- Placing the Plays of Christopher Marlowe: Fresh Cultural Contexts
In her introduction to this new collection of essays deriving primarily from the Fifth International Marlowe Conference in 2003, Sara Munson Deats declares that it marks a movement away from the biographical scholarship that "has tended to steal the spotlight" in the past two decades towards a renewed focus on text and performance (2). While there were certainly many excellent examples of this focus in late twentieth-century Marlowe criticism, one sympathizes with the difficulties the editors must have experienced trying to find a unifying thread among their chapters. Other than a recurring interest in Faustus (acknowledged in both the cover illustration and the introduction) and secondarily in The Jew of Malta, there are few clear connections here. The book is divided into four major sections, but most of these pull together essays that differ widely in topic, methodology, and quality.
The first group, collected under the rubric "Marlowe and the Theater," seems particularly diverse. In "'Mark this show': Magic and Theater in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, " Sarah Deats traces parallels between magic and dramaturgy in the culture as a whole, focusing particularly on anti-theatrical pamphlets, and then shows how these operate in Marlowe's play. In the next chapter, theater historian Ruth Lunney finds that Edward II participates centrally in "a revolution in the London playhouses in the late 1580s and early 1590s" by replacing the traditional cautionary tale with dramatized ambiguities whose interpretation is left open to the [End Page 1425] audience (25). Stephanie Moss then provides an interesting account of Edmund Kean's 1818 production of The Jew of Malta, arguing that the failure of this production results from "the fragile tension between philo-Semitism and anti Semitism in the Romantic era" (59).
The second section is the most cohesive in the book, but it is also, in my view, the weakest. Each of the three essays here explores one example of a parent-child "dyad" in Marlowe's plays (4): Lagretta Lenker looks at the father-daughter pair in The Jew of Malta, Joyce Karpay considers mothers and sons in a number of plays, and Merry Perry examines fathers, sons, and the construction of masculinity. Each of these contributions seems reasonable and persuasive, but each also feels somewhat predictable.
In contrast, I found the third section, broadly titled "Marlowe, Ethics, and Religion," the most interesting. Although my own critical biases are quite different, the two essays I admired most here —and in the book as a whole —are among the most traditionally (and rigorously) historicist. In the first of these, Deborah Willis approaches Doctor Faustus from an original perspective, examining how it encapsulates early modern ideas about addiction, which differ markedly from our current medicalized theories. And in "Barabas and Charles I," John Parker argues for a strongly anti-Catholic (rather than simply anti-Christian) reading of The Jew of Malta, and goes on to demonstrate compellingly how such an interpretation enabled the use of the play, well after Marlowe's death, to criticize the court and the politics of Charles I. In another chapter, Rick Bowers makes some suggestive connections between Faustus and both early modern and contemporary academia, although his method of presentation is too self-consciously clever for my taste. The section is rounded out by William Hamlin's examination of the structure of hypocrisy and "misbelief" in The Jew of Malta (125ff.) and Christine McCall Probes's essay on the too-often-ignored Massacre of Paris.
The final section, "Marlowe and Shakespeare," begins with an contribution by Constance Brown Kuriyama; although framed by an argument for the importance of the individual author, the bulk of this essay is devoted to refuting Harold Bloom's negative assessment of Marlowe (and The Jew of Malta) when compared to Shakespeare (and The Merchant of Venice). Robert Logan then traces the "imprints of Doctor Faustus on The Tempest" (193), demonstrating how Shakespeare transformed Marlovian ideas into something...