"To the question, 'Who and what was Christopher Marlowe?' there are plain answers and polemical ones" (vii). Thus, the editors of Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture begin their Preface with a sense of uncertainty -- a sense which is borne out by the variety (both in terms of approach and relative success) of the fourteen contributions collected here. The essays range across the plays and poetry (though the latter is given less air time), and they comprise pieces on biography, publishing history, source material, as well as historical contexts and recently contended topics like atheism and homosexuality. Also included are examples of more traditional literary criticism. This diversity instances the scope of Marlowe's achievement both in terms of the range of his artistic output and its radical nature. Today's Marlowe is, as the editors rightly claim, a fragmentary and fragmented writer whose work is most fruitfully read in the context of the "discordances and dissidences that were inherent in the ideologies and cultural dynamic of the period" (vii).
The volume originated in the 1993 conference at the University of Kent, the date of which coincided with the four-hundredth anniversary of the playwright's death. The beginnings of the essays as conference papers may account for their variance and, given the protean range of their subject, this is no bad thing, but formally some are haphazard. The longest entry is nearly four times the length of the shortest and the stylistic vicissitudes of each piece make for a disjunctive reading experience. But, these cavils aside, there are some strong essays here.
Nicholas Davidson's "Christopher Marlowe and Atheism" refutes the current orthodoxy that "words such as 'atheist' and 'atheism' had no precise intellectual connotation, and were used mainly as terms of abuse" (132). While the author is rightly sceptical about using the plays' effrontery as evidence of atheism -- because they are often collaborative, published after Marlowe's death and are subject to official censorship -- he also notes the ways in which the prevalence of "ancient ideas, stimulus from abroad, and the arguments of anti-atheist writers could feed private speculation, religious doubt and doctrinal heterodoxy" (136). His common sense is a breath of fresh air: "If atheism were not an intellectual possibility ... not even the most malevolent of informers could have invented it" (137).
As well as an atheist, Marlowe was accused of being a homosexual and in his subtle "'What passions call you these?:' Edward II and James VI", Lawrence Normand documents the relationship that "took place in Scotland about twelve years before Marlowe wrote Edward II [and which] involved the fourteen year old King James and the Frenchman Esmé Stewart [later Earl of Lennox]" (176). Normand proposes that the play traces "the congruence of the James-Lennox and Edward-Gaveston stories" (182) and he emphasises the contiguity between desire and politics that animates and problematises it.
Michael Hattaway has little compunction about "outing" the playwright: "I find enough in Marlowe to question the current orthodox opinion that in the early modern period ... there was homosexual activity without the emergence of homosexual identity" (210-11). His "Christopher Marlowe: Ideology and Subversion" is feisty and engaging, marred only by the occasional colloquialism ("at the end of the day," 216). His coining the term "theatrocracy", which he glosses as the "combination of the themes of theatricality and absolutism", is especially suggestive (201).
In "'At Middleborough:' Some Reflections on Marlowe's Visit to the Low Countries in 1592,' Charles Nicholl, the great Marlovian detective, is up to his old tricks, using the offshore (Dutch) publication of Epigrams and Elegies -- which he describes as "pretty hot stuff ... a kind of upmarket pornography" (41) -- as evidence of "that rather disturbing closeness, that sense of collusion, between his work as a poet and his work as - for want of a better word - a spy" (p. 48).
Richard Wilson and David Potter forge links between dramatic characters and real people. The former proposes that Tamburlaine's penchant for arms dealing, colonisation and ruthless trade make him a version of Ivan the Terrible while the latter details the scandalous reputation of Henri III and his liaisons with prostitutes and nuns. Gareth Roberts deals with the possible influence of Agrippa of Nettesheim on the magic of Doctor Faustus, Nick de Somogyi with maps, Darryll Grantley with varieties of characterisation and Alexander Shurbanov with irony. This is a comprehensive and interesting collection which (unsurprisingly) brings us no closer to an answer to the editors' opening enquiry.
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