Marlowe's Knifework: Threat, Caution, and Reaction in the Theatre

By Bowers, Rick | Shakespeare Bulletin, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Marlowe's Knifework: Threat, Caution, and Reaction in the Theatre


Bowers, Rick, Shakespeare Bulletin


This paper investigates a particular kinesthetic experience with special emphasis on the physicality of knives. On Marlowe's stage, cutting and stabbing instruments assert meanings beyond mere stage property to elicit neuro-sensory muscular reactions in the audience; actions of fear and distress that occur prior to intellectual perception and that produce radical tensions beyond moral pedagogy, analogues of Artaud or Seneca, or even post-reformation humanist debate. For Marlowe's heroic villains, a knife--in hand, imagined, or in action--represents a desperate, even deadly, adjunct to making the character happen onstage and thereby heightening psychological effects of violence and fear. Hereby Marlowe persistently, literally and figuratively, inserts the knife (or sword, or other stabbing instrument) as special prop, agent, and symbol for the emergence of terror as a new and devastating instrument of culture in the theatre--the sort of effect created by the Guise in The Massacre at Paris when he stabs to death a pair of unarmed academics, guilty only of being Protestants, with the chilling line "I'll whip you to death with my poniard's point" (9.79).

Onstage, it's true but it's not real. Such horror produces complex reactive effects. In his still-authoritative study titled Weapons in the Theatre (1968), Arthur Wise counsels, "the purpose of an authentic weapon is to kill, the purpose of a theatrical weapon is to appear to do so" (sic 19). More recently, Eli Rozik describes the semiotics of objects onstage--for our purposes especially a knife--dropping their practical function and assuming a communicative function. Thus, a knife plays a knife onstage. It becomes a knife "in quotation marks" for other purposes. Or rather, as I will argue, it becomes a knife in italics--for emphasis. As will be seen, in Marlowe's Edward II, a red-hot poker emphatically plays the role of a murder weapon, a horrific stabbing instrument of torture, and an unusual, but historically reported, means of assassinating a king. Such use onstage does not produce an alienation effect but an intensification effect that is especially Marlovian in its moment of performance. Years ago, in Dynamics of Drama (1970), Bernard Beckerman put it clearly, stating that in the theatre, "our bodies are already reacting to the texture and structure of action before we recognize that they are doing so" (151).

More recently, Janet Clare opened an article titled "Marlowe's 'Theatre of Cruelty'" as follows: "It is a commonplace of our understanding of Marlowe that he produced a theatre of consistently violent techniques and effects. Confronted with a combination of Renaissance eloquence and extreme acts of aggression, it can be difficult (unless undue emphasis is placed on the fascinating details of the life) to find an appropriate critical vocabulary for Marlowe's dramaturgy" (74). Consequently, Clare appropriates Artaud's manifestos of violence in the theatre as guide to her inquiry into the destabilizing rhetorical effects of Marlowe's verbal and visual onstage violence. But I would argue that the critical vocabulary and the governing aesthetics of violence inheres in the physicality of theatre itself. Marlowe's violence, especially knife violence, asserts something new, sensational and immediate, something more visceral, dangerous, and specific than can be handled by the usual critical vocabularies.

In an essay titled Three Uses of the Knife, contemporary playwright David Mamet asserts the excruciating theatricality of knife violence as follows: "The appearance of the knife is the attempt of the orderly, affronted mind to confront the awesome; to discover the hidden structure of the word. In this endeavor our rational mind will not be of help. This is the province of theater and religion" (67). In The Massacre at Paris, Marlowe effectively combines theatre and religion within the Duke of Guise who, as pan-European terrorist and homicidal maniac, cannot do anything without physically drawing a knife or sword or imagining himself or someone else as doing so.

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