- The Cambridge Introduction to Christopher Marlowe by Tom Rutter
In The Cambridge Introduction to Christopher Marlowe, Tom Rutter neatly guides the reader to a solid understanding of the life and works of this seminal Elizabethan playwright. With his deep passion for and knowledge of Marlowe, Rutter crafts a series of fascinating chapters using an expressive writing style.
Rather than gravitating primarily to Marlowe’s death and Doctor Faustus, Rutter engages with the playwright’s full body of work and the shaping events of his life. Instead of a chronological approach, he arranges the chapters to best illustrate the historical contexts of each subject. Rutter gives Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II their own chapters, as they require the most contextualization. The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris are linked in a single chapter via their subject matter, and Dido, Queen of Carthage gets grouped with his poetry because together they represent frequently sidelined aspects of Marlowe’s work. The most discussed play in the book is not Faustus but Tamburlaine; Rutter argues its major significance to the Elizabethan theatre as well as its importance as a platform for Marlowe’s dramatic voice; he wants contemporary readers to understand it as a better representation of Marlowe’s critical place in the Elizabethan theatrical world than Faustus. These chapters are bookended by an opening chapter on Marlowe’s life and his historical environment and a concluding chapter exploring the approaches taken to his work by selected critics and theatre professionals following his death.
One of the major draws of the book is Rutter’s ability to provide the introductory reader with a historical lens through which to conceptualize the religious and political atmosphere in which the playwright lived. In two pages (9–10), he develops a succinct view of the Protestant Reformation that colors the cultural climate in which Marlowe’s works were witnessed. Rutter devotes much analysis to the political implications of representing national leaders on stage in the sixteenth century. His thorough exploration of the stakes involved in representing religious viewpoints outside of the Church of England—whether Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or atheist—as well as English nationalist sentiments following the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588 convinces the reader of the visionary, poignant, and sometimes tolerant ideas Marlowe conceived in an era marred by religious turmoil and political uncertainty.
Perhaps Rutter’s most exciting revelation is how much we actually know about Christopher Marlowe. Due to his financial and legal troubles (perhaps [End Page 268] troublemaking is more accurate), a treasure trove of legal documents exposes a great number of certainties that help us understand the innovative playwright. Rutter points out Marlowe’s brushes with the law as evidence for his argument that Marlowe’s writings deliberately oppose the value systems inherent in the Elizabethan era. The introduction includes a four-page section of key dates spanning seventy-five years, most taken from legal documents. This is incredibly helpful since the book, for the most part, is organized to focus on one or more works of Marlowe rather than a given time period; the chronology allows the reader to accurately place Marlowe’s work in a proper historical context.
Rutter carefully navigates the waters of comparison encircling Marlowe and Shakespeare. Instead of crafting a “Marlowe is better” head-on collision, Rutter often acknowledges his own admiration for Shakespeare while simultaneously examining how Marlowe’s writings and, perhaps just as importantly, the Elizabethan public’s reactions to Marlowe’s writings, influenced the Bard. Shakespeare receives only cursory mentions, used in The Cambridge Introduction to better help the reader relate to Marlowe, due in large part to the reader’s presumably more familiar relationship with Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. Shakespeare’s indebtedness to Marlowe is made clear; Marlowe did not need Shakespeare as much as Shakespeare needed him, regardless of how today’s readers and theatregoers may conceive of these Elizabethan writers.
My only real criticism stems from the absence of synopses of Marlowe’s plays. As this text...