QotW: 30 July 2018 (#51)

Marlowe probably DID make a hazard of his head by easing his heart …

BH pulp

The more I read about Marlowe, the more I like and sympathise with him – arrogant, frustrated genius, malcontent, morally questionable, and attention-whore as he may have been.  I sense a kindred spirit: my best friend would say the same about me – perhaps with a lot more arrogance and a lot less genius.  As I get older, I like to think that my moral code is finally begining to crystallise, where it was entirely fluid 25 years ago, but then Marlowe never had the opportunity to mellow …

Increasingly, I see Marlowe as the kind of ‘mis-shapeJarvis Cocker sung about in 1995:

we weren’t supposed to be
We learned too much at school now we can’t help but see
That the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about [a]

Amongst the many charges levelled against Marlowe in his life, he was described as an ‘atheist’.  David Riggs‘ excellent biography persuasively examines how an intelligent, educated man like Marlowe might easily, almost inevitably, anticipate Marx‘s famous comment that:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people. [b]

The playwright’s main downfall – his hamartia – may have been that he was too eager to discourse on his views.    Elizabeth I might well have said:

I would not open windows into men’s souls. [c]

But our hero seems to have worn his on his sleeve (as Iago might have said).  Or, like the more honest Harry Percy:

I will ease my heart,
Albeit I make a hazard of my head. [d]

I admire Marlowe (and Hotspur) for that, even if it made their lives that much more tumultuous.

Marlowe’s healthily sceptical attitude to religion (as Gramsci and Althusser might support) is probably a post for another time, and it’s one I’m interested in, as an ex-Catholic.  For now, it’s worth looking at what Riggs has to say about why atheism was such a serious allegation against Marlowe:

Early modern unbelievers usually did not dispute the existence of God; they denied God’s capacity to intervene in their lives via the Son and the Holy Ghost. The first wave of unbelievers rejected a fearsome God who used the threat of punishment to discipline unruly subjects. […] The fear of God was the bedrock of moral order in Marlowe’s England. His contemporaries assumed that anyone who did not dread the hand of divine correction would sin with reckless abandon.

The common synonyms for the new coinage were ‘epicure’ and ‘libertine’. Just as atheism literally means ‘without God’, these words implied a condition of freedom (however delusory) from the discipline of divine law. During Marlowe’s lifetime, atheism, a category unknown to the pre-Reformation world, became the ‘sin of sins’. [e]

If anyone lived their lives with ‘reckless abandon’, Marlowe has to be up there with the best (the closest contemporary figure I can recall being Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex) …

Here I see real links to the concept of Machiavellian ruthlessness, which again had little favourable to say about God, conscience or divine retribution.  In Edward II, it is especially evident what is surely the most autobiographical part of the play: Spenser Jr’s advice to Baldock – where we hear the unmistakeable and cynical voice of a man for whom wit and education have only got so far.  Downgrade the ambition for the supreme job a little, and I’m reminded here of Richard, Duke of Gloucester in 3HVI:

Why, then, I do but dream on sovereignty;
Like one that stands upon a promontory,
And spies a far-off shore where he would tread,
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye,
And chides the sea that sunders him from thence,
Saying, he’ll lade it dry to have his way:
So do I wish the crown, being so far off;
And so I chide the means that keeps me from it;
And so I say, I’ll cut the causes off,
Flattering me with impossibilities. [d]


[a] Pulp, ‘Mis-shapes’, (Cocker, Banks, Mackey, et al, 1995)

[b] http://www.marxists.org

[c] www.oxfordreference.com

[d] all Shakespeare quotations taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org

[e] David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe, (Faber & Faber:  London, 2004)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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