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'The World of Christopher Marlowe'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page BW15


By David Riggs. Henry Holt. 411 pp. $30

William Shakespeare, according to Keats, possessed "negative capability," that is, he was able to become so fully each of his characters that his own personality remains permanently elusive. As a result, we can never quite picture the creator of "Hamlet," "Henry IV" and "As You Like It": He contains multitudes, though he probably thought of himself as just another hard-working theater professional, a businessman of letters.

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Biographical information about Shakespeare is frustratingly sparse, and no more plentiful for his great contemporary Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), stabbed to death at age 29 in an argument over a tavern bill. But where Shakespeare is everyone and no one, Marlowe has passed into history as the most glamorous figure of England's literary Renaissance. Read his plays, and their melodramatic heroes -- the wizard Dr. Faustus, the conqueror Tamburlaine, the homosexual Edward II, the duplicitous Barabas -- might all be played by their flamboyant, youthful creator.

For in his time, and ever since, Marlowe has been viewed as the epitome of the intellectual over-reacher -- "I count religion but a childish toy,/ And hold there is no sin but ignorance." So says Barabas in "The Jew of Malta," but voicing what seems Marlowe's own opinions. Born in Canterbury, the young man first soaked up learning as a poor scholarship student at Cambridge, then became a translator, poet, playwright, atheist, sodomite, streetfighter, counterfeiter, spy and finally a man who knew too much for his own good. One afternoon Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer and Nicholas Skerres -- their very names are sinister -- enticed him to the Widow Bull's in Deptford, where they all ate and drank, then quarreled over "the reckoning." A struggle ensued, only to stop when Marlowe's own dagger, with his hand still around its hilt, was driven back through his right eye deep into his brain. Was it a contract killing, as many scholars now believe? "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight." Christopher Marlowe's life was suddenly over; his legend had just begun.

From the very first, "Kind Kit" Marlowe inspired deep emotions, affection from fellow writers like Thomas Nashe (who worked with him on "The Jew of Malta") and Thomas Kyd (his sometime roommate and the likely author of an early play about Hamlet, as well as "The Spanish Tragedy") but also envy, animosity and hatred. Yet even when his enemies attacked this upstart, they somehow portrayed him as insidiously attractive, an Elizabethan Rimbaud or Jim Morrison. His former school chum Gabriel Harvey tut-tutted that he neither "feared God, nor dreaded Div'll,/ Nor ought admired, but his wondrous selfe." Thomas Warton asserted that his translation of Ovid's Amores conveyed "the obscenities of the brothel in elegant language." (Quite true: In one love poem Marlowe boldly writes, "Lo, I confess, I am thy captive I,/ And hold my conquer'd hands for thee to tie"; another takes up sexual impotence.) It seems appropriate that this same genius should also have composed the most limpidly beautiful lyric of the age, "Come live with me, and be my love."

According to C.S. Lewis, in a memorable summation, Marlowe is "our great master of the material imagination; he writes best about flesh, gold, gems, stone, fire, clothes, water, snow, and air." Certainly, his one long poem, "Hero and Leander," portrays a delicious holiday-world, where beauty and sensuality are one. As Leander reminds the virginal Hero, acolyte of Venus:

. . . . The rites

In which love's beauteous empress most delights,

Are banquets, Doric music, midnight revel,

Plays, masques, and all that stern age counteth evil.

Many readers will recognize this poem's most famous couplet: "Where both deliberate, the love is slight;/ Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight?" Yet this "erotic epyllion" shimmers with sensuous passages, like this provocative description of Hero and Leander making love: "She trembling strove; this strife of hers (like that/ Which made the world) another world begat/ Of unknown joy." As always with Marlowe, he is particularly good at depicting the power of youthful male beauty. Of Leander he concludes that "Jove might have sipp'd out nectar from his hand" while he later describes a beautiful shepherd boy who "of the cooling river durst not drink,/ Lest water-nymphs should pull him from the brink."

Something of this elegant love-banter continues in the earliest of Marlowe's dramas, "Dido and Aeneas." Not as admired as his later tragedies, it is nonetheless a kind of stately opera in prose (and one that occasionally recalls Purcell's musical masterpiece of the same title). Consider any of Dido's last pleading speeches before Aeneas abandons her to sail for Rome. The heroine's sentiments are universal, and echo modern Country-and-Western heartbreakers as much as Vergil:

Why look'st thou toward the sea? The time hath been

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