The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe

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The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe. By Ian McAdam. Cranbury, N.J.: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses. 1999. 283 pp. 34.50 [pounds sterling].

Playing with Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization. By Fred B. Tromly. Toronto, Buffalo, NY, and London: University of Toronto Press. 1999. xi +238 pp. $50; 37.50 [pounds sterling].

Both these books offer a critical look at Marlowe as a writer, examining what are argued to be consistent tendencies and strategies in his work in terms (to a greater or lesser extent) of qualities that might be expected to have been present in the man himself, and they adopt the similar approach of taking the reader through the works sequentially. Ian McAdam takes a liberal-humanist approach in his study of character in Marlowe's plays, using as his starting point the work of the psychoanalytic theorist, Heinz Kohut. He maintains that Marlowe's plays are subversive of ideologies (such as religion) that stand in the way of achieving personal cohesiveness, and suggests that Marlowe's homosexuality was a source of struggle in that it involved potential surrender to another man. McAdam discusses all the plays, devoting a chapter to each, looking at the ways in which the central figures aspire to and fail to achieve a cohesive identity, presenting them in terms of a conflict between aspiration to control and desire for self-surrender, and in relation to the presence or absence of identity models. In the case of Dido, Queen of Carthage he argues that the representation of Aeneas is fraught with anxiety and compensation, but that Dido's struggle between self-assertion and self-surrender makes her more than him the prototype of later Marlowe heroes such as Faustus and Edward II. Aeneas's vacillation, however, borders on the comic and is the forerunner of the typical Marlovian blend of comedy in Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and The Jew of Malta.

Moving on to Tamburlaine, he contends that if Aeneas's failure is due to a lack of idealized masculine self-objects, Tamburlaine egoistically asserts this ideal from within himself. Marlowe, he maintains, consciously introduces a set of ironies to distance the audience from the central character. He sees complications in Tamburlaine's identity residing in his (homoerotic) identification with other male self-objects, and argues that the play offers a voyeuristic pleasure in that Tamburlaine's task in striving to become his own idealized self-object becomes ours. Moving on to Doctor Faustus, he sees Faustus's damnation as a theatrical metaphor to resolve the conflict between self-assertion and self-surrender, and considers that this is indicative of Marlowe's own inner desire for religious surrender and self-subordination. He places Faustus's dilemma, and need to be loved, in the context of Protestantism that had shorn away a lot of the comforting, ceremonial aspects of Catholicism.

McAdam then looks at The Jew of Malta as explaining the failure of the protagonist to establish a `carnal' identity. The Jew can be linked to the homosexual as an outsider, and he suggests that Marlowe's awareness of his own sexual identity may have made him create a protagonist removed from sexual activity. Barabas fails to become a man and descends instead into a series of cartoon villains, but the idea of becoming a man is, in any case, bleaker than in the plays already discussed as it does not involve the heroic. Barabas's failure is actually not being enough of a machiavellian. In The Massacre at Paris, Marlowe both identifies with the victims in the play, and represents figures who are more successful in balancing or managing their conflicting impulses. Finally, he reads Edward II in terms of narcissism which does not allow any of the characters to love anyone else, a factor which is part of the failure of their own self-fashioning. …