Sara Munson Deats. Sex, Gender, and Desire in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe. London: Associated UP, 1997. 296pp. 0-87413-613-X Paper.
University of Oxford, Exeter College
Harraway, Clare. "Review of Sex, Gender, and Desire in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 26.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_harr.html>.
Prior to Simon Shepherd's study Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre (1986), Marlovian criticism was distinguished by its lack of historical and theoretical rigour. While Shepherd's book did much to redress historical imbalances, it has largely been left to the sporadic production of articles and chapters to tip the scales of scholarship in favour of theoretically informed readings of Marlowe's works. Sara Munson Deats' book-length poststructuralist study of Marlowe is consequently a welcome contribution to the Marlovian debate.
In the Prologue Deats explains her intention "to enlist both theory and history in my cultural reading of the construction of sex, gender, and sexuality in Marlowe's plays" (16). In order to make this ambitious project manageable, Deats introduces her readings of Marlowe's plays with two methodological chapters. Her concern with structuring can be seen not only between, but also within, each of the chapters, which are sub-divided into sections and concluded with summaries. Thus in spite of the complexity of Deats' discussions of sexuality and selfhood the reader is never allowed to lose his/her way.
Despite the undeniable successes of some of her readings of the plays, Deats' study is distinguished most by two introductory chapters outlining the methodology to be employed. The first chapter, "A Contemporary Perspective," provides an invaluable summary of poststructuralist theories of sex, gender and sexuality from Freud through Lacan and French Feminism to Judith Butler and object-relation psychologists such as Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow. This whistle-stop tour of contemporary theory offers a breath-taking array of explanations and examples useful to students and teachers alike. The clarity of Deats' expression elucidates even the most potentially tortuous theories with ease and accessibility. For instance, Deats pauses for two pages (27-28) to provide a summary of Lacan's mirror-stage that manages to avoid being reductive. Having established the terms and theories of the contemporary debates about sex, sexuality and gender, Deats goes on to supply a parallel chapter showing what she calls the "intertextual legacies" (51) of the early modern period. Citing a vast range of early modern authors Deats argues that early modern writers anticipate twentieth-century anxieties about the possibility of unitary selfhood and stable gender identities. Although this chapter shows an admirable grasp of the difficulties inherent in Cultural Materialism and offers useful background for a student of early modern culture, it nevertheless labours the point. Surely the pertinence of Deats' methodology does not depend on its being foreshadowed in writings of the early modern period.
Deats looks at five of Marlowe's plays; she considers the two parts of Tamburlaine as one play alongside Dido, Queen of Carthage, Dr Faustus and Edward II. She defends her omission of The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris on the grounds of irrelevance to the themes with which her study is concerned and textual corruption respectively. These arguments are, however, unconvincing; Deats does not maintain that the plays included in her study are principally concerned with sex, gender and sexuality, nor does she flinch at the issue of the textual provenance of the A- and B- texts of Faustus. It seems strange therefore that Deats excludes two plays which viewed from a different perspective are arguably extremely pertinent to her analysis. The Jew of Malta contains not only an interesting portrait of a female character in Abigail, Barabas's religiously-confused daughter, but also potentially important examinations of financial and sexual desire in Barabas's lust for money and Ithamore's lust for the prostitute Bellamira. Similarly the questions raised by The Massacre's conventional exclusion from the Marlovian canon are in keeping with Deats' project to interrogate the plays from critical perspectives which do not privilege ideas of full or unitary meaning. It consequently seems more likely that these plays are omitted from Deats' thesis because she does not know how to include them; because superficially at least they do not seem to challenge the notions of masculine and martial power which the rest of her book seeks to overturn.
Deats' methodological introduction occupies almost the same amount of space as her considerations of the plays. Although each play is dealt with separately the chapters are held together by Deats' thesis which is successively reinforced through her readings. The chapter about Dido argues that Marlowe's rendering of Virgil's story focuses on the reversal of "norms of gendered behavior, gender principles, and sexuality" (123) in order to highlight "the arbitrariness and constructedness of societal concepts of individual gender" (123). Similarly Deats reads the two parts of Tamburlaine as a challenge to the military might their protagonist comes to embody. Robbing the Scythian shepherd of centre stage in favour of two minor characters, Calyphas and Olympia, Deats argues that Part II sees the diminution of Tamburlaine's power in the face of feminine rebellion. She characterizes Calyphas, the boy who denies the martial life of his father in favour of wine, women and cards, not as a cowardly hedonist, but as a champion of feminine resistance. In turn, Deats reads Olympia's act of infanticide as a contrast rather than a parallel to Tamburlaine's murder of Calyphas. She maintains: "Olympia dispatches her son to protect him from the merciless military code that Tamburlaine would foist upon his reluctant offspring" (156).
Deats' consideration of Edward II is probably the least successful. Having argued that Gaveston is a femme fatale in everything but his sex, Deats gets sidetracked by historical comparisons between Edward and James VI of Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots. This seems to be one of the few instances when Deats' anxiety about making her work historically specific overrides her primary objective to provide theoretically valid readings of Marlowe's canon.
Deats concludes her work with a reading of Faustus which begins by pointing out how few "real" women there are in the play; Helen of Troy is a spirit, while the duchess and the hostess are minor characters. This lack of women suggests to Deats that the play is concerned with showing how Dr Faustus has to eschew the feminine aspects of himself in order to achieve worldly greatness (203). Deats concludes that the drama depicts the triumph of masculine subjectivity at the expense of feminine attributes and that the world thereby created is hell.
In conclusion Deats' study is doubly useful; it simultaneously offers students of early modern culture an excellent summary of poststructuralist theory and a series of original and thought-provoking readings of five of Marlowe's plays. However, the reader is left with two questions. First, what does it imply about the state of early modern studies if contemporary theories require summary and explanation prior to their application? Secondly, is it really necessary for Deats to justify her use of poststructuralist theory in relation to early modern texts? Obviously the answers to these questions are inextricably linked and revolve around the almost blanket application of New Historical practices to Renaissance texts. New Historicism has for too long been the unchallenged orthodoxy of early modern studies. However, critics like Deats now seem to offer a theoretical alternative to the prevalence of the New Historical vanguard. The opportunity Deats' study presents is therefore of necessity an anxious one; unlike New Historicist critics she must explain and defend her methodology before she can use it. Deats' concessions to her reader apart, Sex, Gender, and Desire is a fresh and innovative contribution to the Marlovian debate. It is to be hoped then that Deats' study marks a new phase of poststructurally aware readings of Renaissance texts.
- Shepherd, Simon. Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1986.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.
© 1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(LH, RGS, 8 September 1998)