By Charles Matthews

Friday, July 23, 2010

9. The World of Christopher Marlowe, by David Riggs, pp. 221-249

The World of Christopher 
MarloweChapter Ten: Notoriety. Chapter Eleven: "He Is Like Dr Faustus"
Marlowe's play turned Tamburlaine into a popular-culture hero, "an urban legend of plebeian self-assertion," but it also "had a galvanizing influence on the career of his twenty-three-year-old creator." It also led other university graduates, such as Robert Greene, George Peele and Thomas Lodge, to venture into the theater with plays that imitated Tamburlaine. But only Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy came close to matching Marlowe's poetic and dramatic skill, and the success of their plays revolutionized English dramatic verse: "Before Marlowe and Kyd, tragic playwrights used rhymed lines; henceforth the dominant medium would be blank verse." Moreover, "In The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine, subjects punish their rulers. Before Marlowe and Kyd, tragic violence runs from the top down or circulates among equals; henceforth, it issues from the bottom up as well."

Tamburlaine benefited from accidental good timing as well:
The zenith of Tamburlaine's war upon the world ... comes with the destruction of Babylon. In biblical typology, this event prefigured the coming of Antichrist and the end of the world. For the spectators of 1587, confronting the imminent arrival of the Spanish Armada and the armies of the Pope, the fall of Babylon warned the English that they too lay in the path of divine vengeance.
There were critics, of course. Thomas Nashe belittled Marlowe and Kyd for their use of "the swelling bombast of bragging blank verse." And Ben Jonson would later refer to "the Tamerlanes, and Tamer-Chams of the late Age, which had nothing in them but the scenical strutting, and furious vociferation, to warrant them to the ignorant gapers," although Jonson's put-down is perhaps aimed more at the imitations than at the original. Then, as now, there was a sense that popular acclaim vitiated a work's pretense to be Art. And then there was the problem of upstart writers with no university education, such as Kyd and, later, Shakespeare.
The art of making "pure iambic verse," formerly the preserve of educated scholars, had become available to any customer who could afford standing room in the yard or the price of a drink. That is why a social conservative like Nashe found Marlowe's blank verse so disturbing: anyone could make it.
The images in Tamburlaine that most caught the imagination of the time were the caging of the emperor Bajazeth; the white, red and black tents; and the harnessed kings with the bits in their mouths drawing Tamburlaine's chariot. They captured not only the popular imagination but also the religious: The Puritan John Field preached a sermon comparing the black tents to the wrath of God. "John Field, the prominent anti-theatrical writer, apparently refers to a live performance of Tamburlaine."

Next up seems to have been Dr. Faustus, although exact dating of the play is difficult. There was a vogue of plays about magicians in late Elizabethan times, but no one knows whether Marlowe set the fashion or followed it. His main source was an English translation of the German Historia von D. Johann Faustus. The German book appeared in 1587, and the translation may have appeared shortly after, although the only surviving text dates from 1592. The German book was such a success on the continent that translations into Danish, Dutch, French and Czech came out immediately, so it's not likely that the English version should have been five years behind.

The Faust legend seems to begin with Simon Magus, a first century C.E. Samaritan who is referred to in Acts 8:9-24, and in the Apocrypha. He was said to have "kept the reincarnated Helen of Troy as his consort" and to have had a disciple named Faustus whom he turned into his double. The real-life George (or Johann) Faust died about 1540. Philipp Melanchthon, the follower of Luther, is responsible for publicizing the legend that Faust had sold his soul to the devil, part of the hard line that the Lutherans took on witchcraft.

Marlowe's version doesn't take Faust nearly as seriously as the Lutherans did. His Faustus is given to mistakes such as quoting Cicero when he's supposedly reading Aristotle, quoting Aristotle when he thinks he's talking about Galen, and so on. "The erudite author, Christopher Marlowe, did know the right citations and scripted the wrong ones into Faustus's part." He also mangles quotations from Scripture: "Faustus chops each of the Scriptural verses in half, in both cases citing the divine condemnation while omitting the promise of redemption that follows. After proclaiming 'The reward of sin is death,' St Paul writes, 'but the gift of God is eternal life' (Romans 6:23)." In doing so he follows the example of Calvin, who also "isolates the first half of Romans 6:23 and insists that 'all sin is mortal.'" In Calvinist doctrine, only the elect will receive the forgiveness of God and receive eternal life.
Critics rightly point out that Faustus is hideously mistaken about the Bible; but the Church he is rejecting has taught him to make precisely these mistakes. Marlowe, who had already been taxed with atheism, unveils in Dr Faustus the ecclesiastical basis of his own unbelief.... Divine justice was supposed to terrorize the reprobate into good behaviour; yet the godless had ample reason to disbelieve in a God who had already condemned them to sin and damnation regardless of their earthly conduct.
And despite Faustus's ambitions to "wield godlike powers," he becomes nothing more than "a magician for hire and confidence man," reduced near the end of the play to practical jokes on a horse trader. In this respect, Faustus is something of a self-portrait of Marlowe: "Herein lay the irony of giving poor boys like John Faustus and Christopher Marlowe a classical education. Books instilled a desire for what they could never have: material wealth, social legitimacy and cultural authority.... Dr Faustus signals Marlowe's awareness of his own position in the world after Cambridge."

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