THE WORLD OF CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE
By David Riggs
Henry Holt, $30, 411 pages
REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS
On Feb. 26, 1564, in the cathedral town of Canterbury, Christopher Marlowe was born to John Marlowe, a lowly shoemaker, and his wife Katherine. The world he entered, the one David Riggs’ biography vividly evokes, was a chaotic place. A rigid class structure ensured that individual rights were almost non-existent unless, of course, one was part of the entrenched aristocracy, though even the nobles, especially those still covertly Catholic, had to navigate changing political and religious winds.
Much of Elizabethan England was at the mercy of internal uncertainties and of external enemies who wished to solidify power in Europe by restoring Catholic rule to England. Mr. Riggs, a professor of humanitiesat Stanford and the author of widely-acclaimed biography of Ben Jonson, guides us through a time when “grinding poverty, class conflict, erotic desire, religious dissent, and the fear of hell” affected the population.
His superb picture of Marlowe and his world allows us to see the poet’s development within the context of his age. And what a time it was. Regular public executions, while having entertainment value, served to keep the people in fear of earthly punishment. Torture was used to extract information about plots and counter-plots.
Enough spies and informers to fill a Le Carre novel plied their tradecraft, switching sides whenever it was expedient. Death on the gallows was not always a quick strangulation or snapped neck. Some of the condemned were cut down before death, disemboweled, quartered, and decapitated, their heads impaled and then displayed on London Bridge.
If the political arena was fraught with real, imagined or fabricated treasonous behavior, then the shifting religious paradigms fostered confusion and insecurity. The two often overlapped because failure to confirm to the state-imposed religion was an attack on the queen, the head of the church.
We all know about Henry VIII’s break with Rome. We know about Bloody Mary’s restoration of Catholicism and the executions that resulted. We also know that Elizabeth turned the tables on the Catholics even though many of her subjects, including perhaps Shakespeare’s family, remained closet Catholics.
The leaders of England realized that their little island was a target of the forces of Rome and its allies, France and Spain. They knew that what happened in Paris on Sunday, Aug. 24, 1572, when 3000 French Protestants were slaughtered in the infamous St. Bar-tholomew’s Day Massacre, could happen in London.
Marlowe used massacres in his plays. Mr. Riggs is most enlightening when he discusses the role of history in the poet’s work. Using all the documentation currently available, he recreates Marlowe’s turbulent times. We know a great deal about Marlowe, from his early education to his years at Cambridge to his death. There are gaps, though not nearly as many as in Shakespeare’s life, but then Marlowe lived in a central city, and attended a university that kept records. We know what Marlowe studied, who his friends were, what activities led to his death. Marlowe was a more public figure than his greater contemporary. That “Kit” Marlowe is the first great English playwright is a given. He wrote only one known lyric poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, with its famous opening lines, “Come live with me and be my love, /And we will all the pleasures prove.” In addition, he wrote the erotically-charged narrative poem “Hero and Leander” and translated Ovid and Lucan, two writers not favored by the conservative elite. Marlowe is best known for the four plays we can prove were in his hand. “Tamburlaine” is where Marlowe transformed blank verse from unflexible, dull lines to a fluid, supple verse, to what Ben Jonson called “Marlowe’s mighty Line”. In his second play, “Dr. Faustus”, Marlowe reinvented the legendary Faustus as a foolish intellectual who uses his powers for little more than to bed Helen of Troy: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Illium? / Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.”
His third play, “The Jew of Malta” once again uses a single dominating character to explore questions of power and mortality. Marlowe’s final play — he is thought to have had a hand in several other plays — “Edward II”, entered an area Elizabethans were uncomfortable with: homosexuality.
Was Marlowe gay? Evidence exists that supports this claim. It was only one of many charges leveled at him, and might not be true since the evidence comes from informers. Certainly, Marlowe was rebel, an iconoclast, who recklessly in words and deeds defied the State’s strict rules.