MNC Book Report: The World of Christopher Marlowe, David Riggs
I feel bad for having not read this entire book, but it’s no reflection on the quality; I just conceded defeat on getting through the entire thing in one day, and quit once I’d passed into the stuff that will be happening after Midnight Never Come is over.
The moronic thing is, I had to read this book to find out whether I needed to read this book. Less cryptically, I was trying to decide once and for all whether or not Kit Marlowe is going to be a character in MNC. There are vague reasons to put him in, and vague reasons not to, so I decided I’d read a biography of him and see if any historical felicities offered themselves for use. (A rather large amount of this novel is built on such foundations.) As it turns out, no such felicities were to be found, at least not ones that are compelling enough to shoehorn themselves into MNC. Marlowe was mostly involved with Burghley, not Walsingham, and his involvement with the other Walsingham (i.e. Sir Thomas, not Sir Francis) mostly grew up after the point at which I’m writing.
So Kit is likely to be
Sir Gay-Atheist-Spy Not Appearing In This Book. Having said that, I do quite like Riggs’ work, and if I don’t end up reading the remainder, it’ll be because I’m getting bloody sick of the sixteenth century, not because I didn’t like the biography.
The big selling point of this book, to me, is that it grounds itself thoroughly in the historical and cultural context of the period. Which is making a virtue of necessity: Riggs points out in the prologue that we know precious few facts about Marlowe’s adult life, and the documents relating to him are either written by him in the voice of another (i.e. plays and poems and translations), or else written about him by other people; he left behind precisely one “first-person utterance” (as Riggs terms it). You can’t get at Marlowe directly; you have to reconstruct him from oblique evidence. To quote Riggs again, “All the evidence about his mutinous cast of mind sits at one remove from his own voice [. . .] He is an irretrievably textual being.”
Which means this book approaches the “gay atheist spy” trifecta by contextualizing the indirect evidence in more concrete facts about the period. Take the notion of Marlowe as a homosexual: Riggs denies that the term as we understand it today would fit Marlowe, since “homosexuality” as such did not exist in the Elizabethan mind. Sodomy was a behavior, not an identity, and was linked with other behaviors like heresy and treason. But given the social context in which Marlowe lived during a goodly chunk of his life; the way that his education promoted homosocial behavior, intimate male bonding, and sharing a bed with other men; and the kinds of classical texts to which he was exposed during that education, there are basically two options for his sexual behavior: either he was celibate, or he was a sodomite. There simply weren’t any women in his vicinity for him to do anything with. And sodomy certainly did happen.
As far as atheism goes, I was floored by the detailed discussion of Elizabethan higher education. Its purpose was to turn out good little leaders of the Church of England, but its design . . . well, let’s just say I’m surprised more of the men who went through it didn’t end up Catholics, Puritans, or atheists. Teaching young men to defend and attack arguments as a logical exercise, without any particular concern for the truth of the argument, nor any particular intent to arrive at a conclusion, seems a pretty good way to guarantee they end up casting a cynical eye on the things you then tell them to believe.
This book deserved better attention than I was able to give it, but I was conducting a high-speed reading with a specific purpose. In particular, I would like to come back to it some day when I’m more familiar with Marlowe’s writings: I started really skimming a ways into the detailed discussion of Tamburlaine, even though it was less a lit-crit analysis of the text and more a survey of how it fit into the political and theatrical scene of the 1580s. Then I read the Faustus chapter, skipped ahead to his death, and quit.
I don’t think Kit will be in this novel, except very, very peripherally. Which is a pity. But I’m not going to cram him in just for the sake of the Marlowe fangirls, even if I am one myself.