Saturday, February 11, 2006

Tragicall Historie

Things at work have kept me very busy lately, and consequently I have been more than usual tired, which is why my blogging has been very sporadic over the last few months. That and my reading binge have made blogging with any regularity more difficult for me. For example, I just worked through an recently published scholarly biography about the 16th Century English playwright Christopher Marlowe, who died young, a dagger in the eye, in what could be described as a barroom brawl with some shady people.

Now, long ago when I was a young college lad, I directed the lighting for a stage production of Marlowe's "The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus", so naturally I took a look at the book about Marlowe when I saw it on the new book shelf at the local library, here in Clingerville in Red State America. The book certainly provided a flood of detail about university life in Cambridge, the Elizabethan spy network, the Privy Council, people getting tortured on the rack, intricate political intrigues among Tudor era aristocrats, women dying in childbirth, life in Canterbury and London and Shoeditch, when manly men ran around dressed in those funny lace collars; Reformation Wars, various bombastic actors, Tamburlane, the mysterious Thomas Dee, Thomas Walsingham, Sir Walter Raleigh, James VI of Scotland, various rogues, pamphleteer, lawsuits, corrupt judges, Puritans, and swindlers. But much of what actually concerned Marlowe's life, outside of his poetry and plays and the little bit we know about his family, seemed more like "informed conjecture" than anything else, based on the scant body of hard evidence we actually have about his life.

Much of the book seemed, in my opinion, more like educated interpolation based mostly on what we know about his times and the milieu he lived in. Yes, he translated into English some of Ovid's smuttier stuff. His Tamburlane was a real sensation on the stage, as was his Faustus. Shakespeare probably borrowed a line or two from him. Did they ever meet? Nobody really knows for sure. And yes, it is pretty certain Marlowe was a spy of sorts for Her Majesty's government. And he was here and there at various times. And on occasion he was arrested but released. He had enemies, some of whom didn't exactly have squeaky clean reputations themselves. He was allegedly an "atheist" and a homosexual. Possibly, which may explain some of the revived interest in him. University Humanities Departments nowadays love those sorts of things — though it seemed that the author of the book tended mostly to punt on the matter.

Now the front cover of the book had a restored painting of a young man, arms crossed, with a insouciant smile and thin mustache, dressed in a Elizabethan doublet decked with gold buttons, painted around that time, but even then there's no real certainty that it was actually a portrait of Christopher Marlowe. We only know the painting's date, and that its Latin motto reads as "That which nurtures me destroys me". While little is actually known about Shakespeare's personal life, not all that more is known about Marlowe's.