CONFERENCE Panel: Marlowe

by Kim Gilchrist

The conference’s special panel on Christopher Marlowe offered a range of approaches to Marlowe’s plays, but all three highlighted themes of subjugation and violence, perhaps hinting at factors that made Marlowe’s plays so shocking and influential when first performed.

Nicole Mennell’s paper, “Horsemanship and Governance in Tamburlaine the Great Parts I and II,” explored the play via early modern theories and texts on horsemanship, which argued that good horsemanship was an indicator – and a requirement – of nobility, strength, and good breeding for early modern elites. Mennell observed that Tamburlaine’s military strength rests on the horses he usurps from his conquered enemies. Famously, the defeated kings of Trebizond and Soria are themselves transformed into steeds, humiliated into pulling Tamburlaine’s chariot as “pampered jades of Asia”. We were reminded of the physical spectacle of this moment through the survival of a “Tamburlaine’s bridle” in the inventory of properties in Philip Henslowe’s “Diary”. Crucially, however, according to the rules of horsemanship, Tamburlaine is finally a failure. Mennell observed that a rider must be harmony with his steed, whereas Tamburlaine knows only how to subjugate and oppress.


In “Marlowe’s Body Language: Corporeal Humiliation and the Spectacle of Shame,” Miranda Fay Thomas discussed the spectacle of public shaming through the cruelty enacted on Tamburlaine’s Bajazeth, who in transformed from “the Emperor of Turkey to Tamburlaine’s footstool”. Thomas noted that early modern England integrated such events into its topography via the presence of whipping posts, pillories, and stocks, making shaming public and methodical. Bajazeth’s treatment was described as “corporeal capitalism,” Tamburlaine using up the bodies of his rivals for personal gain. Fay also noticed and defined “doomed rhyming,” in which characters in Tamburlaine who are unwittingly close to death often begin to speak in rhyming couplets. Whilst possibly serving as a subtle form of ironic metrical foreshadowing, Thomas suggested that this also represents Marlowe’s conquest over the older styles of rival playmakers, or “rhyming mother wits” derided in the introduction to the 1590 edition of Tamburlaine.


Georgie Lucas’s paper “‘O Gracious God, What Times are These?’: Time, Trauma, and The Massacre at Paris,” asked why Marlowe wrote his play on the 1572 slaughter of Huguenots, why did it take so long, and why didn’t it take longer? By comparing the temporal delay between Massacre and the events it depicted with the 1977 film Holocaust, the “first T.V. show to represent the mechanisms of genocide as it unfolds as if in real time,” Lucas suggested that we might better understand the impact of the Paris events on English Protestant consciousness. Trauma, it was argued, cannot be processed in the moment of shock. Only delay can provide the critical distance necessary for representation to take place. This delay also allows the play to absorb the much later deaths of the massacre’s instigators, principally the Guise – after whom the play was named in Henslowe’s “Diary”. In this way, an event that was initially too shocking to accommodate meaning finally assumes the function of becoming its perpetrators “curse”.



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