Friday, June 25, 2010

Marlowe and Comedy by Ros Barber

It is a common misrepresentation of Marlowe that he couldn't be funny. We know there were comic scenes in Tamburlaine - the printer Richard Jones admits to having cut them out, saying, "I haue (purposely) omitted and left out some fond and friuolous Iestures, digressing (and in my poore opinion) far vnmeet for the matter...they haue bene of some vaine conceited fondlings greatly gaped at, what times they were shewed vpon the stage in their graced deformities: neuertheles now, to be mixtured in print with such matter of worth, it wuld prooue a great disgrace to so honorable & stately a historie."

Doctor Faustus contains a number of comic scenes; The Jew of Malta can be played as a farce. Anyone who saw the National Theatre's excellent production in London last year will know that even in Dido Queen of Carthage there is plenty of comic material available to a skilful company. There is also a great deal of wit (and one might say out and out comedy) in the long narrative poem Hero and Leander.

Like Marlowe's plays, the early Shakespeare plays - the Henry VI trilogy, King John, Titus Andronicus, Richard III - are generally serious in intent. The earliest Shakespeare comedy is either The Comedy of Errors or The Taming of the Shrew (depending on whose dating you go with), the latter existing in an earlier version (The Taming of a Shrew) which may, some scholars suggest, have been penned by Marlowe.

Marlowe was considered a wit in his day, and there is contemporary personal testimony to back that up: Thomas Thorpe calls him “that pure, Elementall wit Chr. Marlow," and Thomas Heywood writes that he was “renown’d for his rare art and wit.” He was friends with, and influenced by, Thomas Nashe and Thomas Watson - both famously witty men. The commonly held belief that Marlowe wasn't capable of writing comedy just doesn't hold water. It is part of what Lukas Erne calls Marlowe's "mythography." One only has to read the accusations in the Baines Note to appreciate Marlowe in full comedic flow. It was the misinterpretation of his wit as seriousness that led to his personal tragedy in 1593. Let’s not perpetuate the error.

Ros Barber

© Ros Barber, June 2010

Ros Barber is the first person in the world to complete a PhD in Marlovian authorship theory. Her PhD was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). A founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, she has published articles challenging the orthodox biography of Marlowe in academic books and journals, including the peer-reviewed Routledge journal Rethinking History. Her essay "Was Marlowe a Violent Man?," which was presented at the Marlowe Society of America conference in 2008, is featured in Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman (Ashgate 2010). A published poet, her latest poetry collection, Material (Anvil 2008), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was funded by Arts Council England.

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"It’s enough to strike despair into the heart of James Shapiro, author of Contested Will, as well as the hearts of all the other Shakespeare experts who refute the so-called 'authorship controversy'."  (Financial Times)

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

By the Dim Light of Nature by Peter Farey

In about 1615, Francis Beaumont (at least it is generally assumed to be him, as it is signed F.B.) wrote a letter to Ben Jonson. It was in verse and included the following lines (15-21):
...heere I would let slippe
(If I had any in mee) schollarshippe,
And from all Learninge keepe these lines as cleere
as Shakespeares best are, which our heirs shall heare
Preachers apte to their auditors to showe
how farr sometimes a mortall man may goe
by the dimme light of Nature...
Shakespearean scholars - both those with an "authorship" axe to grind and those without - have welcomed this as a clear indication that Shakespeare lacked an advanced education. Jonathan Bate says, for example, "Beaumont specifically praised Shakespeare for writing his best lines 'by the dim light of Nature', without 'Learning'." (1997. The Genius of Shakespeare. p.70). "Furthermore," he says, "his statement that Shakespeare achieved poetic greatness without the benefit of advanced learning precisely refutes the foremost claim of all the Anti-Stratfordians, namely that the plays could only have been written by someone who had benefited from a better formal education than Shakespeare's."

Another good example of how this "information" is used is in the current version of the Wikipedia entry on the "Shakespeare Authorship Question" which says: "Contemporary playwright Francis Beaumont thought this not a disadvantage. He wrote to Jonson: 'I would let slip . . . scholarship and from all learning keep these lines as clear as Shakespeare's best are . . . to show how far a mortal man may go by the dim light of Nature'." (But does Beaumont mean that Shakespeare's best lines are "free from all learning" or that he "keeps them free from all learning"? That's quite important!)

One may forgive the omission of those words "If I had any in mee," but are the others - "which our heirs shall heare / Preachers apte to their auditors" - as unimportant as the omission might have us believe? I don't think so. The first question is why there appears to be no verb in that clause. These "preachers" will have to do something "to showe / how farr sometimes a mortall man may goe / by the dimme light of Nature," so why is there no indication of what it is? It makes no grammatical sense, does it?

The answer is that there was a meaning for "apt" back then which we have completely lost nowadays - as a verb. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the first call for anyone trying to decipher just what someone meant in days gone by) it could be "To make fit, adapt (to), prepare suitably (for)." So these preachers will apparently adapt this Shakespearean characteristic to fit what their listeners presumably want to hear.

But what possible interest would "Preachers" have in approving in their sermons what a playwright had written for performance on the stage? None, of course. Again the OED comes to the rescue with a definition of the word "preacher" which, among other meanings, was used at the time: "a person who exhorts others earnestly; a person who advocates or inculcates something by speech or writing, esp. in a self-righteous or overbearing manner; a person who or thing which imparts a lesson or commends an attitude."

So what Beaumont appears to me to be saying isn't that Shakespeare lacked learning, but that he chose (to the benefit of the overall quality of his work and particularly his "best" lines) not to display it in any obvious way. He also predicts that in the future there will be people who, perhaps "in a self-righteous or overbearing manner," will use this concealment of Shakespeare's learning to prove that he neither had nor needed any.

And isn't that exactly what has happened?

Peter Farey

© Peter Farey, June 2010

Peter Farey has been manning the Marlovian barricades on the internet for the past 11 years, and his Marlowe Page is one of the most respected sites about Marlowe. Peter's essay “Hoffman and the Authorship” is the 2007 recipient of the Calvin & Rose G. Hoffman Prize, administered annually by The King's School in Canterbury for a "distinguished publication on Christopher Marlowe." He's a founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society.

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.