Lecture 7: The Sixteenth Century
Christopher Marlowe was born on February 26, 1564 in Canterbury, a busy cathedral city. His father, John Marlowe, was a leatherworker, and was frequently in trouble for debt; Christopher's sisters were said to be noisy and quarrelsome; his sister Dorothy was probably promiscuous. Even the apprentices John Marlowe took on caused trouble: three of them were involved in bastardy cases, one with Mrs. Marlowe's maid.
Christopher entered the King's School in January 1579, at the age of 15. The headmaster had a large private library with volumes and volumes of plays and medieval romances; these were probably the sources for Marlowe's plays. In 1581, Marlowe moved to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, as a "Canterbury student": he had been given one of three scholarships for students interested in pursuing a career in the Church. He is said to have been a good scholar who wrote excellent verses. He was granted a bachelor's degree in 1584.
When Marlowe applied for his master's degree in 1587, the university decided to withhold it. Marlowe had been absent from the college for long periods of time; in addition, the university officials suspected him of being a Catholic (a capital crime at the time). He only received his degree when the Queen's Privy Council stepped in and requested that it be granted.
It is now assumed by most scholars that Marlowe's absences from Cambridge were in the service of the government, either as a secret agent or a confidential messenger. Her Majesty's Privy Council said, in its request to Cambridge, that Marlowe had gone to France for the Queen; Marlowe was probably in the employ of the Queen's Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, who maintained an elaborate espionage system.
After leaving Cambridge, Marlowe lived in London. He had been writing plays at Cambridge, and he brought them with him. Tamburlaine Part One was produced by November 1587 and Tamburlaine Part Two shortly after. The two plays made his reputation. But his life was not a quiet, reputable affair. In September 1589, Marlowe became involved in a fight with William Bradley. Thomas Watson, the poet, came to Marlowe's aid, and in the brawl, Watson fatally stabbed Bradley. Both Marlowe and Watson were imprisoned in Newgate, Marlowe for two weeks (he was exonerated legally in December) and Watson until the following February, when he was discharged on grounds that he had killed Bradley in self-defense.
By 1591, Marlowe was part of a circle of intellectuals which included Thomas Hariot, a distinguished mathematician; Matthew Roydon, a poet; and Edward Blount, the bookseller who formed one of the first syndicates to publish Shakespeare's plays. Sir Walter Raleigh and Thomas Walsingham, Sir Francis Walsingham's cousin, visited occasionally, as well.
In the summer of 1591, Thomas Kyd and Marlowe shared a room which they used as a study for writing. Kyd had had enormous success several years earlier, at about the same time as Tamburlaine was produced, with a play called The Spanish Tragedy, and both Kyd and Marlowe were under the patronage of Thomas Walsingham.
Two years after sharing the study, Thomas Kyd was arrested and questioned about his religious views; he had in his possession a pamphlet, apparently, which was considered heretical and atheistic. Under torture on the rack, he said that the paper belonged not to him but to Christopher Marlowe. He said his and Marlowe's papers had become confused in the shared room. Under further duress, Kyd wrote a statement in which he reported that Marlowe had "monstrous opinions," and used to "jest at the divine scriptures, gibe at prayers..." He also claimed that Marlowe, among other things, accused Christ of having "an extraordinary love" for St. John.
On May 18, 1593, a warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest; he was apprehended in the home of Thomas Walsingham. He appeared before the judges on May 20. Instead of prison and torture (the sentence Kyd received), he was "commanded to give his daily attendance on their Lordships until he shall be licensed to the contrary." Marlowe's powerful friends apparently interceded in his behalf once again.
On May 30, Marlowe and several of his friends went to Deptford, a village down the Thames from London. Present were Ingram Frizer, Lady Walsingham's business agent and a wealthy man; Robert Poley, who had frequently been employed on secret missions for the government; and Nicholas Skeres, a wealthy man. They ate lunch at Eleanor Bull's Tavern, spent a quiet afternoon talking in the garden, and then went inside to supper. A dispute concerning the bill arose, and Marlowe grabbed Frizer's dagger and gave him a couple of cuts on the head. In the struggle that followed, Marlowe was stabbed and died. He was 29 years old.
A coroner's inquest was held on June 1 and a jury of sixteen men quickly acquitted Frizer. But the inquest was hurried, and the report was incomplete; parts of the matter were hushed up. This, along with Marlowe's record of espionage and his associates on that day--especially Poley--has given rise to speculation that perhaps the facts were not as they were stated for the record.
Dr. Faustus is a dramatic play, full of spectacle. A story is told that on one occasion when the play was first being performed, the actor playing Dr. Faustus actually conjured up a devil. Even in our more skeptical times, the play still fires our imaginations; Faust-stories, in which an individual sells his soul to the devil in return for some great prize, are common.
One of the criticisms of the play has been that Dr. Faustus, as a character, is so vague: we know almost nothing of his life or his circumstances before the play begins: does he have a family? Did he have a happy or unhappy childhood? Even the minutiae of daily life are absent from the play. Faustus is not a fully developed individual in the sense that we have come to expect in modern theatre, especially compared to a character such as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, for example, or Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. He is not even as individuated as Hamlet. But he is not meant to be. Dr. Faustus is meant to raise philosophical inquiries, not psychological speculation. We are not meant to be concerned with him as an individual, but to identify with his conflicts. The play's structure supports this. It follows a pattern of "statement-variation": a statement is made near the beginning of each act, and then is illustrated in variations for the rest of the act.
Dr. Faustus is the ultimate humanist: he sees the world in rational and legalistic terms. In humanism and in Protestantism, the individual is the object of interest; Faustus evaluates actions only as they affect him. Faustus rationally and logically makes his decision in Act I, and he knows the consequences of his choice. As soon as Marlowe chooses Satan, the Good Angel and the Bad Angel appear. These can be seen as voices of Faustus's conscience, but they can also be taken as a representation that Good and Bad exist independently in nature, outside of any one man.
Next we see that Valdes and Cornelius have enticed Faustus to magic and that they hope to use him for their own purposes. But Faustus is committed to knowledge for its own value. Marlowe is presenting us with two attitudes toward knowledge: that knowledge is only useful if it can be used for some practical purpose or gain, and the opposite opinion that knowledge is valuable for its own sake. This is an issue that Marlowe certainly would have encountered in his time at Cambridge, and that he probably encountered daily in a time of growing commercialism.
The comedy of Wagner and the clowns keeps Faustus's actions in perspective and highlights the ludicrous nature of Faustus's aspirations. It also illustrates the way in which an individual's evil influences and corrupts others.
In Acts III and IV, Faustus seems content with trickery and magic. He has been reduced by his corruption and, ironically, limited to smaller and smaller spheres of influence and knowledge, even as he deceives himself and revels in his fame.
In Act V, as his time runs out, Faustus is in despair, but is still too prideful to repent. He still believes in his human and legal contract rather than the merciful power of God. In Dr. Faustus, fact and faith conflict: Faustus sees the world in human terms, refusing to believe that God has the power to void any contract, to forgive any sin. His pride will not allow him to see that God might have more power than he, himself, has--and so he believes redemption and salvation are impossible for him.
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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. "The Damnation of Faustus," by W. W. Greg, in Marlowe, ed. Clifford Leech
2. "The Equilibrium of Tragedy," by Una Ellis-Fermor, in Marlowe, ed. Clifford Leech.
3. "The Damnation of Faustus," by J. P. Brockbank, in Marlowe, ed. Clifford Leech
4. Christopher Marlowe, by Robert E. Knoll