Sunday, February 8, 2015

“I live to die, I die to live” by Ros Barber

On Bastian Conrad’s English language Marlowe pages, I was interested to find a new claim for Marlovian theory that I hadn’t encountered before.  From 1602, the title pages of several editions of Venus and Adonis were decorated with an illustration showing a human skull with wings, balanced on the globe of the Earth, and above it an open book containing the words (in modern spelling) “I live to die, I die to live”. 

Under Marlovian theory, Christopher Marlowe faked his death in May 1593 in order to escape being executed for atheism and heresy, and Venus and Adonis was his first publication under the name William Shakespeare, so “I live to die, I die to live” might seem a very suitable motto to place upon it.

Nevertheless it is vitally important that all researchers seek to disprove their theories, especially when it comes to theories relating to the authorship question, for you can be quite sure that if you don’t attempt to disprove your theory, somebody else will, and thereby cast doubt on the quality of your pronouncements more generally.

Modern research tools such as Early English Books Online make it possible to do this rather easily, if one has access to them.  On examining every digitized title page for Venus and Adonis that is available, it was clear that this image was introduced in 1602 by the publisher William Leake. 

A 1599 edition of Venus and Adonis printed “by R.Bradocke for William Leake, dwelling in Paule’s churchyard at the signe of the greyhound” did not utilize this image.  But William Leake’s 1602 edition, and those he published subsequently, depicted the winged skull and the open book with its motto.  The reason becomes obvious almost immediately.  William Leake had moved premises and was now to be found, according to the title page, “dwelling at the sign of the Holy Ghost, in Paules Churchyard”.  The winged skull was the sign of the Holy Ghost, and “I live to die, I die to live” was the Holy Ghost’s message of everlasting life. 

A survey of other William Leake publications confirms this; for a decade from 1602, nearly all of his publications bear this image (complete with “I live to die, I die to live”) on their title pages including:
  John Jewel’s Sermons (1603)
  John Lyly’s Euphues and His England (1605)
  Henry Smith’s Sermons (1605)
  Robert Linaker’s A Comfortable Treatise (1607)
  Leonard Wright’s A Pilgrimage to Paradise (1608)

Presumably, no one is going to argue that these writers, too, faked their deaths to avoid being killed.

In 1613, Leake changed his device to a wordless, blazing book. But it’s clear that from 1602 to 1612, the winged skull with its motto that decorated Venus and Adonis and many other books besideswas simply a marker of the William Leake brand.

 © Ros Barber, February 2015