Marlowe and the Disordered Face of French History

Article excerpt

In the final scene of Marlowe's disfigured portrait of contemporary French history, the silent English agent - the only English character in the play - takes the stage to hear the dying Henry III pledge his love for Queen Elizabeth and his hatred of Rome and to witness Henry's designation of his successor. The agent, perhaps a reflection of Marlowe's own service as an agent on the Continent in Walsingham's intelligence network, appears at a decisive moment in French history and at the culmination of a play that has recreated French history as a series of meaningless violent acts. Dramatically and historiographically, the Massacre appears chaotic, an impression undoubtedly exacerbated, but not explained, by the corrupt state of the text. Nor do the characters provide the coherence lacking in the plot: personal identity is masked by inexplicable malevolence or destabilized by shifting exteriors. With the appearance of Marlowe's inscrutable agent at the end of the play, however, the chaos of this portrait of French history is recontained under the auspices of Queen Elizabeth's authority; past disorder now coalesces into a providential trajectory leading to the ascension of Elizabeth's ally, the still-Protestant Henry of Navarre, and paralleling official Tudor history. Through the alliance of Elizabeth and Navarre, symbolized in the presence of the agent, French instability is resolved into English stability, and French history mirrors English history.

Marlowe's agent is ambiguous, however, whether he reflects his mysterious creator or the English audience, who, through the presence of the English agent on the stage, participate in this appropriation, or "Englishing," of French history. This transformation of disorder into order appears as inexplicable as the confusion that preceded it. Interpreting the confusion, finding meaning in disorder, has been the primary task of most commentators on the play. But providing meaning where none is apparent often entails imposing order on historical chaos, which results, ironically, in the critic joining the English agent in transforming this fractured image of French history into English history. For example, one critic argues that the chaos stems from Marlowe's pandering to the "lowest appetites of his audience" and his over-dependence on lurid Protestant sources. He has made himself a "brutal propagandist" for a Protestant interpretation of history, a dependence that, instead of bringing order to the chaos, renders the play "lumpish bombast."(1) Marlowe, accordingly, has failed to adapt the Protestant sentiments of his English audience and his historical materials to the need for dramatic coherence. Hence the chaos in the play points to Marlowe's failure as a writer, his inability to reflect English history adequately. This conclusion, however, leaves unexamined the assumption that he was trying to construct a Protestant history acceptable to English audiences.(2) Critics also impose English order on French disorder when they interpret the images of French chaos as warnings that a similar fate could befall England. One proponent of this approach views the play as a cautionary tale: the play warns of "the immediate danger of a comparable outrage at the English court."(3) French disorder, therefore, becomes English disorder, which, in the chronicles of English history, might be contained within a moral order that supports English monarchs or within a providential pattern leading to the reign of the Tudors and the ascension of Protestantism.(4) When viewed through the eyes of English Protestantism and Tudor power, the confusion of French history is an "outrage"; it is incompatible with the foundations of English order. The unjust violence against Protestants and the illegitimate machinations against royal power delineate an anti-order in France, a negative reflection of the providential order and stability of England.(5)

This "Englishing" of French history by those critics who see it as a thinly veiled appeal to English Protestants who supported the queen effectively reduces it to historical allegory, an intentionally chosen, coded language. …