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Playing with Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization.

Fred B. Tromly, Playing with Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. xii + 238 pp. $50. ISBN: 0-8020-4355-0.

This perceptive study focuses on a recurrent motif in Marlowe's writing: "games of tantalization in which enticing objects and ideas are offered and then withdrawn before they can be grasped" (3). Arguing that these games are a virtual signature of Marlowe's engaged imagination, Tromly persuasively contends that the informing myth of Marlowe's entire oeuvre is not that of Icarus, the over-reacher, as Harry Levin proposed many years ago, but that of Tantalus, the tormented sinner in Hades who became the very byword for frustration. In contrasting the two myths, Tromly somewhat oversimplifies the Icarus story, for, like the story of Tantalus, it is always already also a narrative of failure and frustration as well as of aspiration. Hence, the implications of Tromly's insight are less revolutionary than he implies, more a crucial matter of emphasis than of a completely new paradigm. However, Tromly is certainly right to assert that Marlowe uses both myths in tandem, linking them in a recurrent "metamorphosis in which Icarian aspiration falls heavily downward to become Tantalian frustration" (18). Tromly's insistence on the centrality of game-playing and frustration in Marlowe is fully justified by the texts he studies. His approach via the Tantalus myth opens up a new way of comprehending the dark and disturbing, and frequently cruel, playfulness that pervades Marlowe's work.

Like Patrick Cheney's recent Marlowe's Counterfeit Profession, this book is far more comprehensive than most studies of Marlowe, embracing the poetry -- including the translation of Ovid's Elegies -- as well as the plays. Of Marlowe's works, only the non-Tantalian translation of book 1 of Lucan's Pharsalia is excluded from at least a brief consideration. But Tromly's approach is not merely comprehensive, it is also chronological, for he documents a steady development in Marlowe's treatment of the motif. He finds in the translation of Ovid a template for Marlowe's subsequent pattern in the plays and in Hero and Leander: descent from transgressive desire to tantalized frustration. Moreover, as Tromly reconstructs Marlowe's career he discovers "a trajectory in which the motif of teasing begins as an erotic, Ovidian game and then becomes increasingly politicized and violent, even when it remains sexual" (3). This trajectory culminates in Doctor Faustus's repellent theological cruelty and Hero and Leander's sadis tic mockery.

Tromly's analyses of tantalization in the chapters devoted to the plays are invariably interesting and convincing, with the discussions of Edward II and Doctor Faustus particularly strong. The parallels that Tromly discovers between Edward's punishment and the torment of Tantalus are compelling, as are his arguments -- based on the connection between Tantalus and the damnation of Faustus -- for Marlowe's authorship of the ending of the 1616 text of Doctor Faustus. But the concluding chapter devoted to Hero and Leander is an especially significant contribution. Persuasively disputing the readings of such critics as Roma Gill and Gordon Braden, who have argued that Marlowe takes his two lovers from frustration to fulfillment, Tromly finds that sexual climax is followed by climactic frustration and that the poem depicts frustration rather than fulfillment. I would go further and observe that in Hero and Leander even the fulfillment of desire partakes of frustration. That is, notwithstanding the fact that the da nce of desire culminates in mutual pleasure for the lovers, Hero's surrender nevertheless yields guilt and shame.

Playing with Desire impressively demonstrates that tantalization (including the metadramatic teasing of audiences) is a crucial component of Marlowe's dramatic method. However, Tromly's single-minded approach tends to rob Marlowe of any impulse other than iconoclastic cruelty He rejects the possibility (indeed, likelihood) that Marlowe's cruelty is a means to an end somewhat more elevated than an impulse to "do dirt on humanity," as Wilbur Sanders once characterized the motivations of Edward II in a notoriously homophobic outburst. Finding Marlowe contemptuous of any "educative concern" in his work (26), Tromly presents a playwright and poet unengaged with the very issues he raises. The failure to consider the broader implications of Marlowe's theater of cruelty seems to me to be a serious limitation to this otherwise excellent study.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:SUMMERS, CLAUDE J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:696
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