Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Playing with Matches: Christopher Marlowe's Incendiary Imagination

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Playing with Matches: Christopher Marlowe's Incendiary Imagination

Article excerpt

In the subtitle of her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), Mary Shelley imaginatively associates an obvious Faustfigure, in the shape of Frankenstein himself, with the myth of Prometheus. More recently, Park Honan, in his biography of Christopher Marlowe, recounts how it was the installation of a new gas fire which led to the discovery of the putative portrait of Marlowe owned by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, one whose legend Quod me nutrit me destruit relates to the idea of fire and the fuel that feeds it.1 In this essay, I want to argue that both of these things are curiously appropriate, for Marlowe had a fundamentally pyromaniac imagination, albeit one that works in different ways in different plays. He is fascinated by fire on every level: by its brightness; by its quality of extremeness both in its own inherent heat and as an opposite to ice; by its effects on both things and bodies; by the power it confers on its wielder; and by the fear and pain it inflicts on those whom it is wielded against. I do not, however, concur with previous critics who have read Marlowe's interest in fire as primarily psychosexual in nature. I aim to show that the characters most attracted to fire use it successfully as a tool to gain power-indeed for Marlowe fire is life-yet are also attracted to ice. It is ice rather than fire that they associate with what they most deeply desire and love, though its traditional association with chastity and frigidity complicates Marlowe's idea of the erotic. The ideal animates his characters as much as the physical element of sexuality. I shall take Tamburlaine the Great as my prime example but shall also draw on other plays to make my points.

To some extent, Marlowe's interest in fire can be seen as a cultural rather than a personal one. He lived in an age when fire was visible and significant in a number of ways. Fireships were, for instance, a prominent weapon in the fight against the Spanish Armada, for which the Canterbury trained bands, including Marlowe's father John, were mustered.2 Not for nothing was a major film about the Armada named Vire over England (1937), directed by William K. Howard. Burning was also the weapon of choice against religious dissidence of any sort, as we are reminded in The Massacre at Paris:

ONE. Now, sirrah, what shall we do with the admiral?

TWO. Why, let us burn him for a heretic. (11.1-2)3

Anyone brought up, as Marlowe was, in Canterbury, would also have been aware of the dismantling of the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury and the burning of the saint's bones, and Marlowe might also have heard about the burning for heresy of Francis Kett, formerly fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, at Norwich Castle in 1589.4 Burning could also be used against things as well as people. In October 1592 the Catholic propagandist Richard Verstegan reported that Sir Robert Sidney had burned almost all his books and feared damnation.5 After his death, Marlowe's own All Ovid's Elegies was burnt at Stationers' Hall by order of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Marlowe in his lifetime imagined such a scene of book-burning in 2 Tamburlaine. Moreover, Richard Wilson notes that Peter Butterworth speaks of a general "Theatre of Fire" on the Tudor stage, but that Lawrence Manley has drawn attention to the unusual reliance, in works staged by Marlowe's actors, Lord Strange's Men, on "playing with fire."6

I am by no means the first critic to focus on Marlowe's interest in fire. Wilson calls Marlowe "the poet of panic and pyrotechnics" and argues that "the physical act of kindling flames and the poetics of fire are at the core of his dramaturgy, from the start of what may have been his first work: when the shipwrecked Aeneas commands his men to 'reach the tinder box.'"7 Rick Bowers also comments on the red-hot spit, though he reads it primarily as a pointed instrument, and Harry Levin has observed Marlowe's fondness for fire, while Matthew Proser called his book on Marlowe The Gift of Fire. …

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