- Christopher Marlowe and the Failure to Unifyby Andrew Duxfield
Scholarship has often focused on the role of excess in the plays of Christopher Marlowe, from his overreaching protagonists and their aggrandizing dreams of imperial expansion or accumulation of riches and knowledge to the sumptuousness of the playwright's "mighty line" and the exotic worlds created by Marlowe's language. Andrew Duxfield's study instead focuses on "the process of reduction and the ideal of unity" exhibited in Marlowe's tragedies (1). Noting the widespread concerns in the 1580s over "the discordance of society and desire [End Page 113]for a move towards unity" (3), Duxfield argues that Marlovian drama explores such anxieties but does so in tension with his more typically noted emphasis on expansion, renegotiating and undercutting any attempt at reduction via the sheer ambiguity of the plays (1). The drive to unity as Duxfield describes it encompassed state, personal, and spiritual concerns (5), and is treated skeptically by Marlowe, who consistently produces an air of "moral ambiguity" in his tragedies, often through irresolution (5).
The first chapter, on Dido, Queen of Carthage, argues that Marlowe "presents the world as an indeterminate and ambiguous place which is resistant to reductive, unifying projects" (37), focusing on the moral ambiguity of Marlowe's Aeneas (his indecisiveness and lack of chivalry) and his failure to live up to Virgilian expectations. Authority itself is ambiguous in the world of Dido, where the petty and humanized role of the gods serves "to deny the audience a stable moral framework on which to build their interpretation of the play" (22). "Moral indeterminacy" is also fostered by the dichotomizing of duty and desire in this play, which serves as an "integral device" for the interrogation of authority (28). The reduction of the translatio imperiimyth to a vehicle for English imperial propaganda is resisted and problematized, and the attempt to unify through "national self-fashioning" (33) is seen as highly fraught.
The megalomaniac Tamburlaine's attempts to "subdue the known world and unify it under his yoke" (39) is the focus of chapter 2, where the infinite variety of the world ultimately cannot be reduced to a map to confute blind geographers. Duxfield argues that a "profound uneasiness" accompanies the plays' attempts at colonial and cartographic reduction (46), and that Tamburlaine's ultimate failure is the result of the disjunction between his reductive view of the world and himself (he thinks only in absolutes) and the more complex reality. The moral, physiological, and religious ambiguities of the protagonist are examined, the latter (especially his oscillation between acknowledging various faiths and remaining atheistic) preventing him from "creating a spiritually unified self-projection" (54). Familial and emotional factors further contribute to the fundamental inability of Tamburlaine to reduce complexity to a unified and unitary identity (63).
In chapter 3, Doctor Faustus's failure to achieve the "unification of knowledge" he so desperately craves (66) is seen as the source of his tragedy. The ambivalent nature of the protagonist's moral identity and the play's inherent generic ambiguity (caught midway, as it were, between a medieval morality play and a Renaissance tragedy, as numerous critics have noted) exacerbate the situation: the play displays "a sceptical awareness of the incompatibility of different ideologies that co-existed in this period" (87), offering to be everything but failing to unify as any one thing. An especially interesting contribution in this chapter is the reading of Marlowe's [End Page 114]play through the lens of Hermeticism and its attempts to reconcile religion with the pursuit of knowledge to "potentially provide a solution to the religio-political schism of the time" (87).
The possibility of religio-political unification is pursued further in chapter 4's focus on both The Jew of Maltaand The Massacre at Paris, and the tension in each between the "multitude" and the "individual." In Malta, Barabas famously occupies a "paradoxical state of belonging and not belonging" (90), effectively sacrificed by the governor in order to bring about...