Fissured Families: A Motif in Marlowe's Plays

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Christopher Marlowe's plays are littered with family groups shattered and destroyed, either through their own actions or those of others.(1) Sometimes the disharmony is limited to family disagreements or ideological disunity within the family group; at other points it becomes more extreme, leading to internecine betrayal and even murder. As Frank Ardolino suggests, "the composite roles family members play as both fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters provide Marlowe with rich sources of complex interactions and the opportunity to portray the tensions created by the shifting roles, to limn, in short, the dynamics of power as established within the microcosm of the family" (83).(2) I want to argue, though, that Marlowe does more than simply "limn" these: I am going to suggest that he provides a sharply focused and detailed critique of the problematics of familial interaction, and that, contrary to modern, psychoanalytically driven theorizing of the family, he sees these as arising fundamentally not from inherent inter-gene rational struggle, nor from the kinds of mythic model proposed by Ardolino--who sees the plays as radically informed by the Uranus-Jupiter-Saturn model--but as an aberration caused by particular aspects of social injustice and malaise.

In what seems likely to have been Marlowe's earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, the issue of family features very strongly. The play opens with what looks like a traditional scene of family life: a man with a boy on his lap. But we rapidly discover that this is not a scene of a father and a son, but instead of what the British government has termed "a pretended family," two homosexual lovers (homosexuality is something to which I will return in due course). Moreover, Jupiter promises to subordinate the interests of his real family to those of his lover Ganymede: he gives the boy the jewels which his wife Juno wore on her wedding day, and plucks a feather from the wing of his son Hermes.(3) The family conflict presaged here is actualized when Jupiter's daughter, Venus, enters--not in her traditional role as goddess of love, but, very pointedly, in her capacity as a mother, and, by implication, in the even less likely role, for a sex symbol, as grandmother. (This point is also stressed again later in the characters' repeated references to the kinship ties between herself, Aeneas, Ascanius, and her other son Cupid.) Jupiter's infatuation with Ganymede, she claims, has had repercussions throughout the family in that it has prevented him from paying proper attention to the welfare of her son Aeneas. Thus an initial lack of proper conjugal relations between husband and wife has apparently escalated into a situation which also affects both Jupiter's daughter and his grandson, and which will have serious implications too for his great-grandson Aeneas. We may, after all, remember, as David Farley-Hills reminds us in relation to Tamburlaine, that Jupiter usurped and killed his own father (45).

The speech which Jupiter then makes to Venus assures her that she is wrong, and that he still has Aeneas's interests at heart:

Content thee, Cytherea, in thy care,

Since thy Aeneas' wandering fate is firm,

Whose weary limbs shall shortly make repose

In those fair walls I promis'd him of yore. (I.i.82-5)

In fact, however, the play itself proves Venus to be very accurate in her diagnosis of strains within the family. She has less insight into the cause, though, for she is herself complicit in it. When she visits the son for whom she has professed so much affection, she appears in disguise to him; only after she has left does he detect her identity, and he then proceeds to lament the lack of a closer relationship between them. Here we seem to be invited to discern that Jupiter's own poor parenting skills have, in one of the classic patterns of child abuse, been transmitted in turn to his daughter, who fails to mother her son as he would wish. …