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Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation, and Marlowe.

Emily C. Bartels. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. xvii + 221 pp. $29.95.

Appearing towards the end of the playwright's quatercentenary, Spectacles of Strangeness is remote from the outcrop of fictions and reconstructions of Marlowe's life (Marlowe the spy, the scapegoat), the panegyrics on his aesthetic sensibilities (Marlowe the poet), the romantic fabrications (Marlowe the whitewashed heterosexual) and the stylistic appreciations (Marlowe the golden boy of the Golden Age) occasioned by this event. Though Bartels has utilized older-style criticism her new-historicist bias aligns her with the considerable number of contextualized accounts that locate Marlowe's plays within complex sets of interrelationships between actions (public and private), beliefs, and discursive practices. As such Bartels' contribution to existing work on imperialism and the urge to colonize in the early modern period are significant.

The substantive chapters are divided into two major sections dealing with the alien at home and abroad. Bartels begins with Dido Queen of Carthage -- "an imperialist competition in Africa," dealing with the coercive silencing of the other" -- and ends with Edward II, where a "political struggle in England" reveals "the exploitation . . . Of an other's otherwise silent sin" (173). Thus she aims to show that the dominant discourse in two different contexts are in fact part of a continuum" (173). By situating all of Marlowe's plays except Massacre at Paris within the political, ideological and epistemological confusions embedded in sixteenth-century imperialist and colonizing projects, Bartels perceives them as both symptomatic and radical. Symptomatic in the first place because these five plays form part of the contradictions, subversions, inconsistencies and doubts exposed by new historicist and cultural materialist ideologies. Secondly, they are radical in that (a) they challenge the ideology of other early modern imperialist writings which validate English supremacy abroad and insist on the demonization of the other (the Turk, the colonized, the alien) at home and abroad; and (b) this move away from the dominant discourse functions entirely as subversion and resistance. Thus even though she draws on the seminal works of Greenblatt and Dollimore by demonstrating the plays' transgressive and subversive tendencies, Bartels diverges in the matter of containment. In her reading of the plays as transparently radical, therefore, she does not see them as "inevitably playing into the coercive ideologies they seem to resist" (xv).

The central issue of her book is that Marlowe's concentration on the stranger in a foreign land is no accident but a reaction to the increasing obsession with remote places and strange peoples resulting from England's colonizing ventures. In addition, however, the self/other dichotomy is not simply confined to the alien/other -- the Jew, the Turk, the Scythian -- but extends also to various alien types -- the sodomite, the witch, the magician, "for their abstract negativity matters more than their specific dimensions" (8). Bartels' argument is that Marlowe's "discourse of difference" (4) is shown to operate domestically as well as cross-culturally. Like his aliens (Tamburlaine, Dido, Barabas), Marlowe's domestic others Faustus, Edward) are placed in situations that fail to accentuate the marks of their difference, for while the contours of otherness are drawn in the prologues, once the others" are on stage, the "uniqueness" of their type" is underplayed, and they appear "more like than unlike" (17-18). This argument works well in the instance of Dido and Edward II. Dido is strangely (though not unconvincingly) portrayed as a colonizing authority in equal competition with the (more easily recognizable) imperialist ambitions of Aeneas. In Edward II the articulation of sodomy, that "consummate sign of otherness" (145), is prevented by competing political discourses at the same time as it is invested with shocking actuality in the death scene.

Its critical rigor and conceptual strength make this book an important addition to the increasing volume of critical work on the connections between Renaissance writings and their cultural and discursive environments. It is thoroughly researched, meticulously referenced and tightly argued. The oppositional nature of her material is admirably reflected in the balanced antithesis of her style. And while she has chosen to work with new historicism Bartels makes note of its shortcomings. She takes care to avoid the untenable extremes to which the less able context-based studies sometimes give rise in their decentering of the author.
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Author:Taunton, Nina
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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