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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Greenblatt on Marlowe

Stephen Greenblatt has an enjoyable review in the New York Review of Books of two recent Marlowe biographies, one by David Riggs (which is now out in paperback) and the other by Park Honan. As is typical of Greenblatt's work, his review is a pleasure to read--it's lively, tells a good story, and contains the inevitable anecdote about Greenblatt himself. And then there are those moments when, painfully, he pauses to consider the art and responsibililities of "the literary biographer":

All well and good, but what has this literary accomplishment to do with spying and betrayal? It is possible, of course, that the answer is: nothing. Marlowe could have been drawn into Walsingham's sinister network for any number of reasons—poverty, blackmail, a taste for adventure, even patriotic zeal—that may have no relation whatever to his blank verse and his love poetry. But this would be a very disappointing answer for the ambitious literary biographer whose project is driven by the dream of a whole life, not a life in pieces. There can in such a life be conflict, contradiction, bad faith, and mixed motives, but it is difficult for any biographer to accept that significant parts of an artist's existence remained in hermetic isolation from the others, just as it is difficult for any biographer to accept that a major literary achievement had a purely literary genesis.
As anyone who has read Will in the World can attest, Greenblatt's biography of Shakespeare was very much the "ambitious" project, even if it ended up reading more as "a life in pieces" than "a whole life."

He then continues with an observation about "just-so stories":

That Marlowe was an inspired reader of the classics is clear, but that his creative achievements depended exclusively on his reading and not on anything else in the life he was living seems implausible. It would, in any case, reduce biography to simple source study: tell me what he read, and I'll tell you what he wrote. Those of us who commit the act of literary biography (or who are drawn to read one) have a weakness for just-so stories. This or that obscure piece of the poet's life, laboriously winkled out of the archive, accounts for this or that aspect of the work that has drawn us to the life in the first place. Thus, for example, Honan pores over the will that Marlowe's mother, Katherine, drew up in 1605, long after the death of her gifted son. She leaves various items to her three married daughters (two of whom led turbulent lives, constantly in and out of court on charges of blaspheming, fighting, stealing, and cursing). The will mentions several gold and silver rings, along with a "red petticoat," and the biographer is off and running:

Her son's eye for colours and jewels may be traceable to his mother; equally, either she or another adult may have encouraged his interest in the night sky.

This is pretty silly stuff, but it is a silliness to which almost all literary biographies are prone. And if some might have given the red petticoat a pass, no serious literary biographer of Marlowe could resist the attempt to link his spying and his writing.
How to read the comment that "This is pretty silly stuff"? Wasn't much of Will in the World, then, "pretty silly stuff"? Has Greenblatt soured on his own biography? Has he more or less given up on the whole genre of early modern literary biography? I doubt it, but this review does make me wonder how he looks at his own past biographical endeavors.

Finally, there's this:
Honan thinks that he may detect in Marlowe's writing some of the psychic cost, as well as the benefit, of his work for Walsingham's secret service:

He paid a high price in anguish for selling his soul to Seething Lane, if he turned in anyone's name. Yet we cannot be certain that he betrayed Corpus men, or lured them as a provocateur, even though a certain disenchantment informs his mature plays. In Faustus or even in Tamburlaine, a sense of grandeur is sometimes coupled with a deflating triviality.

"If...yet...even though": in an odd dance of ambivalence, what one half-sentence gives, the next half-sentence takes away. Triviality in the plays may be a symptom of disenchantment which may in turn be a symptom of personal anguish—and then again it may not. The biographer cannot decide. What he concludes instead—and the conclusion serves as the central claim of this biography—is that Marlowe's works were not mere reflections of his sordid life. Having laboriously brought the life and the work together, Honan struggles to untangle them.
This from an author who, to choose a page at random (honest), begins chapter four of his biography with this tangle of speculation: "If Will returned to Stratford in 1582 in the wake of a tense sojourn in Lancashire, if he agreed to go to Shottery that summer to convey a risky message or pass along a secret religious token to the Debdales, then his wooing of Anne Hathaway was manifestly a rebellion aginst the empire of fear" (118). Or, imagining Shakespeare's reaction to Tamburlaine, Greenblatt writes that Shakespeare "must have said himself something like...it must have seemed as if...Perhaps...." (191). Of all the things to focus on in his review, why did he choose a stylistic tic for which his own work was roundly condemned (and mocked)? To quote Bob Somerby, I have no idea, but I'm now curious about Greenblatt's own view of Will in the World, much more so than I was before.

  • At 3/21/2006 08:47:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Personally I preferred Honan's biography of Shakespeare to Greenblatt's (though I liked Greenblatt's), precisely because, while they both employ the "perhaps ... if ... might have been ..." style of biography, Honan signals more clearly where he's speculating and where he's just giving the facts of Shakespeare's life as he knows them. What Honan doesn't do as well is interpret the plays in the context of the life. What became clear while reading Will in the World is both that Greenblatt has seemingly turned his back on the notion of the "circulation of social energy" and that there actually wasn't a very big difference between the old biographical criticism and New Historicism after all.


  • At 3/22/2006 12:16:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    My favorite biography of the bunch is Shapiro's 1599 (though I haven't yet read Ackroyd). Rather than try to cover all of Shakespeare's life, he builds his narrative from the ground up, from the historical information we know about that one year and from the plays Shakespeare was (probably) writing during that year. He ends up with nice readings of Henry V, Juliet Caesar, As You Like it, and Hamlet that combine sensitive literary analyses with plausible biographical speculations.


  • At 4/16/2006 01:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Silly Greenblatt, I really enjoyed Riggs's biography of Marlowe... and I'm really looking forward to Richard Rowland's monograph on Heywood!


  • At 4/20/2006 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    I liked Riggs biography too. And I had no idea that Rowland was writing one on Heywood. Any idea on when it's scheduled to be published?


  • At 9/17/2006 02:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Yes! I thought exactly the same thing after reading Greenblatt's review. What does Greenblatt make of his own Will in the World, a work that often feels more like a series of provocative questions about Shakespeare than a coherent biography?

    For what it's worth, I enjoyed Riggs' biographies of Marlowe and Jonson. They have the feel of being full and satisfying accounts of the exterior and interior lives of their subjects. Riggs is unusually deft at managing the literary and historical aspects of his subjects, moving smoothly between studies of his subjects' esoteric reading interests and accounts of their broad social and cultural contexts.


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