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The Muses’ Darling

Marlowe makes his audience uncomfortable. Who are these high-spirited, honey-tongued psychopaths who spout great poetry and kill thousands with a smile? We used to dismiss them as barbarians. Today, watching the play, we are not in a position to feel so morally superior. The same countries and cities Tamburlaine lays waste are still with us today, and so are men who take pleasure in destruction. In the most shocking scene of the play, Tamburlaine burns the Muslim holy books and defies Mohammed to strike him down for doing so, and then mocks him when he does not.

No wonder Marlowe’s contemporaries saw the play, which in its full version is no kinder to Christians, as an atheist manifesto. “What can be smashed should be smashed; what will stand the blow is good; what will fly into smithereens is rubbish,” is how the Russian critic Dmitri Pisarev defined nihilism in the mid-nineteenth century. Marlowe had the same disdain for tradition and authority as Pisarev, but he understood better what the full consequences of such beliefs are.

Playing Tamburlaine in Washington, Avery Brooks, with his good looks and his rich baritone, is a striking presence on the stage. He boasts:

I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains
And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about,
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.

Even in the rare moments when he shows affection for his long-suffering wife, Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian ruler, whom he had abducted and raped—though she has come to love him—he is scary. We know that what he loves more than any single human being is war, and what he loves about war is carnage. Other conquerors in history had their court intellectuals, theologians, and poets justify their slaughter of the innocent, but not this Scythian who knows he is alone against the whole world. As he explains to his son, Calyphas, who happens to have a moral sense and whom he despises as a coward:

Villain, art thou the son of Tamburlaine
And fear’st to die, or with a curtle-axe
To hew thy flesh and make a gaping wound?
Hast thou beheld a peal of ordnance strike
A ring of pikes, mingled with shot and horse,
Whose shattered limbs, being tossed as high as heaven,
Hang in the air as thick as sunny motes,
And canst thou, coward, stand in fear of death?
Hast thou not seen my horsemen charge the foe,
Shot through the arms, cut overthwart the hands,
Dyeing their lances with their streaming blood,
And yet at night carouse within my tent,
Filling their empty veins with airy wine
That, being concocted, turns to crimson blood,
And wilt thou shun the field for fear of wounds?

His son does not reply, but tells his two brothers, when they try to rouse him from bed, so he may join them and their father in some battle:

I know sir, what it is to kill a man.
It works remorse of conscience in me.
I take no pleasure to be murderous,
Nor care for blood when wine will quench my thirst.

Shortly after, his father, finding Calyphas unprepared for battle, stabs and kills him in front of his brothers, telling them:

…Since I exercise a greater name,
The scourge of God and terror of the world,
I must apply myself to fit those terms,
In war, in blood, in death, in cruelty,
And plague such peasants as resist in me
The power of heaven’s eternal majesty….
Ransack the tents and the pavilions
Of these proud Turks, and take their concubines.
Make them bury this effeminate brat,
For not a common soldier shall defile
His manly fingers with so faint a boy.

Tamburlaine, who starts out vowing to overthrow the gods, is defeated finally by his “servant death,” who previously used to wait on him and do his will. It first turned on him when it took away his wife, Zenocrate. Even as he himself falls ill, he continues to see it as his slave, “the ugly Monster Death,/Shaking and quivering, pale and wan for fear,” as he aims at him “his murdering dart.” Death is tear-thirsty, says one of his generals. Standing with his sons on a huge map of the world laid out on the palace floor, and pointing to them all the countries he has conquered and still hopes to conquer, Tamburlaine drops dead.

Is Tamburlaine a tragic figure? No, although Marlowe’s beautiful poetry makes us believe that against our better judgment. Here is the monster in a lyrical mood as his wife lies dying:

Black is the beauty of the brightest day!
The golden ball of heaven’seternal fire,
That danced with glory on the silver waves,
Now wants the fuel that inflamed his beams,
And all with faintness and for foul disgrace
He binds his temples with a frowning cloud,
Ready to darken earth with endless night.

Being a long, two-part play with a large cast, Tamburlaine has not had many revivals. In Tyrone Guthrie’s 1959 production, Donald Wolfit portrayed him as a barbaric, frightening, and increasingly insane hero. An earlier adaptation by Basil Ashmore had him as a Hitler figure. In Keith Hacks’s 1972 version for the Edinburgh Assembly Hall and Glasgow Citizen’s Theater, the set featured corpses on gallows and wheels. Terry Hand’s 1993 production at the Barbican in London also emphasized cruelty and blood. The temptation to turn the play into Grand Guignol is understandable, though, I believe, unnecessary, and Michael Kahn’s production in Washington on the whole avoided it. Marlowe’s words alone are eloquent enough. He wants us to take away from the play an understanding of the kind of evil human beings are capable of as they wage war. Preparing for battle, the Persian king, Mycetes, another reluctant warrior in the play, laments:

Accurst be he that first invented war!
They knew not, ah, they knew not simple men,
How those were hit by pelting cannon-shot
Stand staggering like a quivering aspen-leaf.


Edward the Second, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer is Marlowe’s last play and with Doctor Faustus his most often performed one. Divided into five acts, or more precisely into twenty-six short scenes, it recounts the fate of a fourteenth-century English king who loses his crown and life over a male lover. Edward neglects his royal duties in order to carry on with Piers Gaveston, a Frenchman his father banished from the court and whom he brought back from exile as soon as he became king. The powerful nobles and the Church are appalled and united in their determination to get rid of the upstart who is distracting the sovereign from affairs of state. They loathe everything about him, starting with his dapper look, his short Italian hooded cloak larded with pearl, and his Tuscan cap. Enemies are threatening England on all sides while their “brainsick” king dallies about the palace with his lover’s head resting on his shoulder. The pretty boy taunts the trailing nobles:

Base leaden earls, that glory in your birth,
Go sit home and eat your tenant’s beef,
And come not here to scoff at Gaveston,
Whose mounting thoughts did never creep so low
As to bestow a look on such as you.

It is bad enough that Gaveston is the King’s lover, but he, like Marlowe, is of humble origin. The more virulent the opposition to him, the more Edward wants him. This genuinely puzzles the nobles. “Why should you love him whom the world hates so?” they ask the King. “Because he loves me more than all the world,” is his reply. To their horror, Gaveston wants to turn the court into an unending bacchanal. At the very opening of the play, he tells of the kind of amusements he has planned for the King:

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please.
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive tree
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring, and there hard by,
One like Actaeon peeping through the grove
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of an hart,
By yelping hounds pulled down and seem to die.
Such things as these best please his majesty….

In the Washington production, which is set in 1920s England, his words come to life before our eyes as the dignified court turns into a transvestite nightclub filled with dancers. Things rapidly go downhill. The King locks up the bishop of Coventry who objects, confiscates his lands, and hands them over to Gaveston with several impressive titles thrown in. Outraged, the nobles divide into two parties, the smaller one siding with the King, the other, led by Roger Mortimer, determined to depose him. After much conniving with the help of the archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Isabelle, they manage to separate Gaveston from Edward and have him secretly killed. Civil war breaks out until the King is forced to give up his throne. With all the reversals, changing alliances, and frantic activity of the participants in the conspiracy, the plot gets to be a bit confusing until it becomes clear that Edward, who in the meantime has been reduced to a pathetic, self-pitying figure, is doomed.

Mortimer, his chief enemy, does not shirk from murdering him or anyone who stands in his way. He is a man much more driven by his inner demons than by practical considerations. Queen Isabelle’s story is different. Torn between her sense of duty as a wife in the face of cruel treatment by her husband, concerned about her young son’s future, she calculates that a dalliance with Mortimer and siding with the conspirators won’t hurt her or her son’s prospects.

Compared to Tamburlaine, Edward, Mortimer, and Isabelle have rich inner lives. Their complexity as characters has given much greater freedom to theater directors in how to interpret the play. Gaveston, for example, has been played as a “typical” Frenchman, impudent and frivolous in some productions; “King Eddie’s Whore,” in Bertolt Brecht’s 1924 adaptation; or wearing a white outfit in a 1989 production that made the audience think of Elvis Presley, while his foe Mortimer sported a Hitler moustache. Edward could be either a decadent weakling or an anguished figure, a “lamb encompassed by wolves.”

Gale Edwards’s decision to set the play in the Jazz Age and have the cast dressed in evening clothes and military uniforms of the period recalls Ian McKellan’s film of Richard III and has the feel of something already seen, already done. Despite some excellent performances in the large ensemble and several visually stunning scenes, the production doesn’t quite work for me. The idea of having the ghost of Gaveston make its appearance as a white angel in a gold shantung suit to hover over the King at the point of his death is not only in poor taste, but undermines the merciless logic and the shocking denouement of Marlowe’s play.

The ending is justly famous. Edward is kept in a dark dungeon up to his knees in water “wherein the filth of all the castle falls.” As his life draws to an end, he is like a man who has finally awakened from a dream:

Methinks I should revenge me of the wrongs
That Mortimer and Isabel have done.
But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

Unknown to him, Mortimer has summoned a hit man from abroad who brags that he has learned his trade in Naples where he was taught to poison flowers, pierce the windpipe with a needle point, and take a quill and blow a little powder into a sleeper’s ear. In a mockery of his sexuality, he kills Edward by inserting a red-hot poker into his anus. After disposing of the King and attaining the power he desired, Mortimer cannot stop killing, even when it is no longer in his interest to do so. He ignores the pleas of Edward III, the young heir to the throne, and murders his uncle, the dead king’s brother, whereupon the young king has him arrested. “Weep not for Mortimer,/That scorns the world” is his parting shot as he is being led away. The struggle for power and the misuse of power, Marlowe makes clear, often derive their momentum from hatreds and loves that have little to do with whatever reasons and explanations the ones in power deign to share with us.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is to be praised for putting on these two formidable plays and reminding us what an irreverent, troubling, and brilliant poet and playwright Marlowe still is.

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