Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Christopher Marlowe and the Succession to the English Crown

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Christopher Marlowe and the Succession to the English Crown

Article excerpt

This discussion explores a concern that is visible in several of Marlowe's plays: the succession to the English crown. Marlowe seems to have known at least one possible contender for the succession; the question of succession is also explicitly raised at the outset of a work in which he avowed an interest, Machiavelli's The Prince; and the idea of a new ruler and the difficulties he faces in establishing his position occurs in a number of his plays. After brief discussions of selected plays, this paper focuses mainly on the treatment of the topic in Tamburlaine.

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In this discussion I want to explore a concern that I think is visible in a number of Christopher Marlowe's plays: an interest in the question of the succession to the English crown. That he should have felt such an interest is unsurprising, given that the start of his writing career came very shortly after Mary, Queen of Scots was executed, effectively because of her claim to the throne. Moreover, there is clear evidence that Marlowe, by the end of his writing career if not before, had made the acquaintance of Robert Poley, who was involved in the intrigues surrounding the entrapment of Mary. It is also possible that Marlowe knew personally two other possible contenders for the succession: Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, who may well have been his early patron, and Arbella Stuart. Charles Nicholl quotes Bess of Hardwick's letter to Lord Burghley concerning 'one Morley, who hath attended on Arabella and read to her for the space of three year and a half ', that is, between 1588 and 1592; and although Nicholl presents this as one of the false trails listed in his appendix, he also calls it 'perhaps the most fascinating trail, and the one I lingered over longest'. (1) The reason why Nicholl regretfully abandoned the idea was that the little evidence we have for Marlowe's whereabouts during those years does make it seem unlikely (though not impossible) that the Mr Morley who read to Arbella could have been Christopher Marlowe. However, it might just be worth noting that at least one of Arbella's two surviving letters from this period comes from London, which would dispose of Nicholl's worry about banishing Marlowe to Derbyshire for so long. (2) Finally, towards the end of his life Marlowe began to display clear signs of an interest in Scotland, home of the likeliest and indeed the eventual successor to the throne, James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots. Quite apart from Kyd's declaration that Marlowe intended to join his friend Matthew Roydon at the court of James VI, there is Nicholl's observation that Robert Poley, who was, of course, in the room with Marlowe when he died, was 'an old Scottish hand' who had made four separate visits to the Scottish court in the preceding year, one of them lasting two months. (3)

The question of succession is explicitly raised at the outset of a work in which Marlowe avowed an interest, Machiavelli's The Prince, in which a significant part of the narrative is devoted to analysing the reasons why Machiavelli's principal case study, Cesare Borgia, failed to inherit his father's power and lost his position after his father's death. The Prince begins by announcing that

All the states, all the dominions under whose authority men have lived in the past and live now have been and are either republics or principalities. Principalities are hereditary, with their prince's family long established as rulers, or they are new [...] with hereditary states, accustomed to their prince's family, there are far fewer difficulties in maintaining one's rule than in new principalities; because it is enough merely not to neglect the institutions founded by one's ancestors and then to adapt policy to events. (4)

The idea of a new ruler and the difficulties he faces in establishing his position dominates the Tamburlaine the Great plays, and figures too in The Jew of Malta and, to a lesser extent, in The Massacre at Paris, which closes with power passing from one dynasty to another. …

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