Marlowe's 'Sick Elementals'


First published in University of Toronto Quarterly 58.1 (1988): 108-10.


Review of Clifford Leech, Christopher Marlowe: Poet for the Stage, ed. Anne Lancashire (AMS Press, 1986)


Among the poets of the Elizabethan age Christopher Marlowe stands out as an extremist—as a writer, that is, who in giving voice to the discursive extremes of his era never appears to suggest with any conviction the possibility of a centre in which these extremes might meet and be reconciled. Marlowe's preference for imagery drawn from the elemental, the astronomical, or the spiritual and daemonic levels of the cosmos (rather than from the level of organic nature, where his contemporaries found a reservoir of social and behavioural norms); the comparative scarcity in his plays of the analogies to natural processes favoured by other Elizabethan writers: these are signs of “extremism”—which is also to say of a divorce from the commonplaces of natural morality and natural law. Marlowe's characters thus move through a polarized, decentred world of warring elements, glittering artifacts, and fetishized objects of desire, “heaven and earth the bounds of [their] delight” (Dido, I. i. 32). In the lapidary ironies of Hero and Leander Marlowe is the most exaggeratedly civilized poet of the age—and, in the savageries of Tamburlaine, its most superbly barbaric one. And just as his individual texts deny their audience or readers the security of a moral centre or of a fixed interpretive stance, so also Marlowe's oeuvre as a whole resists any attempt to compose at its heart the image of a consistent creative intelligence—unless it be that of the homoerotic outlaw and blasphemer who stares insolently at us from the files of the Elizabethan thought police.

Largely completed at the time of his death in 1977, Clifford Leech's study of this difficult and challenging writer was prepared for publication by Anne Lancashire (whose preface is dated 1980), but published only in 1986. A regrettable delay—yet if in certain respects it is no longer timely, this book remains an admirable achievement, a work that students of Renaissance poetry and drama will profit from in many ways, some of them perhaps unexpected.

One of Leech's starting points in this study would seem to have been a recognition of the inadequacy of that critical stance which, casting its assessments of Marlowe's writings in primarily moral terms, condemned him for lacking (in the words of Wilbur Sanders quoted on page 43) a “firmly-grounded centre of consciousness from which to conduct his exploration of human life.” Leech's own emphasis falls upon Marlowe's skill in exploiting what he calls “the neutrality of the stage” (2), and upon the resulting effects of interpretive reticence, of implied ambivalence, and of dislocation. Yet while these terms recur in Leech's analysis of Marlowe's plays, there is certain reticence to his own argument; it was clearly not his intention to replace one form of thematic bias by another.

The book begins with two finely condensed chapters outlining the poet's life and offering, along with a plausible reconstruction of the sequence in which his texts were composed, an assessment of the state in which they have survived. There follows a chapter on the writings of Marlowe's apprenticeship (the translations of Ovid and of Lucan, and the sly subversion of Vergil in Dido Queen of Carthage, his first play); here Leech's Latin scholarship and his sensitivity to satirical nuances are both displayed to good effect. To each of Tamburlaine and Faustus he devotes two chapters; the other plays, Edward II, The Massacre at Paris, and The Jew of Malta, receive a chapter each, as does Hero and Leander; and the book concludes with a very suggestive discussion of acting styles in Marlowe and Shakespeare.

Leech's analyses are effortlessly contextual—not, indeed, in the manner of the new historicism, for his sense of context is largely confined to writings in the confessedly “literary” genres—but in a manner which constantly exposes new aspects of Marlowe's relations both to his predecessors and to his contemporaries and successors. One can of course point to certain lapses. A wider sense of context might have saved Leech's chapters on Doctor Faustus from an excessive dependence upon the now very dated textual and critical arguments of W. W. Greg (which are themselves vitiated by a refusal to read this most directly theological of all tragedies in the context of the Elizabethan theological orthodoxy that is woven into it and against which it strains). And it may seem odd that a critic who is elsewhere so remarkably perceptive in responding to the comic overtones of Marlowe's verse should fail (153-4) to see the pitiless black humour built into the last moments of Peter Ramus in The Massacre at Paris. (Having begged his murderers for time in which to “purge” himself in preparation for death, that philosopher—or “flat dichotomist,” in the Guise's insulting, but not inaccurate, words—digresses instead into an arid polemic against “one Schekius,” who had contested his view of Aristotle. Ramus's last words—“eternal God”—are uttered not in prayer, but as the climax to his denunciation of “the blockish Sorbonnists.”)

However, such flaws as these do not prevent this book from taking a place among the very best studies of Marlowe. For Leech's analyses, eminently satisfying in themselves, might also be described as generous in their manner of opening up possibilities for further interpretations, both critical and theatrical, of Marlowe's plays. I am thinking, for example, of his comments on the sometimes horrifying neutrality of the Marlovian stage, on the importance of the victimized human body as a property on that stage (60, 211), on the constructed rather than mimetic nature of Marlowe's characters (208), and on the acting styles required to make these “sick elementals” live on their “rhetorical stage” (214).

The book has other qualities as well, which are best indicated by pointing to the passage where, in a brief discussion of the reception history of Venus and Adonis, Leech remembers from his own childhood “a school where in a one-volume Shakespeare the leaves of the poem were sewn together to keep prying eyes away” (194); or to that other passage when, writing of Doctor Faustus, he is reminded of “a small boy in the early years of this century who tried to make a practice of not complaining when the bath water was too hot, 'because,' he said to himself, 'I had better get used to it'” (84). This book stands as a fine memorial to the distinguished scholar and critic that boy became.