- The Aesthetics of Antichrist: From Christian Drama to Christopher Marlowe
John Parker's new book is considerably more wide-ranging and radical than its subtitle suggests. Rather than offering a conventional rereading of the early English theater, this provocative study draws on an impressive array of texts, including classical criticism, patristic writings, the Old and New Testaments and the apocrypha, to propose a reconsideration of the ideas and categories commonly used to approach Christian drama —a reconsideration, ultimately, of Christianity itself.
Christopher Marlowe is more than this book's endpoint: he is, in effect, its guiding spirit. His plays crystallize the paradoxes posed by the transition from sacred drama to the secular, commercial theater that occurred in sixteenth-century England. Beginning with the problems presented by these plays —especially by Dr. Faustus, which appears, to different eyes, conventionally religious or profoundly unorthodox —Parker argues that similar problems pervade the Christian texts that precede them. At his most heretical, Marlowe is also deeply traditional —precisely because the tradition he simultaneously fulfills and upends is fundamentally Marlovian (it seems relevant to note here that, as the book progresses, we learn that Christian writings repeatedly play with the Latin root of the word tradition, tradere, which means both "to hand over" and "to betray" [110–12]).
Parker argues that Christianity is marked by a thoroughgoing theatricality that [End Page 1031] transforms everything into "hypocrisy": he uses this last term in its technical sense to mean "the specific brand of feigning that pretends to repudiate whatever mimetic practice it most depends on" (16–17), but his argument clearly brings the wider meaning of the word into play. He focuses throughout on the figure of the Antichrist, which, he explains, foregrounds "the centrality to Christianity, though its many permutations, of playacting" (x). In all of its guises, Antichrist is both necessary to and virtually indistinguishable from its opposite. On the one hand, this figure allows for the displacement of accusations that Jesus was a trickster, a thief, and a magician, while covering up the extent to which the Gospels are themselves indebted to earlier theatrical forms; it thus allows Christianity to absorb the Jewish and pagan precursors it condemns. On the other hand, Antichrist points to an imminent Second Coming, and in so doing once more doubles Jesus, whose first appearance repeatedly gestures toward that time when Christian promises will be finally fulfilled. Mimetic parody and (always deferred) revelation are completely intertwined.
Parker develops these ideas at length in his complex and fascinating introduction. In the next three chapters he proposes to reevaluate "the terms in which medieval drama has traditionally been read: as a species of 'miracle' or as fundamentally 'typological' (chapter 1) or 'sacramental' (chapter 2) or 'parabiblical' (chapter 3)" (xi). While these terms —and their dark doubles, the theatrical, the commercial, and the ersatz copy—do, indeed, dominate their respective chapters, the separation among them is not as absolute as this outline suggests. Rather, in what is both the glory of this book and its most frustrating aspect, all of its ideas repeatedly interpenetrate and lead to one another. Each chapter is breathtaking in its scope and often dazzling in its analyses, and each demands at least two readings. Perhaps the most striking is chapter 2, "Blood Money," which focuses on the interconnections between financial exchange and Christian redemption —between the thirty pieces of silver accepted by Judas and the blood with which Jesus paid for the sins of humanity, between "the goods" and "the Good" (98ff.) —and considers the ways in which these interconnections, insistently present in the Eucharist, facilitated the money-making activities of the medieval church.
The final chapter returns to Marlowe and examines three of his plays along with their (anti-) Christian analogues: Dr. Faustus with Simon Magus, The Jew of Malta with Barabbas, and Tamburlaine with St. Paul (an Antichrist figure become an exemplary Christian). The readings of Faustus and, especially, The Jew of Malta play brilliantly on the contradictions that have been developed...