Posthumous Gentleman

Michael Dobson

  • The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs
    Faber, 411 pp, £25.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 571 22159 9
  • Christopher Marlowe and Richard Baines: Journeys through the Elizabethan Underground by Roy Kendall
    Fairleigh Dickinson, 453 pp, US $75.00, January 2004, ISBN 0 8386 3974 7
  • Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
    Canongate, 149 pp, £9.99, July 2004, ISBN 1 84195 532 9
  • History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe by Rodney Bolt
    HarperCollins, 388 pp, £17.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 00 712123 7

They were both eight-year-old grammar-school boys when news began to reach England of the bloody events of St Bartholomew’s Day, 1572 (news which bolstered moves towards Protestant reform in each of their provincial towns), and they remained sufficiently interested in French politics to write in a surprisingly well-informed fashion about the subject twenty years later. The dispute between Henri of Navarre and his estranged Catholic wife, Marguerite de Valois, over control of Aquitaine; the wider dynastic and religious feuding among the Valois and the Bourbons that culminated in the assassinations of the Duc de Guise and Henri III; the Earl of Essex’s subsequent mission to reinforce Henri of Navarre and his associates the Maréchal de Biron and the Duc de Longueville: both writers would refract this material into some of the most distinctive drama of the age. In the early 1590s each produced a play about recent French affairs that suggestively combines politics with reflections on the place of education in public life.

In one play the King of Navarre is whimsically transformed into a bachelor and rechristened Ferdinand; he retreats from court not for fear of Spanish-funded Catholic plots but to lead a quartet of abstemious students. He experiences a crisis of conscience at breaking an oath, which wouldn’t surprise anyone aware of the real Navarre’s history, but instead of agonising about renouncing Protestantism on the grounds that Paris is worth a Mass, he is merely fretting about a scholarly vow not to speak to women for three years, broken after a French princess and her ladies arrive at his ‘little academe’ to discuss the problem of Aquitaine. The play further diminishes geopolitical terrors into the person of a harmless, affected Spanish braggart called Don Armado, and its pastoral idyll is ended after five playful acts only by the news of a single offstage death, apparently from natural causes. Such action as there is features a pedant called Holofernes; but instead of the decapitation his name appears to promise, he suffers nothing more traumatic than having his amateur pageant jeered by its aristocratic audience. The play is characterised not by courtly intrigue but by courtly love:

DUMAINE: ‘Do not call it sin in me
That I am forsworn for thee,
Thou for whom great Jove would swear
Juno but an Ethiop were,
And deny himself for Jove
Turning mortal for thy love.’
This will I send, and something else more plain
That shall express my true love’s fasting pain.
O, would the King, Biron, and Longueville
Were lovers too!

This play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is characteristically oblique to the point of evasiveness in handling what remains just recognisable as highly topical material. It is the first of Shakespeare’s comedies to embrace the lyricism that would become one of his hallmarks: from here it is a short step to the triple breakthrough of 1595, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. The combination of a learned and allusive style with the indulgent mockery of a schoolmaster who enjoys the friendly patronage of a king proclaim a writer at ease with his own educational capital and the position it may earn him. As it turned out, Love’s Labour’s Lost was a landmark in Shakespeare’s accession to prosperity and prestige. It appears to have been the first of his plays to be acted before Queen Elizabeth, and it was later revived for James after Shakespeare’s company had been adopted as the King’s Men. It has usually been read as an ostentatiously effortless display of how a degree-less provincial could match university-educated courtly playwrights such as John Lyly at their own game.

The other writer, however, dealt with French current affairs and the social position of education in a different manner:

GUISE: My Lord of Anjou, there are a hundred Protestants
Which we have chased into the river Seine
That swim about and so preserve their lives:
How may we do? I fear me they will live.

DUMAINE: Go place some men upon the bridge
With bows and darts to shoot at them they see,
And sink them in the river as they swim.

GUISE: ‘Tis well advised, Dumaine; go see it straight be done. [Exit DUMAINE]
And in the meantime, my lord, could we devise
To get those pedants from the King Navarre
That are tutors to him and the Prince of Condé –

ANJOU: For that, let me alone; cousin, stay you here,
And when you see me in, then follow hard.
[ANJOU knocketh; and enter the king of navarre and the prince of condé, with their two schoolmasters]
How now, my lords, how fare you?

NAVARRE: My lord, they say
That all the Protestants are massacred!

This is Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, a play free of amateur pageants but featuring 19 onstage killings, most of them stabbings (one of an admiral whom we have already seen being shot, and another, a regicide, using an envenomed dagger). There is also the poisoning of a queen mother with a pair of noxious gloves and the strangling of a cardinal; and we are shown the amputation of a cutpurse’s ear. Three of the onstage deaths are of teachers, and, as befits a work by someone who won a scholarship to go from his Canterbury grammar school to Cambridge, the play’s doomed pedagogues include not only Navarre’s two silenced counterparts to Holofernes but the Sorbonne logician Petrus Ramus:

GUISE: I say, Ramus shall die.
How answer you that? Your nego argumentum
Cannot serve, sirrah. Kill him.

Ramus does what he can to argue that he should be spared, but he is soon murdered, less as a heretic than as an upstart:

GUISE: Why suffer you that peasant to declaim?
Stab him, I say, and send him to his friends in hell.

ANJOU: Ne’er was there collier’s son so full of pride. [Kills him]

The Massacre at Paris was even more of a landmark in Marlowe’s career than Love’s Labour’s Lost was in Shakespeare’s: it was the last play he would ever write. On 30 May 1593, weeks after finishing it (if he ever did; it survives only in a short, unreliable text probably assembled from memory by actors), Marlowe too was stabbed to death, at Eleanor Bull’s guest-house in Deptford.

It is too easy to represent Shakespeare as the good, cautiously spoken grammar-school boy and Marlowe as the attractively badly behaved one, but the fame of the one’s success and the notoriety of the other’s death have made this familiar juxtaposition inevitable. For most readers, to think of the end of Shakespeare’s career is to imagine a balding, married burgher of 52 lying in a comfortable bed in the second-largest house in Stratford, fussing with his lawyers over the disposition of an ample estate, the private self revealed in the Sonnets safely back in the closet. If we think of the end of Marlowe’s career we see a dangerously, glamorously mixed-up 29-year-old who has fallen among bad company, a prodigal genius who has lived fast and is to die young, and whose last recorded utterances, all of them heretical, included the opinions that ‘St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned alwaies to his bosom . . . he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma’ and that ‘all they that loue not Tobacco & Boies were fooles.’ Marlowe seems to have died in a manner appropriate to the writer of Edward II and Dr Faustus. His perceived personal style appeals much more obviously than Shakespeare’s to an Anglo-American academy invested in the idea that Renaissance poets ought above all to have been subversive, and he is enjoying more scholarly attention than ever before: the five-volume Oxford English Texts complete works was finished in 1998, and has been followed by Mark Thornton Burnett’s edition of the plays for Everyman in 1999, and Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey’s for Penguin in 2003; the first Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe appeared last month (edited by Patrick Cheney).[*]

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[*] Cambridge, 346 pp., £15.99, July, 0 521 52734 1.