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The Cambridge Introduction to Christopher Marlowe


Tom Rutter


Cambridge Introductions to Literature

Cambridge: University Press, 2012

Paperback. xiv + 149 p. ISBN 978-0521124300. £12.99


Reviewed by Jean-Jacques Chardin

Université de Strasbourg


The Cambridge Introduction to Christopher Marlowe by Tom Rutter is a short, engaging book targeted at students, teachers and lecturers. It covers familiar territory (the life and works of Marlowe) in an original way by combining a historical approach, an interest in performance and reader-response, and illuminating close readings of some passages of the plays and poems. Rutter’s information is always precise and every statement is traced back to a primary source (letters, Privy Council reports, the Baines note, plays by other dramatists...) The book is also well documented: Rutter is aware of much of the recent criticism on Marlowe’s life and works and he is also well informed on the history of theatre companies and on studies on gender and sexuality in early modern England, but he quotes his sources only sparsely, saving his reader from an ostentatious display of knowledge not fitted to this kind of work. Another strength of this book is the clarity and elegance of the exposition. Each chapter contains a short, economical introductory paragraph summarising what the analysis will be about and a conclusion which recapitulates the various issues discussed previously. The reader is also regularly reminded of some of the main points treated earlier.

The sequence of seven chapters, dealing first with Marlowe’s life and the context of the plays, followed by a terse, pungent reading of each of the plays and poems, to close on a finale entitled ‘Marlowe’s Afterlives’, is determined by a clearly discernible principle: Rutter’s intention is to establish the coherence of Marlowe’s work in its relationship with its epistemological context. By considering Elizabethan conceptions of politics, religion, sexuality and theatre, Rutter brings Marlowe’s texts fully in relation to their time. In the book’s opening section, Rutter avoids the legendary and often sensationalised elements of Marlowe’s life and analyses biographical details only to elicit fact that bear on the work. For instance, he informs the reader that the teaching of Latin, at Canterbury and then Cambridge, got Marlowe into close contact with a pagan world at variance with that propounded by the Church and taught him logical and rhetorical skills which he forcefully used for the writing of his plays, as Tamburlaine’s speech to Zenocrate (1Tam, 1.2.82-105) amply demonstrates. Rutter’s overall argument, and one can hardly disagree with him, is that the whole of Marlowe’s production is profoundly ambiguous, and it is precisely the various degrees of ambiguity which Rutter endeavours to lay bare in each of the plays and in the poetry.

Seen from the perspective of the dramatic output of the 1580s, the two parts of Tamburlaine form a problematic whole. Its structure draws upon earlier morality plays but the ending is not that expected, which, according to Rutter, is an indication that Marlowe is questioning the dramatic forms of his time. Rutter further contends that the central figure can be approached from opposite viewpoints: as a Muslim whose rise to power topples hierarchy, he is a threat to the world (his world and the world of Elizabethan England by contamination), but Tamburlaine’s conquering mind can also be seen as expressing a view of Empire shared by many Elizabethans. The play thus invites contradictory audience responses but also confronts the spectator with his lurid enjoyment of the protagonist’s acts of violence.

The Jew of Malta and The Massacre at Paris, treated in tandem, are approached in somewhat similar terms. Marlowe’s Jew is undoubtedly shaped by the anti-Semitic prejudices prevalent in early modern England, but the catoptric construction of the main figures (Barabas, Ithamore and Ferneze) makes it hard for the spectator to side, let alone identify, with any of the characters. Barabas confides in the audience and makes the spectator complicit in his evil, like Tamburlaine, a point from which Rutter is led to investigate the complex audience response to the play. Because of their sheer violence, The Jew and The Massacre force the spectator to question the very nature of aesthetic pleasure and to disentangle pleasure from moral approval.

Like the rest of the Marlowe canon, Dr Faustus is seen by Rutter as deeply rooted in the debates of the time over religion, science, art and magic. Rutter states that Faustus is not merely a seeker after knowledge and provides a reading of the play which relies on the impact of Lutheran theology upon Marlowe’s view of salvation: if predestination, a cornerstone theory of Elizabethan theology, denies Faustus control over his salvation, then compacting with the Devil is a means for him to shape his destiny. Rutter also very convincingly argues that the changes between the two Faustus texts (1604-1616) can be explained by the public’s taste for spectacular effects and striking moments.

The book also offers a fresh reading of Edward II, a play Rutter considers to be not about homosexuality (at least not about what a present-day reader understands by ‘homosexuality’) but about history, politics and public life. Rutter does not endorse the view that the play is an illustration of the Tudor ideology of Providentialism and contends instead that Edward II shows the co-existence of contradictory ways of understanding history. The point is certainly thought-provoking, although unfortunately rather weakly developed. More convincing is Rutter’s argument that the play leaves many unresolved questions. It is indeed difficult to chart Gaveston’s feelings for the King (desire or unrevealed ambition?), or even the Queen’s inner motivations.

The most original, although perhaps not the most successful, section of the book is the final chapter in which Rutter traces Marlowe’s afterlives in some seventeenth-century documents and modern productions of the plays on stage and in films. The author shows for instance how Petowe’s and Chapman’s completions of Hero and Leander are both alien to the original poem and conform to standards of early modern responses to Marlowe, which accepted the formal excellence of the texts and revised their potentially disturbing moral issues. He also argues that Tamburlaine became a template for later dramatists to write plays more in line with the dominant ideology of Providentialism and of the God-given power of kings. The last sub-sections provide insights into some productions of Marlowe’s plays, from the nineteenth century to more contemporary performances. Although Rutter is decently silent about his own theoretical affiliations, his aim in this book is to argue that a percipient reading of the Marlowe canon is dependent upon a specific understanding of the historical and aesthetic contexts in which the texts were produced but it is not always clear how the final chapter validates this central thesis.

Nonetheless, the minor infelicities of this book do not undermine the range and depth of Rutter’s study. It works through a kind of ‘cultural poetics’, testing literary texts against their contextual background, and proves a very valuable presentation of Marlowe’s works and life.


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