Magazine article The Spectator

The World of Christopher Marlowe

Magazine article The Spectator

The World of Christopher Marlowe

Article excerpt

The cloak-and-dagger poet THE WORLD OF CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE by David Riggs Faber, £25, pp. 397, ISBN 0571221599

It is almost impossible to write a good biography of Shakespeare. His plays contain at once too much and too little for the biographer; his extraordinary impersonality means that he hardly ever reveals his hand. Every voice has its counter-voice; no single character speaks on behalf of the author.

Christopher Marlowe, by contrast, is a biographer's dream. Whereas Shakespeare vanished into each of his characters, Marlowe stamped his trademark onto his singular anti-heroes: Tamburlaine the Great rising from Scythian shepherd to conqueror of the world, Dr Faustus making his contract with Mephistopheles, King Edward II putting his desires above his crown (with Piers Gaveston in the role of Mrs Simpson). Shakespeare quietly withdraws himself from the worlds he depicts in his plays, just as he eventually withdrew himself from London to his handsome house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Marlowe throws himself into his dramas of power, sex, intrigue and ambition, just as he threw himself into the dangerous world of religious controversy, counterfeiting and espionage. His lurid death in Deptford at the age of 29 was as apt an end to his life as Shakespeare's leisured retirement was to his.

Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare and from the same kind of stock. Each was the eldest son of a provincial burgher who worked in the leather trade (John Shakespeare the glover, John Marlowe the shoemaker). Both benefited from the Tudor educational revolution that made grammar-school learning available to middle-class boys. But then their paths diverged: Marlowe went to university and Shakespeare did not. Cambridge was the making - and marring - of Marlowe.

David Riggs is right to entitle his splendid new biography The World of Christopher Marlowe. He adopts exactly the right approach, skilfully weaving the fragmentary biographical record into the broader intellectual context. So, for example, Marlowe's movements in his student years can be traced from entries in the surviving buttery book at Corpus Christi College. This has long been known to scholars, but Riggs goes much further: he investigates the lives of Marlowe's college contemporaries, the religious and intellectual affiliations of his tutors, the nature of the university curriculum and how it shaped the mind of the dramatist.

Riggs is especially good on the two great scandals that were, in the view of contemporaries, the rotten core of Marlowe's life: sodomy and atheism. Whereas Shakespeare's bisexual imagination gave us the glories of Rosalind and Cleopatra, Marlowe seems to have been pathologically unable to write the woman's part. The most memorable aspect of his Dido, Queen of Carthage is the play's opening sequence depicting the pederastic relationship between the god Jupiter and his cupbearer Ganymede. A production of his Edward II with Ian McKellen was, fittingly, the occasion for British television's first-ever homosexual snog, whilst Queer Edward II was among the last and finest achievements of Derek Jarman. Riggs makes sense of all this by way of the domestic arrangements in the single-sex university. Cambridge queers, Cambridge spies: that great 400-year tradition brought to an end by the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise of the co-ed college. …

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