The World of Christopher Marlowe

David Riggs

Read June-July, 2006

Marlowe is one of the unsung geniuses of Elizabethan England. Overshadowed by his contemporaries—one author, in particular—he serves now as a sort of historical footnote. Yet it was not always so, and indeed what we know of Marlowe's life suggests he may have led a far more interesting existence than most of his contemporaries. Living at a time when the minute details of one's religious beliefs could lead to execution, far from playing it safe, Marlowe oozed Ovidian love, and his Tamburlaine flaunted atheism. This from a man who may well have been a spy in Catholic France, but ultimately lost his head for blasphemy.

The trouble with all this material is that Marlowe left us relatively little about his life, and Diggs is too much of a scholar to play fast-and-loose. The result is an oddly unsatisfying book. We learn quite a bit about Marlowe's world, as the title promises, but its central figure is oddly absent. Diggs is forced to resort to lengthy quotation and secondary sources; while these evoke the power of Marlowe's pen, they fail to provide more than a capsule summary of the boy from Kent who aspired to greatness.

To be sure, Riggs's scope and breadth frequently shine. He tells us how the Victorians revived Marlowe's standing for moral ends (p. 3); clarifies that as early as 1553, atheism was distinguished from heresy (p. 29); describes the use of Latin as a way to identify the meritorious poor; vividly presents university life of the era (“every University hath both land and dunghill, howsoever we shuffle them together”, he quotes a Fellow of Pembroke College (p. 94)); and discusses Kyd's inspiration in the creation of Hamlet. These and other details present a detailed portrait of a time of great religious and intellectual tumult.

Still, whereas I am often frustrated by weak scholarship and blatant leaps-of-faith, where Marlowe is concerned—where the life in question would surely live on the tabloids, not the respectable pages—reticence is a vice. A little more separation of wheat from chaff would have been welcome, and a poorer biographer would have delivered a more compelling score. Poor Marlowe, who seemed to do his best to scandalize and offend!

As a bit of trivia, it's unclear why Fontevrault—which houses the tomb of no English monarch later than the twelfth century—is on the cover of this book. (N.B.: I bought this copy in London, so this may refer to the British cover.) Surely this is not a volume for someone so confused as to mistake Elizabeth I for being medieval?