It is a common misrepresentation of Marlowe that he couldn't be funny. We know there were comic scenes in Tamburlaine - the printer Richard Jones admits to having cut them out, saying, "I haue (purposely) omitted and left out some fond and friuolous Iestures, digressing (and in my poore opinion) far vnmeet for the matter...they haue bene of some vaine conceited fondlings greatly gaped at, what times they were shewed vpon the stage in their graced deformities: neuertheles now, to be mixtured in print with such matter of worth, it wuld prooue a great disgrace to so honorable & stately a historie."
Doctor Faustus contains a number of comic scenes; The Jew of Malta can be played as a farce. Anyone who saw the National Theatre's excellent production in London last year will know that even in Dido Queen of Carthage there is plenty of comic material available to a skilful company. There is also a great deal of wit (and one might say out and out comedy) in the long narrative poem Hero and Leander.
Like Marlowe's plays, the early Shakespeare plays - the Henry VI trilogy, King John, Titus Andronicus, Richard III - are generally serious in intent. The earliest Shakespeare comedy is either The Comedy of Errors or The Taming of the Shrew (depending on whose dating you go with), the latter existing in an earlier version (The Taming of a Shrew) which may, some scholars suggest, have been penned by Marlowe.
Marlowe was considered a wit in his day, and there is contemporary personal testimony to back that up: Thomas Thorpe calls him “that pure, Elementall wit Chr. Marlow," and Thomas Heywood writes that he was “renown’d for his rare art and wit.” He was friends with, and influenced by, Thomas Nashe and Thomas Watson - both famously witty men. The commonly held belief that Marlowe wasn't capable of writing comedy just doesn't hold water. It is part of what Lukas Erne calls Marlowe's "mythography." One only has to read the accusations in the Baines Note to appreciate Marlowe in full comedic flow. It was the misinterpretation of his wit as seriousness that led to his personal tragedy in 1593. Let’s not perpetuate the error.
© Ros Barber, June 2010
Ros Barber is the first person in the world to complete a PhD in Marlovian authorship theory. Her PhD was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). A founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, she has published articles challenging the orthodox biography of Marlowe in academic books and journals, including the peer-reviewed Routledge journal Rethinking History. Her essay "Was Marlowe a Violent Man?," which was presented at the Marlowe Society of America conference in 2008, is featured in Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman (Ashgate 2010). A published poet, her latest poetry collection, Material (Anvil 2008), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was funded by Arts Council England.
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