Sara Munson Deats and Robert A. Logan, eds. Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe: Fresh Cultural Contexts. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. xi+249pp. ISBN 978 0 7546 6204 4.

Andrew Duxfield
Sheffield Hallam University

Andrew Duxfield. "Review of Sara Munson Deats and Robert A. Logan, eds, Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe: Fresh Cultural Contexts.".  Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 12.1-6<URL:>.

  1. The Marlowe Society of America recently held its sixth international conference in Canterbury, in the process demonstrating the current breadth and depth of Marlowe studies. Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe, edited by Sara Deats and Robert Logan, both former presidents of the MSA, is the latest collection arising from the proceedings of the society, and the successor in this capacity to collections such as Friedenreich, Gill and Kuriyama’s A Poet and a Filthy Playmaker (1988), Paul Whitfield White’s Marlowe, History and Sexuality (1998) and Deats and Logan’s Marlowe’s Empery: Expanding His Critical Contexts (2002). As such, Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe can be seen as a barometer of the current vitality of the field. Despite the broad scope of the collection, Deats and Logan’s introduction identifies an overarching theoretical approach, stating that it will aim to ‘focus not upon Marlowe, the man, but upon Marlowe, the playwright’ (1), perhaps in response to calls from critics such as Lukas Erne, who has recently argued that Marlowe criticism is hampered by a fixation with ‘mythography’. The intention is to offer ‘a forceful counterpoise’ to the tendency towards biographical scholarship in Marlowe studies, and in the process to ‘deepen and complicate our understanding of the playwright’s dramas.’ (2).

  2. The book is divided into four themed parts, the first of which is entitled ‘Marlowe and the Theater’. The section begins with Sara Munson Deats's '"Mark this show": Magic and Theatre in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus'. Deats identifies parallels between anti-theatrical and anti-occult rhetoric, and goes on to establish a relationship between the language of magic and that of drama in Dr Faustus. In so doing, Deats suggests the possibility that Faustus's fall represents a comment on the position of the Elizabethan dramatist, and is perhaps representative of a crisis of confidence on Marlowe's part regarding the future of the industry in the face of stiff moral opposition. In 'Marlowe's Edward II and the Early Playhouse Audiences', Ruth Lunney frames her discussion of the play in terms of contemporary audience reaction and participation, acknowledging the role in this of expectations that were likely to have been perpetuated by cultural and theatrical experience. Using this approach, Lunney suggests that the revolutionary quality of Marlowe's drama is not its ambivalence - other plays were ambivalent in and before his time - but in his manipulation of those expectations. In the final piece of this section, Stephanie Moss provides a switch of focus by concentrating on a nineteenth-century revival of The Jew of Malta. In 'Edmund Kean, Anti-Semitism and The Jew of Malta', Moss focuses on Kean's 1818 Drury Lane production of the play which closed after only 11 performances, amid contemporary reviews, which, while praising Kean's performance as Barabas, lamented his choice of material as unfit for a more sympathetic age than the unenlightened one in which it was composed. Moss argues that the violent reaction to, and early closure of, Kean's production were the results of a contemporary squeamishness brought about by the tension between a Romantic ideal of egalitarianism and a reality of prejudice, and the fragility of the former's veil over the latter.

  3. The second section of the collection, 'Marlowe and the Family', contains three essays that each deal with Marlowe's representation of a particular kind of familial relationship. The first of these is Lagretta Tallent Lenker's 'The Hopeless Daughter of a Hapless Jew: Father and Daughter in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta', which examines the relationship between Barabas and Abigail as a potential criticism of patriarchal power structures. Lenker questions the assumption that Barabas is nonchalant at the loss of his daughter, and suggests that the well-documented descent of the play into 'savage farce' after her murder is less comic than often suggested, and rather a subversive comment on 'the sins of the father' (73), and by extension on society's patriarchal structure. In 'A Study in Ambivalence: Mothers and Their Sons in Christopher Marlowe', Joyce Karpay discusses early modern attitudes to the role of the mother, identifying a tension between conceptions of them as powerless social non-entities and those which see them as wielding a worrying influence in the household and over their children, and goes on to analyse the varying representations of motherhood in Marlowe's plays in this context. In the third chapter of the section, 'Masculinity, Performance, and Identity: Father/Son Dyads in Christopher Marlowe's Plays', Merry G. Perry examines in the light of modern masculinity studies the relationships of fathers and sons in Marlowe's plays, and argues that, while rebellion against paternal authority in his work always fails, Marlowe problematises patriarchy by accentuating the cruelty with which those rebels are dealt with.

  4. The third section of the book, 'Marlowe, Ethics and Religion', is the longest, containing five essays. The first of these, 'Almost Famous, Always Iterable: Doctor Faustus as Meme of Academic Performativity', by Rick Bowers, offers a postmodernist reading of Faustus which identifies its relevance to modern academia. Bowers suggests that while to its contemporary audience the play parodied religious conformity and promoted humanist learning, today it is humanist knowing that is satirised in the play, and promoted instead is 'open-ended academic performativity' (121). In 'Misbelief, False Profession and The Jew of Malta', William H. Hamlin attributes Barabas's initial successes to his appreciation of cultural relativism, a situation that stands until he is brought down by a dogmatic adherence to his own 'misbelief' in the face of opposition from the more relentlessly Machiavellian Ferneze. Hamlin's reading leads to a conclusion that we are encouraged to sympathise with a 'humanly vulnerable' Barabas, in a play that 'for all its authorial detachment and cool political analysis, finally encourages a peculiar undercurrent of fellow feeling.' (133, 134). Deborah Willis, in 'Doctor Faustus and the Early Modern Language of Addiction', maps a discussion of early modern perceptions of addiction onto a reading of Faustus's decline in the B-Text of the play. Her argument implies that the modern sense of addiction is in some ways analogous to early modern or medieval ideas of religious despair, and as such brings life to the question of free will in the play. The next essay is the contribution of Christine McCall Probes, entitled 'Rhetorical Strategies for a locus terribilis: Senses, Signs, Symbols, and Theological Allusion in Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris'. This essay looks at instances of signs, rhetorical tendencies and biblical allusions in the play in terms of their role in creating a sense of a locus terribilis (terrible event). Probes suggests that Massacre 'may be an indictment not only of the atrocities that occurred on St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572, but of all religious terror, and, as such, is relevant not only to sixteenth century France and England but also to our own post-9/11 age'. The section comes to a close with John Parker's 'Barabas and Charles I', which argues that Barabas's grievances with the Christians in The Jew of Malta are precisely those of Tudor Protestant polemicists against the Catholic church. The revival and first printing of the play in the 1630s, Parker suggests, put it among a number of anti-Catholic plays revived at the time, apparently in response to Charles I's lack of zeal for religious reform and suspected papist sympathies.

  5. The final section of the book, 'Marlowe and Shakespeare', opens with Constance Brown Kuriyama's 'Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Theoretically Irrelevant Author'. Kuriyama takes aim at Barthesian and Foucaldian concepts of authorship, and at the notion that Shakespeare pioneered complex interior characterisation, through comparative readings of The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice and of Doctor Faustus and Hamlet. Kuriyama argues that, in both cases, Marlowe's earlier play exhibits the complexity of characterisation that Shakespeare is credited with inventing, but also that the differences between the works of the two authors, and indeed between the works of any two authors, are such that it is counterintuitive to think of the author as dead. In '"Glutted with Conceit": Imprints of Doctor Faustus on The Tempest', Robert Logan, through a comparative reading of the two plays in the title, suggests that Marlowe's influence on Shakespeare continues much later into the latter playwright's career than generally accepted. Key to both of these plays, Logan argues, is the trope of the magician as playwright, and magic as the artistic imagination. The collection's final essay, David Bevington's 'Christopher Marlowe: The Late Years', traces the development of the history play genre, arguing that it was effectively invented by Marlowe and Shakespeare. Through an analysis of Edward II that draws comparisons with Shakespeare's early histories, Bevington identifies the defining factors that distinguished the genre that the rival playwrights created from the earlier political court histories, such as Gorboduc, and the light-hearted roistering of the historical plays of Peele and Nashe.

  6. It could be called into question whether Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe achieves the stated aim detailed at the start of this review. Despite assertions to the contrary both in the editors' introduction and on the inside of the dust jacket, one could from time to time sense 'Marlowe, the man' creeping into the focus of this collection, particularly in the final section on his literary relationship with Shakespeare. The extent to which one considers this a failing, of course, depends on one's position on the role of biography in literary criticism (a hot topic in Marlowe studies). Yet the not quite unanimous adherence of the numerous essays contained within the collection to a goal stated in its introduction is less an instance of weakness than it is an indication of the book's strength; arising as it does from conference proceedings, and featuring the work of fourteen scholars among whom are some of the foremost names in current Marlowe scholarship, this collection thrives on the diversity of its approaches rather than on its adherence to any particular unifying strand of thought. In representing a cross-section of current critical activity in the field, Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe is a useful resource for students, teachers and researchers of early modern literature, and essential reading for Marlovians.

Works Cited