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Constance Brown Kuriyama. Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance Life.

Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. xxiv + 255 pp. + 7 b/w pls. index. append. illus. map. Chron. bibl. $35. ISBN: 0-8014-3978-7.

Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life is both biography and sourcebook. Constance Brown Kuriyama presents an authoritative, balanced view of one of the most remarkable figures of the English Renaissance. Adding to the book's value, she includes a first-ever collection of documents relating to Marlowe.

The book is structured according to the "successive stages of his personal development" (7), treating Marlowe's family background, education, early successes in London, reversals of fortune, encounters with the law, and premature and violent death; and concluding with two chapters on his "afterlife in the minds of others" (7), the first considering the responses of his contemporaries, the second his reputation to the present. Kuriyama devotes particular attention to recovering a sense of Marlowe's ordinary life, recording the routines of school and university; citing wills and inventories; utilizing maps and descriptions of Canterbury, Cambridge, and London. Each document is, as far as possible, viewed in the context of other evidence. Marlowe's notorious absences from Cambridge, for example, so often associated with a spying career, are set against those of other students, and found to be not at all unusual (43-44).

Tracing the contexts of Marlowe's life--the physical conditions, social expectations, and intellectual possibilities--Kuriyama patiently constructs the image of a young man of great promise who, through circumstance, became increasingly frustrated and prone to violence. She suggests that his psychology was influenced by his family position, as eldest son, but also by his humanist education, which eventually "made him too proud to suffer frustration and adversity patiently" (118). Marlowe's was indeed a "Renaissance life," shaped by expansive dreams of rewards for the talented, by an education that reinforced self-esteem to the point of narcissism, by ambition and the competition for patronage (29-30), by religious conflict and a training in disputation (54-55).

Social relationships were important in sixteenth-century England. Kuriyama explores Marlowe's social contacts: family, friends, connections, patrons, rivals, and detractors. John Benchkin, a fellow student at Corpus Christi, is identified as his one "firm, lasting friendship" (58-64). Detailed discussion is provided of Marlowe's relations with his mentor, Thomas Watson, a "purveyor of fashionable love poems and elegant translations" (92), and his patrons: Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (the "Wizard Earl"), Lord Strange (writing for his Men); Thomas Walsingham (from 1592, after he had inherited the family estates and given up spying).

Kuriyama comments that "Marlowe's death is a source of endless fascination precisely because we lack sufficient information to file it tidily away" (120). Where contemporary stories looked to divine intervention, more recent versions have entertained their readers with "political conspiracy, espionage, imposture, and polymorphous sexuality" (121). Seeking the "likeliest" explanation "without pretending to offer an absolute answer" (121), Kuriyama argues against the more sensational descriptions of Marlowe's life and death. She discounts as "pure circumstantial speculation" (131) the political conspiracy theory of Charles Nicholl in The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992). Marlowe's death was not politically necessary, even if his reputation for atheism could be exploited for personal and political ends (125-34; 143-51). Nor were his companions at Deptford likely assassins, despite their unattractive qualities: Ingram Frizer "clearly preferred litigation and cunning to physical confrontation" (105). Indeed, the person most likely to have resorted to violence was Marlowe himself (137).

This book is grounded in documents but not encumbered by them. Kuriyama offers a fresh and critical appraisal of the evidence, based on a firsthand scrutiny of all available documents, incorporating recent discoveries and reassessing older material like the Baines evidence. The collection of documents includes some never printed before as well as others now provided in a complete text. All are newly transcribed and (where necessary) translated, accompanied by the Latin originals. Commentaries are supplied on significant features, context, and connections, supplemented by detailed discussion in the main text. To assist other researchers, documents are listed by current archival location.

A comprehensive, updated biography of Christopher Marlowe has been long overdue. The classic studies date from the 1930s and 1940s, with John Bakeless' two-volume The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe appearing first in 1942. Since then, although new documents have been discovered and new insights gained, there have been only a few book-length studies on specific aspects and a scattering of articles. More often, critics have turned to the plays for speculative versions of Marlowe's life, and writers of fiction have simply used their imaginations. The reader may not accept Kuriyama's carefully argued account of Marlowe's psychology but, in looking to documents rather than works, she offers a valuable perspective. Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life should be essential reading for all students of Marlowe.


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Author:Lunney, Ruth
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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