- Looking for Christopher Marlowe
Renaissance drama continually fascinates our postmodern sensibilities. On the most obvious level, the study and near-worship of all things Shakespearean has grown to the status of an industry, ranging from ever-evolving, highly theoretical scholarship [End Page 213] to play productions (one can hardly call them revivals) and films of varying quality, to the near-theme park atmosphere that surrounds those revered landmarks, the Globe Theater and the Stratford-Upon-Avon properties. It is no wonder that this fascination continues to flourish—Shakespeare plays both exude the hope and joy of life (Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It) and ruminate on the dark, mysterious aspects of human existence (Hamlet and King Lear). And anyone who has read or seen the plays recently realizes that both light and dark elements almost always pervade each play in the tragic-comic milieu that constitutes the hallmark of Shakespeare's art. We find, no doubt, much in these plays that reflects our own postmodern condition, which boasts of near-miraculous advances in technology and science and simultaneously presents scenes of unimaginable horror with the advent of global terrorism. If we examine more closely the Renaissance canon, however, we may conclude that the dramatist whose work more nearly mirrors and recognizes our world of beauty and terror is not the Bard, but his immediate forbearer, Christopher Marlowe. The recognition of this postmodern affinity with the work of the "bad boy" of the Renaissance forms one of several links among the three volumes reviewed in this essay. Each work also acknowledges and participates in a shift in the focus of Marlowe scholarship from the traditional and understandable absorption in Marlowe's sketchy but oh-so-intriguing biography to an attempt to forge a more singularly critical response to his poems and plays. Of course, the persona of the seemingly irredeemable malcontent pervades Marlowe scholarship, consciously or unconsciously; however, these works, two single authored books and a collection of essays, acknowledge this predilection and attempt to overcome its temptation. Yet each work, of necessity, also participates in the murky, uncertain study of a man about whom little is known and much is suspected. In fairness to anyone searching for the historical Marlowe, many barriers exist, including the seven variations on his surname that have been connected with his life and work. To compensate for this troublesome situation, for years critics concentrated on the more sensational aspects of Marlowe's life, his glorious poetry—his "mighty line"—and his singularly important contribution to English prosity—iambic pentameter blank verse.
However, beginning in the late 1990s, possibly with Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning (revised in 2002), Renaissance biography (and consequently scholarship) took a different direction. Sometimes labeled "speculative biography," this new approach sanctions the supplementation of historical facts about the subject and his or her writings with plausible explanations of events using general cultural conditions or historical events. This approach unsurprisingly draws fire from purists and praise from contextualists; perhaps the true value lies in the via media, in a blend of appreciation and skepticism [End Page 214] for emphasis on both solid historical knowledge about an individual and the evidence offered by the record of the times in which he or she lived.
David Riggs had the ill-fortune to publish The World of Christopher Marlowe soon after the premiere of Stephen Greenblatt's Will and the World. Had the situation been reversed, The World of Christopher Marlowe might have received wider critical acclaim. For while Riggs follows the expected biographer's course of considering the known facts about his subject's life and of linking the circumstances of that life to themes and plot lines of the poems and plays, this biographer also conjectures about how the times in which his subject lived influenced his art. This strategy, also employed...