Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Marlowe's Ars Moriendi

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Marlowe's Ars Moriendi

Article excerpt

The late medieval ars moriendi (art of dying) fascinated early modern English playwrights. It was related to the danse macabre tradition in Western art represented in painting, statuary, and even dramatic spectacles, as John Carpenter's civic mural Dance ofPoulys (c. 1420) and John Lydgate's "Dance of Death" poetry (c. 1425) both imply.1 It is not surprising, then, that the tragedies of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are replete with memorable lines that echo the lessons espoused in popular tracts devoted to the ars moriendi. Near the end of both Hamlet (1600) and King Hear (1605), characters contemplate the destruction that surrounds them as Denmark's prince proclaims, "The readiness is all" (5.2.160), while Edgar similarly instructs his blind and broken father, "Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all." (5.2.9-11).2 Death is inevitable, yet Hamlet and Edgar find solace in meeting the end with careful preparation. Along these lines, Malcolm describes the traitorous Thane of Cawdor's final earthly moments in Macbeth (1606): "Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it. He died / As one that had been studied in his death" (1.4.7-9). Despite having betrayed king and country, Cawdor's "studied" passing is admirable, a moment of careful, thoughtful control in an otherwise tempestuous sequence of events.

Similarly, Marlowe recognized the theatrical potential in the craft of dying and returned to it often and with great dramatic effect throughout the course of his career. In both parts of Tamburlaine the Great., for instance, a whole cast of characters meet a variety of creative ends, some embracing death stoically, like Olympia who fools the love-struck Theridamas into slitting her throat, while others such as Bajazeth and Zabina despair and ££brain" themselves on their cages. In Doctor Faustus, often noted for its relationship with the medieval world, Marlowe makes substantial use of the ars moriendi. While it has been suggested that the play is structured around this material, it is likely the playwright's familiarity with the tradition infiltrates the work in a more organic manner.3 Indeed, Faustus's awareness of the art of dying, especially in the fifth act, is undeniable. When Marlowe turns his attention to The Jens of Malta, however, he makes a significant change in the depiction of the artful death. The matter is no longer devoted to dying well but to the pleasure of revenge instead, the joy derived from cleverly crafting the deaths of others.

This essay seeks to situate Marlowe's work within the ars moriendi tradition, revealing his playfully subversive understanding of the art and craft of dying. He interrogates the idea of the comfort provided by these ££how-to" manuals, repeatedly situating characters so that they are forced to contemplate their impending deaths. Yet tellingly, few, if any, find comfort in their final moments. Barabas especially reveals the playwright's complexity of thought on the subject since the Jew of Malta is virtually obsessed with the artful death, orchestrating and executing a number of intricately plotted murders until he falls victim to his own machinations. In this way, Marlowe's plays reveal a medieval sensibility, specifically that old comforts must give way to new understandings of one's place, albeit a lonely and often tragic one, at the end of life.

In the later Middle Ages, death comes into focus through the ars moriendi tracts, works that emphasized the Christian's preparation for the judgment of the afterlife, regardless of the fear or terror it might evoke.4 Appearing in the early fifteenth century as the lengthy and anonymous Tractatus artis bene moriendi (c. 1415), the work was translated into every European language, with English copies appearing as early as 1450. A shorter version, popularly titled Ars Moriendi, was redacted from the larger tract, though both works served to synthesize wide-ranging medieval views on death, emphasizing the promise of Christ's death and resurrection. …

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