The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0048 Tuesday, 11 January 2005
From: Richard Burt <
Date: Monday, 10 Jan 2005 11:11:23 -0500
Subject: Review of Rigg's Marlowe Book
Marlowe's poetically odd life, presented in context
The World of Christopher Marlowe David Riggs John Macrae/Henry Holt: 414
By George Garrett
Special to The Times
December 28, 2004
More than 400 years after his death in what was officially described as
a drunken brawl, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) remains a fascinating,
enigmatic, greatly gifted and mysterious character.
As poet and playwright he earned the admiration (and envy) of his peers
and exercised a large influence on the literature of the Elizabethan
Age, particularly on many of its best and brightest writers, including
William Shakespeare. He was praised for his poems, for his translations
of Ovid and Lucan, and above all for his plays: the thunder and
lightning of "Tamburlaine the Great"; the savagery of "The Jew of
Malta"; the shocking horror of "Edward II"; the spooky legend of "Doctor
Faustus"; and others that filled the theaters and opened up a wealth of
possibilities for a generation of playwrights.
Although he did not invent blank verse, the iambic pentameter beat that
has haunted poetry in English since, he transformed it from a rigid
hippety-hop into a free and highly flexible instrument, what Ben Jonson
called "Marlowe's mighty line." His critics, especially among the
Puritans, saw him as a paradigm of the life of vice, an atheistic,
drunken, blasphemous sodomite (their word), one whose violent death was
He was also known to the law for diverse criminal activities including
assault, counterfeiting (a capital crime) and at least one homicide for
which he was pardoned. A few knew him as an "intelligencer," a spy who
performed a number of missions at home and abroad.
No surprise, then, that he has captured the attention of scholars and
the imagination of many fiction writers, especially in our age of double
agents and antiheroes. Among the best of the novels stands Anthony
Burgess' "A Dead Man in Deptford" (1993); the most recent of important
scholarly discoveries are to be found in Charles Nicholl's "The
Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe" (1994).
David Riggs' "The World of Christopher Marlowe" brings it all together
brilliantly, assembling all evidence of Marlowe's life and adding to
that a wider and deeper focus. What Riggs has done, and done so well, is
to place Marlowe squarely in the Elizabethan world, giving us everything
we need to know about people, places and institutions, and from which we
can justly infer a full story.
We come to know his family and the Canterbury of his childhood. We learn
precisely what he studied in school there and then at Corpus Christi
College at Cambridge, where he had a scholarship and earned his academic
degrees. We know now what he studied and what he ate and drank in the
Buttery, where he lived and who his roommates were and what became of them.
We follow him to London and the theater in the 1580s, until the still
mysterious evening of May 30, 1593, when Marlowe was killed by Ingram
Frizer, who successfully (and a little too easily) claimed self-defense.
It was a complex - and still unsettled - event involving figures of the
highest rank, including some from Queen Elizabeth's court. We are given
the benefit of Riggs' critical acumen as he examines the poems and plays
and relates them to Marlowe's life and times.
Riggs has long since earned his laurels as a scholar-critic with
"Shakespeare's Heroical Histories" and "Ben Jonson: A Life." Here he
does a superb job, bringing together a treasury of pertinent information
about Marlowe and his age, all the while maintaining a smooth narrative
flow. Scholarly apparatus - notes, bibliography, index and illustrations
- is at once thorough and unobtrusive.
This book should be the definitive account of Marlowe and his world for
a long time to come
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