What Marlowe would have wanted

Charles Nicholl

The best, perhaps, has survived, but a great deal of Elizabethan drama has not. The number of titles mentioned in contemporary documents – the account books of the impresario Philip Henslowe, the registers of the Stationers’ Company, and so on – far exceeds the number of plays now extant as texts. Many never made it into print. Some did and have since perished: booksellers sold their wares unbound, and plays were often considered too trashy and ephemeral to merit the cost of binding. Many must have ended up ‘bequeathed to the privy’ or ‘stopping mustard pots’ – the literary chat of the period is full of such references – and others would have gone up in the fires that commonly broke out in the crowded wood-built cities.

The losses are heaviest among the first wave of playmakers working in London in the late 1580s and early 1590s, the so-called ‘pre-Shakespearean’ period. Not a single play by the sonneteer Thomas Watson remains, though he was described in 1592 as one whose ‘daily practyse and living’ was writing for the theatre. Thomas Nashe certainly wrote for the public playhouses in the early 1590s – his friend Greene takes him to task for it in the Groatsworth of Wit – but his only dramatic piece to have survived is a private ‘shewe’ he put on for Archbishop Whitgift at Croydon. There was an early version of Hamlet, possibly by Kyd; a prototype Henry V, starring Dick Tarlton and William Knell. And, a little later, there were the first ventures of Ben Jonson – Hot Anger Soon Cooled, written with Thomas Dekker and Henry Porter, and Robert II, with Henry Chettle – now just bodiless titles in an old theatrical ledger.

The case of Marlowe is, as always, more ambiguous. In some senses we can be grateful. Seven of his plays remain, and there is no real evidence that any whole works have been lost. The brevity of his opus is a matter of tragic circumstance: he was just 29 when he was stabbed to death in Deptford. But though the ratio of transmission seems good, the quality is not. At least two of his plays survive only in texts so mangled as to be almost unworkable. One is The Massacre at Paris. The other is Dr Faustus, arguably the greatest of all the ‘pre-Shakespearean’ plays.

In a sense, the true nature of Faustus is as tantalisingly ‘lost’ as its vanished contemporaries. The play survives in two early editions, widely diverging, both badly flawed. Great chunks of magnificent poetry have come through largely intact, but structurally the play is all over the place: a mass of narrative anomalies, descents into banality and slapstick, a suspiciously glib conclusion. We have almost grown used to these problems, as if they were somehow intrinsic to the play, another aspect of its murky, difficult ambience.

Modern scholarship has established at least a working consensus about the play, based largely on the studies of Leo Kirschbaum (1946), W.W. Greg (1950) and Fredson Bowers (1973). But a consensus is not necessarily the truth, and any serious attempt to tackle anew the textual problems of Faustus is to be welcomed. When the tackling is done by that great and maverick scholar William Empson, it is even more welcome. By a sad irony, Empson’s full thesis is also lost to us: it was left unfinished at the time of his death in April 1984. His various drafts and notes have been ‘recovered and edited’ by his colleague, John Henry Jones. The result is often as maddeningly fragmentary as Faustus itself, and it is festooned with more footnotes than a redaction of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it has all the Empson hallmarks – the density of ideation, the abrasive wit, the marvellous lateral twists – and out of it emerges a bold and original theory: one that needs to be tested against the facts and the play; one that will be built on by other scholars; one that might well prove revolutionary in our conception of Dr Faustus.

The early history of Dr Faustus is skeletal. The date of composition is unknown: some place it quite early in Marlowe’s brief career (c. 1589); others make it his last work, begun in the summer of 1592. A vital factor in the dating is the publication of what was undoubtedly Marlowe’s major source, The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus. This was a translation, by one ‘P.F., Gent’, of the anonymous Historia von D. Iohan Fausten (Frankfurt, 1587). Unfortunately the earliest extant edition of the Damnable Life, published by Thomas Orwin in 1592, is not the first. The title page announces it as ‘newly imprinted’, with ‘imperfect matter amended’. According to Greg, the first edition had been published earlier the same year. An entry in the Stationers’ Company ‘court book’ refers to another printer, Abel Jeffes, having ‘claymed’ the copyright on the Damnable Life in May 1592, and Greg argues that since this claim is not in the usual form of a licensing entry in the Company register, it must have been in the form of publication. Many feel that this inference is questionable, given the rapacities and inconsistencies of Elizabethan publishing, and arguments for an earlier date for the Damnable Life, and hence for Faustus, have equal voice. Evidence for this view is circumstantial. The huge popularity of the German Faust-book would certainly have encouraged speedy translation; the registering in February 1589 of a ballad about ‘Doctor Faustus the Great Cunngerer’ and the Faust-ish allusions in Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590) may be pointers. Empson, who disagrees with Greg on just about everything, favours the earlier date.

There is no actual record of a public performance of Faustus before 30 September 1594 – over a year after Marlowe’s death – when it was played by the Admiral’s Men at the Rose theatre. The takings were high (£3 12s.) but Henslowe did not mark the play as new, and this was almost certainly a revival. A reminiscence by Thomas Middleton of a performance ‘when the old Theater crackt and frighted the audience’ may refer to an earlier run at the Theatre in Shoreditch. The play continued in the Admiral’s Men repertoire, but by January 1597 receipts were down to 5s., and it was taken off. Props and costumes for the play – a dragon, a backdrop of Rome, the ‘ierkin’ and ‘clok’ worn by Alleyn in the title role – continue to appear in the company’s inventories. In November 1602 another revival was under way, possibly connected with Alleyn’s return to the theatre from retirement, and a pair of Henslowe’s hacks, Samuel Rowley and William Birde, received £4 for writing certain ‘adicyones in doctor fostes’.

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