Stevie Simkin. Marlowe: The Plays. New York: Palgrave, 2001. xi+263pp. ISBN 0 333 92241 7 Cloth; ISBN 0 333 92240 9 Paper.
Newstrom, Scott. "Review of Stevie Simkin, Marlowe: The Plays." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 10.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-3/newstrev.htm>.
This is not a work of scholarship. I don't believe that the author, a respected scholar, would disagree with this evaluation -- there is no direct engagement with a critical tradition, no overarching thesis that drives the argument, and not a single footnote to be found. Why, then, does this volume merit consideration?
We have countless books and essays on the teaching, introduction, and explanation of Shakespeare, for dummies and others. (There's even a Library of Congress classification for this subject: PR 2987.) Yet an amateur reader would be hard pressed to find the Marlovian equivalent of The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard. Aside from occasional notes in the Marlowe Society of America Newsletter (e.g. Hamlin and Hopkins) and a short essay on the poetry by Arthur Kinney, there is nothing comparable in Marlowe scholarship to the hundreds of pieces on "the Teaching of Shakespeare." (For a comparatively recent bibliography on this subject, see O'Brien). Marlowe simply does not enjoy Shakespeare's fetishized, hypercanonical status. Is Marlowe somehow less amenable to being "friendly" and "painless"? Perhaps his tendency to write "something not unlike caricature," to cite Eliot's offhand evaluation, provides a tentative explanation for the discrepancy between these playwrights' respective receptions. As 'character' remains the predominant mode of Shakespearean appreciation (witness Bloom's Invention of the Human), Marlowe's caricatures appear destined to remain unread or, at best, misread by the wider public.
Stevie Simkin's Marlowe: The Plays, a volume in the Palgrave Analysing Texts series, appears to me a first attempt at introducing Marlowe to the general reader. There have, of course, been other studies which present an overview of Marlowe's work -- Simkin himself recently published A Preface to Marlowe -- but these are largely oriented towards an academic audience, with the scholarly apparatus lacking here. I hesitate, slightly, to call this an introduction, because the volume does not announce itself as such, either on its covers or in its prefatory materials. Yet it clearly reads as such; in fact, it reads very much like a series of thoughtful, if at times belaboured, lectures on the two parts of Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II (Dido and Aeneas and The Massacre at Paris are occasionally mentioned, but never discussed at length).
As the first sentence of the "Introductory Guidance" states directly, "The rationale of this book is based on close analysis of short extracts from Marlowe's five major plays" (1). After an admittedly "brief overview" (3) of textual history, blank verse, dramatic characterization, and cultural tradition, Simkin proceeds to gather extracts from the plays based on groupings that are structural ("openings" and "endings" of dramas), generic (comedy), or (most often) thematic (gender, power, and religion, as would be expected, along with the somewhat loosely articulated "Heroes and Anti-Heroes"). Each of these first seven chapters begins with some general observations before moving on to textual analysis of 50-80 line passages, usually from four or five different plays. The extract is quoted in full, and then examined in detail for about four pages, including: an overview of what is happening in this scene (a rough plotting); a discussion of how this chapter's themes are worked out in this passage, with helpful contextualization (slightly more than what you would expect from the explanatory footnotes of a good edition of the plays); an analysis of the "style" (imagery, tone, rhythm, rhetorical patterns, repetitive keywords, irregularities in the sound of the lines, etc.); and some gestures towards the rest of the play. In the later chapters there is an additional emphasis on problems that could arise in staging (Simkin both teaches and directs drama). Following the extracts and their analyses, the chapters end with a summary of "Conclusions," "Methods of Analysis" (these two being at times nearly indistinguishable) and "Suggested Work" for further reading (most often additional scenes that could be read in order to complicate the previous conclusions). These final pages are perhaps a product of the volume's origins (as they evoke the "Course Aims, Objectives, and Outcomes" which regularly accompany British syllabi), but they likewise reinforce the pedagogical aims of the book. They also follow the Analysing Texts format, which is, admittedly, formulaic but consistent.
If these analyses sound familiar, they should -- they resemble nothing more than the fairly typical undergraduate assignment of reading a literary passage closely, paying attention not only to the content but also the form of the expression. This is not intended as a criticism of Simkin's work, for these close readings are consistently thoughtful and thorough (and one would be hard pressed to find a student who could successfully string together thirty-two such readings!); they are deliberately intended to model the practice for the reader. But they do become ponderous for a literary scholar, because they aren't really offering any new flashes of insight into the extracts; moreover, they're building only slightly in complexity from chapter to chapter. (To his credit, he constantly threads his readings together, reminding the reader of previous and looking forward to future sections of the book.)
Again, this confirms for me that the intended audience for Marlowe: The Plays is an amateur reader seeking an introduction to an unknown playwright, or perhaps a first-time teacher who is less than confident of her familiarity with these dramas. This is a purposeful niche to fill, akin to, although significantly less critically sophisticated than, the Theory in Practice series from Open University and the Texts and Contexts series from Bedford/St. Martin's. Those already familiar with Marlowe scholarship will likely be disappointed by the simplification of textual and conceptual cruxes which (perhaps too obsessively?) dominate current readings of the plays -- yet much of what they read here would be familiar from their own lectures on Marlowe. Simkin is similarly (albeit necessarily) reductive in his frequent invocation of the "difference" between our time and Marlowe's, "four hundred years ago."
Part 2: The Context and the Critics takes up the last fifty pages of the book. In an appendix like fashion, Simkin presents in a more concentrated form some of the biographical information which has been spread throughout the book -- from detailing Marlowe's life in the London theatre trade to reiterating large themes such as gender and religion. Finally, Simkin presents "A Sample of Critical Views," which amounts to compact summaries (rather than reprinted selections) of the approaches to reading Marlowe by Harry Levin, Jonathan Dollimore, Stephen Greenblatt, and Emily Bartels. The suggestions for further reading are helpful, if brief; the index, unfortunately, is comparatively thin, hardly indicating the broad range of topics that has been consistently addressed in the book (e.g. "sympathy," a major focus of Chapter Two).
Writing on the teaching of literature has, for the most part, been an underdeveloped and undertheorized field, as the only very recent addition of coverage of 'pedagogy' to the MLA Bibliography attests (see Guillory); this lack has been particularly pronounced with Marlowe, as noted above. If I am correct in placing Simkin's book within the taxonomy of literary pedagogy, we should welcome this initial, pragmatic, and even-handed move towards sharing Christopher Marlowe with a larger audience.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
- Eliot, T. S. "Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe." The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960. 94.
- Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard. New York : Viking, 1993.
- Guillory, John. "The Very Idea of Pedagogy." Profession (2002): 164-171.
- Hamlin, William M. "A Note on Teaching Marlowe's The Jew of Malta." Marlowe Society of America Newsletter 11 (1991): 3-4.
- Hopkins, Lisa. "Teaching Marlowe Interactively." Marlowe Society of America Newsletter 14 (1994): 7-8.
- Kinney, Arthur F. "Reading Marlowe's Lyric." Approaches to Teaching Shorter Elizabethan Poetry. Ed. Patrick Cheney and Anne Lake Prescott. New York: MLA, 2000. 220-225.
- O'Brien, Peggy. "'And Gladly Teach': Books, Articles, and a Bibliography on the Teaching of Shakespeare." Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 165-172.
- Simkin, Stevie. A Preface to Marlowe. New York: Longman, 2000.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)