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Elizabethan Firebrand

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

Christophcr Marlotve: The Man in His Time. By John Bakclcss. New York: William Morrow and Company. $3.75.

Turbulent Kit Marlowe, the Canterbury cobbler’s son, flamed his way through Cambridge to London and a violent death at twenty-nine. After six hectic London years he had left incomplete the work begun and dreamed of at the university. Several rather bombastic plays, an unfinished narrative poem, and a lovely lyric or two form a literary legacy that immensely influenced contemporary poets and playwrights. Many of his lines still linger in the memory as touchstones of purest poetry. But the man himself has needed a fuller reconstruction. Such American scholars as Tucker Brooke, Leslie Hotson, and Mark Eccles have, of course, added much to our knowledge of the madcap Elizabethan. John Bakeless now undertakes to place the man in his time.

His book, “Christopher Marlowe: The Man in His Time,” is at once a good detective story and a work of thorough scholarship. It is manifestly the fruit of years of exhaustive research. To follow that dramatic firebrand through the devious ways of student, government agent, playwright, and roistering gentleman, was no doubt itself a great adventure; to turn up new material and to verify the labors of a long line of Marlowe scholars is the crowning achievement of this latest effort at revealing a Renaissance man. It cannot be proved that he was very bad and certainly there is no evidence that he was very good. “Brilliant, learned, eager, sceptical, passionate, none too scrupulous, delighted to shock his hearers, almost humourless, unable to laugh at himself or others or the world, bitter, quarrelsome—that was Marlowe.” Such is the estimate of Mr. Bakeless, based on his own important documentary discoveries in Canterbury, Cambridge, and elsewhere, a careful study of all previously known facts, and a fresh consideration of literary sources along with the social and intellectual backgrounds of Marlowe’s day. Perhaps the most interesting discovery is the Buttery Book of Corpus Christi College, in which the food and drink charged to young Marlowe reveal how hungry and thirsty that ardent youth was in his six Cambridge years. Mr. Bakeless has not only painted a lively picture of a fiery genius but has thrown light on his dramatic source material and added a new emphasis to his influence in literature.

In this book we come nearer, I think, to seeing Marlowe in his habit as he lived than in any other account of him. There are, to be sure, many blanks which the limited or lost records of the time have made inevitable. We should like to know more, for instance, about Marlowe’s activities as a secret government agent, his associations with Shakespeare and other playwrights who were his neighbors in Norton Folgate and Shoreditch, and we should like further information on the underlying motives of that fatal stabbing at Deptford, the immediate cause of which (the quarrel over a tavern bill) wras established some thirteen years ago by Professor Hot-son.

That Marlowe, like his own Faustus, aspired to knowledge infinite and had a passionate sense for beauty every reader of his plays and poems knows. What has not been so well recognized, however, is the reflection in them of his reading in the library of Corpus Christi College. Volumes used by him are still there, and his biographer has hit upon numerous passages that must have furnished matter and inspiration for his “mighty line.” He has even essayed in a plausible guess to trace the working of Marlowe’s mind in hammering out certain lines, and has pointed out echoes or imitations of his verse and many allusions to it in Shakespeare and the lesser Elizabethans, all of whom, we know, borrowed freely. Moliere once remarked: “I take my own wherever I find it.” So, also, these Elizabethan dramatists pillaged the ages and each other.

The story of the shoemaker’s son who consorted with high and low—with Raleigh and the Walsinghams, with Frizer the swindler who killed him, and with Foley the spy—is an exciting one. His brief impetuous life, as irregular and violent as those of his own tragic heroes, will continue to challenge the professional scholar and charm the literary layman. “Wherever beauty, the mother of the Muses, is adored and the human spirit climbs restlessly,” says Mr. Bakeless, “there will be Marlowe.” And whoever wants to learn all that is now known of him will find it in this latest biography, rich in learning and brilliant in the telling.


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