Saturday, May 13, 2006

Christopher Marlowe, by Park Honan

After reading Park Honan’s overly academic and frankly dull biography of Shakespeare I really didn’t think I’d make it through the first fifty pages of this biography of Christopher Marlowe, the brilliant Elizabethan playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare. To my surprise I actually found it, for the most part, a rather absorbing book.

Like the Shakespeare biography, there’s not really that much actual historical detail that allows us to really get a clear picture of Marlowe; it’s more conjecture and speculation. The biography covers three main aspects of Marlowe’s life and character: his time at Corpus Christi College; his recruitment and work as a spy; and lastly his plays. The biography is finished off with two interesting chapters about Marlowe’s homosexuality and his untimely death (he was stabbed above the eye after an argument over a bill at a tavern).

My favourite part of the book was Park Honan’s discussion of The Jew of Malta, surely one of the most brilliant, odd and original of plays. How odd it is that anti-semitism has given us such literary works of art as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Dickens’ Oliver Twist (Dickens tried to make amends by later writing a more philo-semitic novel, I forget which one it is.)

The Jew of Malta exploits contemporary anti-semitism to create a compelling love-to-hate character in Barabas. Park Honan rightly disputes whether Marlowe was anti-semitic at all: the anti-semitism of The Jew of Malta is so over the top that it reads like a spoof on Jew hating. Here are the author’s worthy remarks on The Jew of Malta:

‘It’s success might be a sign that Marlowe has capitalized on his ability to shock, while appealing to racial prejudice. He focuses on an obsessive Elizabethan concern with Judaism and, in fact, counters anti-semitism, but keeps prejudice in the air to examine society. Barabas is what the alien is popularly taken to be; but, as a hero or anti-hero, he is also profoundly ambiguous, elusive, even sympathetic in his gaiety and role-playing, despite his violence and depravity. His portrait does not fit categories; it will never be ‘politically correct’. If we are offended by anti-semitism, Marlowe might ask that we be even more outraged, indignant, or mortified by the author and drama.’

The book also contains reproductions of letters from Thomas Kyd and Richard Baines detailing all of Marlowe’s blasphemous sayings. (Remember Thomas Kyd shared a writing room with Marlowe and when he was charged with atheism – I think it was atheism – he blamed it all on Marlowe.)

The first customer review at Amazon.com of this biography is worth checking out. The author of it points to a few inconsistencies and shares my complaint about Park Honan being too academic and a bit of a dullard. Frankly, he overwrites. One wonders how such difficult books hit the shelves of big book stores. But if you are a Marlowe fan I feel you will find this a very rewarding book. The sections that deal with the plays are excellent. If you are a patient reader, you will find his discussions of Marlowe’s homosexuality well thought out and fair.

Park Honan is a very subtle writer. You’ll need some patience.

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