Fortune's Breath: Rewriting the Classical Storm in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare

By Preedy, Chloe Katherine | Marlowe Studies, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Fortune's Breath: Rewriting the Classical Storm in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare


Preedy, Chloe Katherine, Marlowe Studies


Critics often identify Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe's play Dido, Queene of Carthage as a significant precursor for William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606-7), as well as his more explicitly Virgilian drama The Teinpest (1611). The narratives of these three plays are regularly linked back to thcAeneid(c. 30-19 BCE), and interpreted in terms of early modern colonial discourse. While the theme of empire-brdlding is of central importance in these dramas, the emphasis that all three plays place on the staging of Virgilian storms suggests that the Aeneiďs prophetic and literary antecedents may be equally significant. Marlowe and Shakespeare's fictional tempests allow them to raise and pursue questions about the nature of theatrical authorship, the concept of a discrete imaginative sphere, and the charged issue of literary legacy or fama. Storms in these plays thus provide a medium through which to engage with and dispute standards of theatrical authority within the context of the purposededicated playhouses, as this article investigates.

When the 1588 Spanish Armada encountered severe gales in the northern Atlantic, which destroyed nearly a third of the fleet, English Protestant commentators claimed the storm as a sign of God's care for England. As the pamphleteer I. L. reported in 1589, "the breath of the Lords mouth hath . . . scattered those proud shippes, whose masts seemed like Cedars to dare the Sunne."1 Contemporary medallions struck to commemorate the English victory similarly declared that "Flevit Deus et inimiá dissipaninC (God breathed upon the waters and scattered his enemies).2 Such claims gained additional resonance after a second Spanish invasion fleet was wrecked by gales in October 1596, tliis time without any intervention by the Elizabethan navy:3 God, English Protestants declared, was protecting his new chosen nation, his "little Israel. "4

Such allusions to storms, divine providence and England's destiny situate these discourses within a wider tradition of early modern meteorology. As Alexandra Walsham has shown, a whole range of celestial apparitions, from destructive tempests to visions in the clouds, were identified by contemporary pamphleteers, divines, and scholars as sermons inscribed by God in the sky.5 The apocalyptic framework through which these phenomena were read accords with a general tendency to look for omens of the future in heavenly and meteorological occurrences. Thus, as Gwilym Jones explores in Shakespeare's Storms (2015), contemporaries debated the significance of hearing thunder on a particular day: Thomas Hill, for example, notes in Iris Contemplation of Mysteries (1574) how "the learned Beda wryteth . . . that if thunder be first heard out of the South quarter, threatneth the death of many by shipwrack;" while according to Leonard Digges, "Some write (their ground I see not) that Sundayes thunder, should bring the death of learned men, Judges and others."6 As in the case of the Spanish Armada, such prophetic interpretations (although denounced by many writers as false superstition) were often applied to meteorological events that were perceived to be politically significant. One instance is the "prodigious storm" that occurred in March 1599, as "the Earle of Essex parted from London to goe for Ireland": according to biographer Alison Weir, Francis Bacon would subsequently remember the "furious" weather as an "ominous prodigy" foretelling Essex's predestined downfall.7

In characterizing the 1599 storm as an omen of Essex's future, it is possible that some Elizabethan and Jacobean commentators may have recognized an intriguing literary parallel in Lucan's De Bello Civili (c. 61-65 CE). Edward Paleit has demonstrated the notoriety that comparisons between Essex and Lucan's Caesar, as drawn by Essex's supporter Henry Cuffe, acquired during the latter's 1601 trial for treason.8 In this context, it is interesting to note that Lucan's account of the cloudy sides that greet Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon posits a potential connection between the celestial phenomenon and Caesar's imperial destiny-although, in Essex's case, the outcome of his 1599 battle for England's Irish empire was inconclusive, and even disastrous. …

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