Constantinope, thereby saving the eastern capital of Christendom. "Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian humanists transformed Tamburlaine into an avatar of the heroic Prince, favored by fortune, who imposed order on history through his innate ability." He appealed to Marlowe, and to Marlowe's audience, because of his rise out of poverty, which had grown enormously in Elizabethan England, a consequence of the takeover of common lands, the destruction of the monasteries that had been a source of charity, and the return of soldiers from the war with Spain. Tamburlaine's antagonists scorn him as a "base-bred thief" and a "vagabond" but Marlowe gives him an "intellectual reach [that] transcends his lowly origins. Tamburlaine justifies his villainy with poetic philosphy, arguing that upward mobility is the universal law of nature." Tamburlaine, presented in the sources as a Muslim, becomes in the play "a Graeco-Roman sage promulgating poetic theology."

Marlowe also announces his revolution in verse drama in this "first public exhibition of an unrhymed English line that merited comparison with the classical hexameters devised by the classical poets." The Prologue begins with the line "From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits."
The line scans as an iambic pentameter, but employs trochaic words ("jigging," "rhyming," "mother") to segment the prepositional phrases into metrical units. Ben Jonson replicates this pattern in the encomium recalling how far Shakespeare outshone three of his finest peers: Lyly, "Or sporting [Kyd],  or Marlowe's mighty line." Every stress in Jonson's verse conforms to those of the first line of Tamburlaine, while the evolutionary leap from "rhyming mother wits" to "Marlowe's mighty line" measures the poet's contribution to English prosody.
Marlowe seems to have been inspired by more than just the opportunity to transform dramatic verse. Telling the story of the upwardly mobile Tamburlaine is also a way of echoing his own ambitions to break out of the limitations imposed by humble birth. Tamburlaine's ambitions are materialistic: "The sweet fruition of an earthly crown." But he also aims at divinity, challenging the gods. "The latent irony of great expectations belied by limited horizons would become explicit in Dr Faustus, where Marlowe's "studious artisan" sells his soul for twenty-four years of omnipotence, only to be betrayed by the emptiness of his own desires." Tamburlaine's horizons are unlimited, and his "favourite expressive device is hyperbole, the trope that best conveys the cosmological reach of figurative language.... The Puritans equated theatre with idolatry; Marlowe furnished the players with an idol of godlike proportions."

Tamburlaine becomes a figure out of the Apocalypse: His tents --  first white while he's demanding surrender, then red while he's giving final warning, and finally black when he moves in for the kill -- recall "the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation, where white, red and black riders precede the 'pale horse' bearing death." The play echoes the anxieties of the age, when people awaited the fulfillment of the prophecy of the fifteenth-century German astronomer Regiomantus that "universal disaster" would occur in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada.

"Judged as a crowd-pleaser, Marlowe's work set a standard that was unexampled, and would be unexcelled by any of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights who came after him, including Shakespeare and Jonson." The success of the first play necessitated a sequel, as the Prologue to The Second Part of the Bloody Conquests of Mighty Tamburlaine acknowledged. It focuses on "the issue of mortality," and is influenced by the moral allegory of Spenser's Faerie Queene, the first book of which Marlowe had seen in manuscript. He even borrows directly from the description of Prince Arthur's helmet in describing Tamburlaine's. But where Spenser's allegory describes a progress toward salvation, Marlowe "recounts a secular journey towards eternal death.... Where Christ redeems the Redcross Knight from sin and damnation, Tamburlaine comes to the Epicurean realization that the soul perishes with the body."

In the play, the destruction of Babylon becomes a "grotesque parody of the Last Judgment" and the "mockery of religion comes to a climax when Tamburlaine burns the Koran and dares Muhammed to retaliate." This taunt is followed shortly by the first signs of Tamburlaine's fatal illness, which gave "an Elizabethan audience the momentary sensation of believing in an alien god." And Tamburlaine has a vision of "the ugly monster Death" that "recalls the coming of death in homiletic morality plays like Everyman." But this vision "is a symptom, not a cause, of his imminent demise." A physician diagnoses an imbalance of elements, a diagnosis that "rests on the Lucretian precept that 'the soul is no simple substance, but rather a temperature of the four elements.'"
That is the thrust of Epicurean medicine. Death belongs to the nature of things; anxiety only makes matters worse; those who grasp this lesson have nothing to fear from mortality. The doctor's diagnosis has the effect of a Lucretian cure. Tamburlaine survives the crisis, surmounts his anxiety about death and comes to a peaceful end surrounded by his loving family and friends. His final conquest is death itself.

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