Quotation of the Week: 20 August 2018 (#54)

Marlowe didn’t join them; he wanted to beat them, I think …

BH marlowe malcontent

Marlowe increasingly seems a malcontent, fringe figure, occupying some very liminal spaces indeed on the shadowy edges of society …

Three weeks ago, I suggested that Marlowe had ‘learned too much at school‘,  contributing to his generally accepted ‘atheism’.  This week’s quote follows that, to consider his attitude to class … it also provides another useful adition to our store of understanding of why EMP writers wrote in the florid (at least to modern ears) style that they did.  Getting to grips with this is, I maintain, key to deciphering the texts.

So, firstly to rhetorical style.  Here, David Riggs is talking about a typical grammar school rhetorical exercise:

Exercise Four, the pupil’s first lesson on arguing a thesis, began with a nugget of proverbial wisdom” ‘To flee poverty, O Cyrnus, one must fall down from the rocky heights into the sea.’ In the sections that followed, Christopher proved this thesis with arguments drawn from the ‘places’ of paraphrase (the poor should be content to die), cause and effect (since the poor do not form a good character when they are young, they will do bad things in adulthood), contrast (the rich do form a good character when they are young), comparison (just as chains obstruct action, poverty hinders freedom of speech), example (when Odysseus pretended to be poor he was thrown out of his house) and the testimony of the ancients (Euripides says that it is evil to be in want since poverty is inconsistent with nobility of the soul). Once the pupil had mastered this system, he had essentially completed the grammar-school course on rhetoric. Aphthonius was easy to understand and enormously popular; everyone used him.[a]

My emphasis on the rhetorical journey taught to Marlowe, Shakespeare and their contemporaries.  My students could do worse than think about those ‘stations’ along the way from A to B.

Next, to what unintended lessons someone like Marlowe will have taken from Aphthonius, as it applied to Elizabethan England:

In working through this lesson, Marlowe not only acquired the rudimentary forms of classical rhetoric; he also learned the rudimentary ideology of a two-class society. The text of Exercise Four divides humanity into two innate species, the rich and the poor, whilse stigmatizing the latter as crooked, reprehensible, ignorant, venal, homeless and mean-spirited. Aphthonius presents poverty as an all-ecompassing destiny. If you want to escape from it, jump off a cliff! The poor must remain in their place. At the same time, however, grammar school encouraged the poor boys who toiled at Exercise Four to imagine that they could actually flee poverty if they gained enough verbal expertise.

Frankly, it’s no surprise that Marlowe was a rebel.  An intelligent, gifted man, he perhaps had a revolutionary streak in him that Shakespeare lacked, or maybe a desire to tear down the system rather than succeed within its strictures: to beat them rather than join them. Translate Marlowe into the 21st century via the time machine we use to go back to 1592, and he would certainly have been involved in the Resist movement – although we have to concede that he might have inflitrated it to report on it to the authorities, if he thought it would do him some good.

Let’s go all Althussian for a moment.  The ‘superstructures’ upon which society depended were systematically exposed under sustained intellectual interrogation (much as they might now?) – the constant switching of ‘true faith’ must inevitably have challenged a thinking-man’s notion of ‘divine right’.  Similarly, we have the circularity of the lesson about poverty that Marlowe and Shakespeare were taught, as an example of how the superstructure of the class system viewed the poor.  Marlowe simply didn’t have the temperament to knuckle down and know his place, where a meritocracy would have seen his worth recognised and rewarded.  Where Shakespeare appears to probe the politics of the day in his plays, Marlowe wanted, perhaps needed, action.

He had an almost prophetic impatience, as if he anticipated his own early death and wanted to ‘make it’ before his time ran out …


[a] 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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