Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

A Storm Brewing: Inspirations for the Tempest in Marlowe and Jonson

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

A Storm Brewing: Inspirations for the Tempest in Marlowe and Jonson

Article excerpt

The Tempest so effectively invites comparison with William Shakespeare's earlier works that we may underestimate another sense in which it can be seen as retrospective or even nostalgic: in its evocations of the work of other playwrights, and in particular Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.1 These evocations are admittedly not the direct, verbal echoes-especially of Marlowe- that James Shapiro and others have carefully traced in the plays of Shakespeare's early and middle career, or that Jonson offers in his references to Doctor Faustas in The Alchemist (1610). For that reason, they need to be approached tentatively, with Shapiro's warning in mind that arguments for literary interchange can be only conjectural "in the absence of extended and unmistakable topical allusion." And yet the same critic argues persuasively that interchange exists even in the absence of such allusion, even making the bold claim that Shakespeare avoided tragedy for several years as a means of avoiding engagement with Marlowe, and the analogues in The Tempest to elements of Shakespeare's own earlier works are similarly more situational than verbal.2 Unsurprisingly, what is often most striking about these evocations is that Shakespeare handles so differently an action, motif, or set-piece that has a demonstrable analogue in Marlowe or Jonson.

The play's evocations of Marlowe are louder and easier to demonstrate than those of Jonson. Simply by choosing to write a play whose protagonist is a magician, Shakespeare entered what his contemporaries would indisputably have recognized as Marlowe's territory, just as Jonson did in the same year in The Alchemist? The echoes of the latter are less pervasive, but given the dearth of explicit allusions to him in Shakespeare's works, even modest evidence of a response may prove valuable to our understanding of the two playwrights. To invoke his chief rivals at this stage of his career is no doubt to engage to some degree in the kind of contest over literary reputation that Shapiro traces in his study of the interchange between the mature Jonson and Shakespeare, where the issue is not "mastery over precursors they found difficult to surpass, but the weightier influence that an established dramatist can wield over a rival's place in literary history."4 Without underestimating this element of contest, I would like to argue (this side of re-invoking a naive conception of gentle Will) that Shakespeare may also be paying a valedictory tribute to what has happened on the stage over his career, and that by invoking his rivals he is in some sense trying to sum up not only his own progress, but that of English drama generally, in a way that we might associate more quickly with an author who confronts literary history more directly, such as Sir Philip Sidney, Jonson, or John Dryden. Robert A. Logan argues persuasively that Marlowe's effect on Shakespeare was predominantly inspirational, and concludes that Macbeth and The Tempest (1611) offer a "tacit tribute" to Marlowe.5 In this sense Shakespeare's evocations of his predecessor and-perhaps less simply-Jonson are inextricable from the retrospective tenor of the entire play and its engagement with distinctive elements of his own corpus. Harry Berger Jr. has drawn valuable parallels between the play and Thomas More's Utopia (1516), especially between Prospero's and Hythlodaeus's aversion to public life, and that argument could be expanded to suggest that Shakespeare's retrospective view of English poetry takes in more than the London stage, but the echoes and revisions of Marlowe and Jonson are in the foreground of Shakespeare's backward view.6

Marlowe

Along with Logan, David Young, John Mebane, and David Lucking have provided the most useful examinations to date of the connections between Faustus and The Tempest., exploring the two plays' connections between magic and art, power and illusion.7 Lucking in particular makes explicit the various ways in which Shakespeare incorporates specific motifs from Marlowe's work. …

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