For an interdisciplinary seminar of the Faculty of Letters, Sophia University, on the theme of “Respect for Human Dignity”, I decided to study the impact of Renaissance Humanism on Marlowe and Milton. Within Renaissance Humanism there was a latent tension between its pagan and Christian sources, a tension exacerbated toward the close of the sixteenth century when a tightening of political vigilance and confessional orthodoxy created a climate inhospitable to the freedom of mind that Renaissance culture had promoted. I read the work of Marlowe as a spectacular symptom of this tension, and that of Milton as taking the tensions on board and allowing them to give new dynamism to the project of Christian Humanism. Between both authors and the world today, the most signal bridging figure is no doubt Goethe, so I conclude with a look at the wondrous transmutation that the heritage of Christian Humanism, with all its tensions, undergoes in his work.
I: The Twilight of the Renaissance
Christian humanism, in a broad sense, is as old as Christianity itself. Jewish culture had a high view of human beings as formed in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and as lords over God’s creation:
Thou hast made him little less than God,
and dost crown him with glory and honour.
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
Thou hast put all things under his feet. (Psalm 8:5-6)
Classical Greece, too, stood in awe of the dignity and majesty of man:
terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man –
that great wonder crossing the heaving gray sea,
driven on by the blast of winter
on through breakers crashing left and right,
holds his steady course
and the oldest of the gods he wears away –
the Earth, the immortal, the inexhaustible –
as his plows go back and forth, year in, year out
with the breed of stallions turning up the furrows. (Sophocles, 76)
When Paul, the first Christian theologian, uses terms such as ‘freedom,’ ‘conscience,’ or parrhêsia (free speech), or when he says that ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21), he shows himself an heir of Greece as much as of Israel in recognizing human dignity.
The Fathers of the Church built up a rich anthropology that fused biblical and classical themes, strongly emphasizing the Genesis theme of humanity created in the Image of God, and the restoration of humanity in Christ to its former glory, or its elevation to a divine life. This fusion of Greek and Hebrew traditions was not free of tension. Around 200 CE, Clement of Alexandria, the Christian writer who was most immersed in Greek literary and philosophical culture, had to defend his broad vision and cultural ecumenism: “I am not unaware of what certain ignorant and timorous ones proclaim, that one ought to concern oneself with the most needful things, those that contain the faith, and pass over the outer, superfluous things that wear us out in vain and occupy us with what contributes nothing to the goal” (Stromateis 1.18.2). His contemporary Tertullian, steeped in classical rhetoric though he was, famously asked: ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy to do with the Church?’ (De praescriptione haereticorum, 7). Two centuries later, St Jerome, the Christian writer who best mastered Hebrew, worried that his elegant Latin style made him more Ciceronianus than Christianus. These tensions continue to haunt contemporary Christian reflection on the Greco-Roman inculturation of the biblical message in the first centuries, notably in the line of reflection developed by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), who recounts the growth of Christian doctrine in those early centuries as “a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel”.
In the middle ages, Western Christendom inherited from St Augustine (354-430) a harmonious synthesis of the classical Latin education (Cicero and Virgil especially) and the biblical tradition. In the Eastern world of Byzantium one may admire “the unified way in which language and literature, ancient philosophy and Christian teaching were transmitted in the Byzantine tradition” (Lohr, 557). Medieval Christendom did not pursue classical scholarship in the way that would be the hallmark of the Renaissance, but it had a profound humanistic core in the broader sense, for the soaring pillars of a Cathedral such as Notre-Dame de Paris not only praise and magnify the Creator but also lift up the human spirit that contemplates them As the architect in Faust II remarks:
Schmalpfeiler lieb’ ich, strebend, grenzenlos;
Spitzbögiger Zenit erhebt den Geist;
Solch ein Gebäu erbaut uns allermeist. (6412-4)
(Slender columns I love, striving, limitless; the pointed-arch peak exalts the mind; such a building is what most builds us up.)
The perfection of form sealed by the beautiful shape of the vault, the entire space shaped as a great ship, bespeaks the glory of human achievement as well as of the divine. The dedication of these buildings to the Blessed Virgin Mary is the ultimate humanistic touch. Mary represents the perfection of humanity, and the doctrines of her immaculate conception and bodily assumption into glory ensure that in her humanity can be freely reverenced in its absolute perfection. The foundation of the Universities was another great humanistic achievement of the high middle ages. In Paris and Oxford the power of the human mind was celebrated as the works of Aristotle, along with his Pagan, Jewish and Islamic commentators, enabled the construction of vast Cathedrals of thought in which the entire universe, including the divine and the human, were embraced in a comprehensive philosophical and theological analysis.
The radiant harmony of biblical faith and classical metaphysics in St Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) began to dim and fray in the 14th century as Scholasticism became ever more complicated and lost its breadth of vision, while society suffered from the catastrophe of the Plague as well as political divisions in Church and State. Renaissance humanism might be seen as a response to this crisis, a laborious new beginning that turned its back on scholastic abstractions and sought a firmer grasp of humanity and its history through a scholarly engagement with the classical sources. The essential ingredient of Renaissance humanism is a very determined effort to appropriate the Greco-Roman world and its values. Classical models inspired the stupendous achievements of sculpture, architecture and painting as well as the political culture that made Florence a new Athens. The prowess and energy of the scholars and artists testified to a new spirit, and implied a new ideology, gradually formulated by literati and philosophers, the ideology that we call “humanism” (though the word itself, as Michael Desprez points out, was not used at the time). Central to the Renaissance vision of the world was the celebration of the glory of Man.
Authors such as Petrarch (1304-1374) emulated the classical masters in their Latin prose and verse, turning their back on the more homely Latin of the medieval churchmen and academics. For all its elegance, this Renaissance Latin often seems stiff and stilted today. Despite the great influence of Petrarch’s Latin writings on the humanists who followed him, it is chiefly through his poems in the Italian vernacular that he lives for us as a writer. He was steeped in St Augustine, which meant that any tension between his pagan and Christian sources would be resolved in favour of Christianity. His Augustinian charter for Christian humanism, wherein “the Christian message completes and triumphs over that of antiquity” (Lohr, 558), lives on in the Christian Platonism of Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464) and Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who were able to subtly finesse any latent tensions between their Christian faith and their philosophical culture.
Many of the great works of Renaissance art were commissioned by churches and present biblical scenes and figures – with an unprecedented majesty of form and potency of human presence, as in the Adam and Eve of Masaccio, the Madonnas of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Christian scholarship also benefited from the new spirit: patristic and biblical traditions were repristinated when savants such as Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) and Desiderius Erasmus brought their critical acumen to bear on them. Valla ran foul of church authority, and is in that respect a precursor of later tension. But in general “the two attitudes – authority’s responsibility to protect society against error, and a general confidence that the mind should be free to explore the books of Christian, pagan and infidel in search of truth – coexisted with remarkably few conflicts until the Reformation” (Gremdler, 43).
In art, the naked body came into its own and there was a flood of images of such pagan figures as Venus, though these were more for aristocratic households than for public places such as churches. Christian and pagan thrived in tandem as in those tableaux of “Sacred and Profane Love” which counterpose a nude Venus and a chastely clothed lady. The high Renaissance had its crimes and excesses, and its libertines such as Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), but it is only in the twilight years of the Renaissance, at the end of the 16th century, that ideologies of philosophical libertinism begin to be expressed, along with religious scepticism, while amid puritan crackdowns the pagan and Christian sources of Renaissance humanism fly apart.
The tensions latent in the project of Christian humanism first ripened into something like crisis when a brilliant young man, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), offered in 1486 to hold a public disputation on 900 theses in Rome, to be inaugurated with a superb oration on the dignity of man. Rome was probably an unwise choice of venue, for even under so mild a papacy as that of Innocent VIII, the watchdogs of orthodoxy were ready to pounce, noting with particular disfavour the thesis that “there is no department of knowledge (scientia) that gives us more certainty of Christ’s divinity than magic and cabala” (Copenhaver, 270). They aborted the brash young disputant’s project, prompting him to flee to France, where he found himself imprisoned at papal behest. This was the end of the heyday of Christian Platonism, and Pico himself, under the influence of the Dominican Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), the arch-foe of the Renaissance, turned back toward the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas. The dread inspired by the epidemic of syphilis, a new disease, around this time contributed to undermining the self-confidence of the Renaissance thinkers and artists, making them receptive to the doomsday preaching of a Savanarola.
Nonetheless, the Oration on Human Dignity remains the best-known Renaissance philosophical text, and it was taken as the manifesto of the humanist ideology: the autonomy of human freedom and the human mind, naturalism, religious tolerance, recovery of forgotten ancient lore that attests these values, including a prisca theologia found in Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras (see Abbagnano; Capelle; Lohr, 561). Those who today attempt to reclaim the young Pico for orthodoxy (see de Lubac; Crouzel; Roulier), dismissing his troubles with Rome as a mere misunderstanding, if not as just so much “good sport”, may find their efforts eclipsed by the rather subversive Wirkungsgeschichte of the Oration. “The profound significance of Pico della Mirandola in the history of humanity can hardly be overestimated. He it was who first boldly formulated a new position for European man, man as Magus using both Magia and Cabala to act upon the world, to control his destiny by science” (Yates, 116).
To make “Man” or “humanity” the theme of one’s reflection is very difficult, since we are humans – our humanity is what is closest to hand and therefore the thing hardest to focus in an objective way. Pico comes late in the Renaissance and is able to bring into focus the conviction about the nature and dignity of Man that had been implicit in the creative achievements of the previous two centuries. Pico makes explicit the “unprecedented apprehension of reality sub specie hominis” (Garin, 34) whereby Renaissance thinkers and artists dislodged the medieval hierarchical cosmos, in which human dignity was rooted in knowledge of an objective order of being in which humanity was ascribed a stable and humble place. Rather human dignity now resides in a capacity for free action, a creative genius whereby Man shapes himself and the world. Human dignity had been a Renaissance theme since Petrarch, who in De remediis utriusque fortunae even claimed to be the first to write about it – perhaps with some justice if he can be seen as introducing the distinctive Renaissance accent. The theme was taken up in Bartolomeo Facio’s (1400-1457) De excellentia ac praestantia hominis and Giannozzo Manetti’s (1396-1459) De dignitate et excellentia hominis, both of which were ripostes to Innocent III’s De miseria conditionis humanae of two centuries earlier (see Kraye, 306), drawing on “the Hermetic doctrine of the theosanthropos [divine man], the focus of all reality” as it celebrated the “great miracle of man” (Vasoli, 65). Pico goes beyond these authors by rejecting the traditional basis of human dignity, based on the location of man as the “microcosm” at a fixed place in creation, and the idea that he acts as “the intermediary between creatures, that he is the familiar of the gods above him as he is the lord of the beings beneath him; that, by the acuteness of his senses, the inquiry of his reason and the light of his intelligence, he is the interpreter of nature, set midway between the timeless unchanging and the flux of time”. Pico “removed man from the centre of the Neoplatonic hierarchy of being and allotted him instead an indeterminate ontological status” (Kraye, 313).
Building on Ficino’s idea that Man has no fixed essence, Pico sees God as creating Man last of all, as a kind of mirror of divine wisdom, whose mind can contemplate the cosmos and range freely within it and whose chameleon nature can espouse angelic heights and bestial depths at will. This idea is developed by the French humanist Charles de Bovelles in his Liber de sapiente (1509): man is omnium expressio et naturale speculum, abiunctum et separatum ab universorum ordine (the expression and natural mirror of all, set outside and separated from the order of the universe) (quoted, Kraye, 314). God “longed for some creature which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty and smitten with awe at its grandeur”. Since he has no unused archetype after which to fashion Man, God decrees that he “should have a share in the particular endowment of every other creature”.
Pico has God address man as follows: “The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature”. “You may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine”. Juan Luis Vives develops this idea in Fabula de homine (1518), presenting man as an actor who plays every role in the universe (see Kraye, 313); de Lubac (184-204) finds patristic and medieval precedent for this protean humanity, but in these older sources human changeability and flexibility are judged negatively, and they throw into relief by contrast the new spirit of creative freedom and independence in Pico’s rhetoric. Even today, after centuries in which humanity has not always lived up to Pico’s vision of creative freedom, his words still have power to thrill.
If modern voices of freedom have often been bitter, violent, narrowly individualistic, it is because in the era of confessional hostilities such an exploratory, pluralistic vision as Pico’s could not pass uncontested and ran into determined opposition. The candour and confidence of Pico’s stand for humanism would become impossible after the Reformation had powerfully reminded Europe of the sinfulness of humanity and after the Counter-Reformation cultivated a new systematic vigilance against religious error.
So young, so learned, so sure of his powers – no wonder Pico represented even for Burckhardt “the lofty flight which Italian philosophy would have taken had not the Counter-Reformation annihilated the higher spiritual life of the people”. Burckhardt knew that Pico’s conception of human freedom in the cosmos empowered man “to have what he chooses, to be what he wants”, but he seems not to have realised that one dimension of this freedom was magical. Licit magic makes man “prince and master” of creation, even of the wicked spirits who tempt him to forbidden demonic magic. (Copenhaver, 268-9)
The Renaissance fascination with magic, which to Reformers and Counter-Reformers would stand for the height of human pride and presumption, is something we little remember or understand, so well has the 17th century scientific revolution done its work. Magical powers represent human freedom at its most intoxicating and its most dangerous.
This exalted conjunction of Christian tradition and the novelties of humanism came to grief not only on church repression but also on its own inner tensions. On the one hand it thanked the Creator for the gift of freedom and used that gift to explore and magnify the creation; on the other it chafed against any effective dependence on grace or recognition of a need of redemption. One symptom of the lurking crisis was the view of Aristotelians such as Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) that according to philosophy the soul is mortal; this was condemned by the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513. The consolidation of papal power, in reaction to Luther, left little space for the internal dialectic of Renaissance humanism to unfold in the Catholic world. Renaissance philosophizing seems to have continued in a cramped way, on sufferance and under surveillance.
Not only the paganism of the Renaissance, but even the original Hellenistic inculturation of Christianity in the patristic period, the magnificent synthesis of Greek philosophy and rhetoric with biblical vision, came under suspicion in the Reformation. In Luther the suspicion is theological, based on the perception that the power of the Gospel of divine salvation had been diminished by an overlay of human ways of thinking. Moral rejection of Renaissance paganism is embodied in Calvin’s Geneva, which gave birth to the strict “godly” way of life we call Puritanism. Luther detested Erasmus as a theologian and accused him, as early as 1517, of preferring things human to things divine (humana praevalent in eo plus quam divina, Weimar Ausgabe, Briefe, I, p. 35). His De Servo Arbitrio, in 1525, tramples on Renaissance boasting about human freedom. Yet Luther knew the value of Renaissance scholarship, and his second in command, Philip Melanchthon, “the preceptor of Germany”, kept up a programme of humanistic learning and education in the spirit of Erasmus. On the Catholic side the Jesuit educators did the same, using the texts of Erasmus while suppressing the author’s name. This educational humanism is a pallid, scholastic affair, kept subordinate to or at least in harmony with the discipline and propaganda of the Church.
At the end of the 16th century, such figures as Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and the Venetian theologian Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), who represent the last flaring up of the Renaissance ideal within Catholicism, were troubling outsiders to the Counter-Reformation culture. Bruno was one of the seventy-one people executed between 1572 and 1609 at the behest of the Roman Inquisition, with the highest rate under Gregory XIII, 1572-1585 (Del Col, 444). The Inquisition focused notably on philosophers such as Bruno, Campanella and Cremonini who drew on ancient Greek thought in humanistic fashion, reviving such ideas as the mortality of the soul or the eternity of the cosmos (Del Col, 542-57). (Eventually, the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 brought in a new climate of tolerance and from this time the Inquisition also became milder; see Del Col, 620-1.) Studies of Sarpi in recent years have found the key to his outlook and activities in a radical scepticism and religious indifferentism (Wootton 1983; Frajese 1994); he was no doubt in contact with Bruno and Campanella in Venice, sharing the latter’s rejection of the Trinity and other doctrines (Frajese, 176). It is perhaps symptomatic of the trend of the times that the poet Tasso (1544-1595), a master of Renaissance classical culture, was plagued by religious scruple and submitted his work to the judgement of the Inquisition. Beyond the frontiers of Italy, Montaigne (1533-1592) and Cervantes (1547-1616) express a sense of disillusion as they witness the glorious vision of the Renaissance fade. Canny observers of human affairs and masters of irony, their own position is characterized by a scepticism that makes them hard to pin down.
As the Renaissance was succumbing to its inherent strains and tensions and to the hostility of authoritarian religion, two extraordinary artists gave supreme embodiment to the Renaissance vision of Man. The awesome figure of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), sculptor, architect, painter and poet, represents both the supreme synthesis of biblical Christianity and classical paganism and the eruption of powerful contradictions between them. If classical and biblical meet harmoniously in the “Pietà” and the “David” around 1500 and in those great architectural enterprises that set the stamp on the Christian humanist synthesis of Renaissance Rome – his work on the façade of the Palazzo Farnese and its piazza (late 1540s), the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli (1563-1566), which reshapes the space of the Baths of Diocletian, and the dome of St Peter’s (completed twenty-six years after his death) – his work is also shaped by the distortions of Mannerism and scarcely subjects to Apollonian control the forces throbbing in the “Moses”, the various unfinished “Slaves” planned for the tomb of Julius II and the tumult of the Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel (1541).
In Shakespeare (1564-1616) too, Renaissance genius flamed up to a sublime height at the very moment when the Renaissance was petering out. Shakespeare is the least humanistic of great writers in the sense that he has little connection with the literary and philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome. But in the broader sense of the word, he is the most humanistic of all writers in virtue of his fascination with human life, which he explores and recreates in constantly fresh ways in his thirty-seven plays. The vision of these plays could be described as “Christian humanism”, but in a sense that is far beyond the narrowing ecclesiastical confrontations of the time. Something of the stress we found in Michelangelo is here too – in the murky “problem plays” for example, or in the way the scepticism of Montaigne pervades the texture of Hamlet.
In King Lear Shakespeare seems to register the clash between the old harmony of Christian culture and the emergence of a new, hard, rationalist and naturalist ethos. If the Renaissance had been undermined by the religious frenzy of the 16th century, its death-knell was sounded in the 17th century by the arrival of modern science, with its empiricism and rationalism. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne (1572-1631) already laments that “new Philosophy calls all in doubt” (“The First Anniversary”, 1611). The Renaissance heritage was itself disciplined and domesticated according to the quasi-scientific principles of Neo-Classicism in the 17th century court culture of England and France.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) – Shakespeare’s exact contemporary, and even, while he lived, his successful rival – can be seen as another emblematic representative of the twilight or crisis of Renaissance Christian humanism. Pico’s glorification of human freedom has turned quite sour in this playwright, whose protagonists can assert their freedom only in the key of destruction and self-destruction. (Pico was widely admired and translated in England, from Thomas More on, so his intoxicating humanism may be a direct influence on Marlowe, as it was on his friend Raleigh, the Englishman of his time most steeped in Italian culture; see Sacerdoti 1997.)
Opposition to established religion, in such a climate, could not easily find a liberal middle ground but was pushed to the other extreme of libertinism and radical scepticism. The forerunner of later liberalism was Montaigne, and the essay was the genre in which it began to find voice (represented in England by Francis Bacon). Another genre in which a certain freedom of thought could find expression was the theatre. Shakespeare’s Hamlet combines the world of thought of Montaigne’s Essays with a compendium of dramatic conventions – the protagonist combines the stock roles of Revenger, Machiavel and Melancholic even as he voices a philosophical frame of mind that transcends all three roles and shows up their conventionality. Free thought could only advance under a mask at this time, and theories of “honest dissimulation” were developed by Jesuit casuists. It was an age of spies, censorship and ecclesiastical penalties. Anti-Jesuit literature associated the Jesuits with “Machiavellian” subversion, and Jesuits were vocal advocates of “tyrannocide”, with Elizabeth I and William of Orange filling the role of tyrant.
The libertinism of those years had a social and a personal aspect; socially it upheld religion as a means of controlling the populace; on the personal level it promoted a clear division of the external and the internal. Externally one submitted to political and religious authority, but one preserved sovereign freedom in one’s inner judgement, which could not be coerced (see Frajese, 51). The two attitudes could not however be fully distinguished, and Marlowe, like Sarpi, represented both. Moreover, since “one is what one pretends to be”, the external conformism must have compromised the inner liberty, making the great Sarpi petty and calculating, and making Marlowe sometimes a pawn of ignoble political schemes, and sometimes a rebel against the discipline of dissimulation to his own cost. Even at a later date Descartes, heir of Montaigne, adopted the motto larvatus prodeo (“I advance masked”) and Spinoza wrote to be read between the lines, both of them adjusting to conventional ethics and beliefs in their external lives. Marlowe was not sufficiently a man of masks to survive.
Marlowe’s Quarrel with God
As in the case of Pico and of Sarpi, a dispute rages among those who would reclaim Marlowe for orthodoxy or at least for religious earnestness and those who celebrate him as heterodox and his works as “a site of resistance” against religious, political and sexual repression. Educated at Cambridge, on a church scholarship, and probably destined for holy orders, Marlowe would have acquired the humanistic culture that Melanchthon had brought to the Protestant world, beginning in Wittenberg. Marlowe had a good knowledge at least of the Latin Classics, translating Ovid and Lucan. But he was particularly receptive to the elements in pagan culture that were incompatible with the orthodoxies of Christendom. The use of Greek and Latin sources in his writings is marked by a subversive and dissident edge.
Marlowe was reputed to be an atheist, but we have no direct expressions of his religious views. Marlowe’s Machevil (Machiavelli) gleefully declares in the Prologue to The Jew of Malta: “I hold religion but a childish toy”. He himself seems to have had a dangerous taste for similar declarations. Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta revel in blasphemy, and even when such hubris gets its come-uppance in the damnation of Faustus, Marlowe’s sympathies seem to lie with the blasphemer till the end. The magnificent rhetoric of Tamburlaine is tinged with blasphemy against the gods:
Our quivering lances, shaking in the air,
And bullets, like Jove’s dreadful thunderbolts,
Enroll’d in flames and fiery smouldering mists,
Shall threat the gods more than Cyclopian wars;
And with our sun-bright armour, as we march,
We’ll chase the stars from heaven, and dim their eyes
That stand and muse at our admired arms. (Part I, Act II, Sc. 3)
The famous Baines note, listing Marlowe’s blasphemies, is unlikely to be a mere smear, and gains in conviction as the historical context is clarified by scholars. Baines reports Marlowe’s statements that Moses was a mere juggler (imposter) and that Thomas Harriott, a man of Raleigh’s (and a model for Marlowe’s Faustus) could do more than Moses; it seems that this attitude came from Giordano Bruno via Raleigh to Marlowe (see Salutati, 591-2). An idea of Machiavelli, also found in Raleigh, who was steeped in the Florentine thinker, is echoed in the Baines note: “That the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe” (Sacerdoti, 593). “Marlowe’s blasphemies and iconoclasm are in fact typical of his time. Just before Marlowe went up to Corpus Christi College, Gabriel Hervey noted that, in Cambridge, ‘You cannot step into a scholar’s study but (ten to one) you shall lightly find open either Bodin De Republica or Le Roy’s exposition upon Aristotle’s Politics or some other like French or Italian politic discourse’” (Hattaway, 208). Republicanism was the preferred political creed of atheists and libertines.
One writer finds in Marlowe “an intense (esasperata) religiosity side by side with an equally intense irreligiosity” (d’Agostino, 13). Generally, it is fruitful to see him as a conflicted thinker and author, rather than as one who put forward well-worked-out positions. But this conflictedness is not just a question of individual psychology. It is symptomatic of the deeper tensions of the age. David Riggs situates Marlowe in the intellectual landscape of his time as follows:
English atheists became articulate with the advent of Protestant humanism. It was the unintended consequence of an educational program designed to yoke literacy to belief, and eloquence to religion. While this project possessed enormous marketing power, the grand synthesis between learning and piety proved elusive in practice. The contradictions between self-empowerment through letters and self-abnegation before God could be managed and displaced, but were never resolved. This crisis within Christian humanism created a conceptual space to which real subjects were called, and within which Marlowe’s life and art become legible. (20)
There is a sharp edge to the atheism associated with Marlowe that we do not find in later dilutions of biblical theism, which flourished in the more liberal post-1648 climate:
Early English unbelief contested a “reformed” God who used the fear of punishment to discipline unruly subjects. A century later, deism and unitarianism contrived to preserve the idea of a benevolent God in a universe from which His menacing Biblical forbear had largely been dislodged. The former was an act of resistance; the latter, of accommodation. (22)
The extreme theology of Calvin made the natural man a natural atheist. “The natural man epitomized a basic contradiction in reformed Christianity. Divine justice exists in order to terrorize him into good behavior, yet he has ample inducement not to believe in the very law that transforms him into a God-fearing citizen” (24). If religion as an agent of social control was resented, it could be even more resented when it had laid its hand on the heart, judging and forbidding natural instincts. This double resentment underlies Marlowe’s writing, which is propelled by the recklessness of a firebrand.
If Marlowe’s indiscretions and the brio of his protagonists undercut all attempts to impose a reassuring orthodox reading, those who have a heterodox axe to grind, such as William Empson, may falsify his work as well. Derek Jarman has abducted Marlowe for the most radical rhetoric of gay liberation, making obsolete the older arguments of nervous apologists, who claimed that homosexuality was more rife in other Elizabethan playwrights (see Hilton). But it is more interesting to read Marlowe not just as a troubler of conventions, but as one who was himself troubled, one who lived on the edge. Doctor Faustus could hardly have been written by someone who had no fears of eternal damnation, and the ferocious homophobia acted out by the killers of Edward II suggests that Marlowe had a clear vision of the dangers to which the flaunted homoeroticism of a Gaveston would expose him. The unstoppable rise of Tamburlaine, culminating in acts of genocide, is celebrated ruthlessly in Marlowe’s play, but it cannot but inspire unease in the spectator, and a sense that Marlowe himself has qualms about his own creation, and that these qualms are intrinsic to the texture of the play.
Aspiring Mind and Cruel Heart
What is peculiarly disturbing is that Marlowe links to this sadistic and megalomaniac conqueror the values of Faustian man, the values of Pico. The “aspiring mind” of Marlowe’s heroes is first expressed by Tamburlaine in a remarkable speech:
The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caus’d the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair,
And place himself in the empyreal heaven,
Mov’d me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that fram’d us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. (Part I, Act 2, Sc. 6)
Though the historical Timur was a Muslim, throughout this play Tamburlaine invokes classical mythology, in particular, as here, the stories of Zeus, the Giants and the Titans, to magnify his own greatness. The closing line of the speech has seemed shockingly bathetic, but no doubt this is intentional. Tamburlaine indulges in cynical sophisms in claiming Jove as his model and nature as his teacher, and taking the idea that Man is a microcosm, because made up of the same four elements as the macrocosm, he gives it a naturalistic twist that brings Man down to animal level. Similar naturalism fed a sceptical relativization of human status in Marlowe’s contemporaries Montaigne and Pierre Charron. But the flippancy of Tamburlaine and of the Jew of Malta produces a curious comic effect. Marlowe, one suspects, liked to play at subversion as a high-spirited prank, without the deadly earnestness of a Bruno or a Sarpi.
Marlowe indulges a sceptical and pessimistic view of history: “For Marlowe, as later for the Ben Jonson of Sejanus and Catiline, the hero who every so often appears in the world is nothing but the hypostasis of a malefic force and can bring only destruction and death” (d’Agostino, 21). His destiny is to shake up a sleepy world by imposing on it his own project and his own image; Marlowe is the prophet of Napoleon. “Tamburlaine is conscious of pursuing in parallel with the material struggle a metaphysical struggle. Marlowe seems to follow the titanism of his character with a jumpy and nervous affection” (d’Agostino, 22).
There is a dark core to Tamburlaine. Part I ends with a complete massacre of the inhabitants of Damascus, Tamburlaine’s most glorious deed. This is not an extravagant fantasy, but reflects political culture of the time: “massacre is a necessary, not incidental, component of sovereignty – part of its broader political logic” (Hammill, 314). Indeed, the incident may be based on the behaviour of Marlowe’s friend Sir Walter Raleigh, who similarly slaughtered the four hundred Italians and Spaniards who surrendered at the siege of Fort Del Ore in Ireland: “not even the women were spared”; Raleigh’s “campaigns in Ireland had been marked with a swift and relentless cruelty amounting to barbarism. Stories of his wholesale massacres of prisoners had lent terror to his name” (Wright and Stern, 135). It is unsatisfactory to praise Marlowe for “lending an evocative beauty to deeds of horror”, thrilling the groundlings “to cathartic effect” (ibid., 136) or to defend him against the charge of having a “cruel heart” by quoting the seemingly pacifist lines: “Accurst be he that first invented war…” – for these are placed on the lips of the effete Mycetes, whose indignation finds expression in the ridiculous alliterations of “Fearing the force of Boreas’ boist’rous blasts” (Act II sc. 4). In Tamburlaine Part II the eldest son of the conqueror is similarly portrayed as an unwarlike weakling, and is dispatched by his father’s own hand, to the delight of the audience.
[I made an incidental remark on this massacre in a letter to the Irish Times on Sept. 26th, 2006: “David Woods (September 21st) refers to Muslim massacres of those who refused to surrender in a siege. But this practice, normal in ancient Rome, was also followed by Christians, such as Sir Walter Raleigh in one incident in Ireland”. Leo Enright replied on Sept. 27th: “In 1580, troops sent by Pope Gregory and commanded by Sebastiano di San Giuseppe landed at Smerwick in Kerry. After a three-day siege, San Giuseppe surrendered on October 10th, 1580 to Arthur Grey, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (then called the Lord Deputy). Grey ordered a massacre. Italian, Spanish and Irish men – and Irish women – were beheaded and their bodies thrown into the sea. According to folklore, the English spent two days decapitating their victims (see the monument at Dún an Óir)... O’Leary is not correct if he suggests that Grey and Walter Raleigh (a participant) acted according to the normal practice of the time. Even by the standards of their own day, these men were war criminals”. On Oct. 5th Valerie Bary denied that Sir Walter Raleigh carried out the massacre: “It was known that Raleigh opposed Lord Grey’s iron-fisted tactics in dealing with the Irish and there was bad blood between the two. Grey refused to have Raleigh present in his army. Raleigh, as recorded by the State Papers (1574-85) was left behind in the army’s main camp in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, while Lord Ormond (Black Tom Butler) and Sir William Stanley left to join Lord Grey at Smerwick… The Italians and Spanish were massacred in Fort Dún an Óir by men led by Edward Denny (Ward of the Day) together with sailors from the English naval ships lying off-shore under Admiral William Winter. During the 16th-century world, the usual end to the taking of a town or castle was a complete massacre of the inhabitants… There were no women massacred at Smerwick, as there were none present. Perhaps this was because of the distance and the grilling speed at which Grey drove his men from Dingle and possibly the presence of six naval ships, with tenders, moored in the vicinity… A detailed account of this massacre, together with a vindication of Sir Walter Raleigh, was given in a recent publication of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Journal - Series 2, Vol.4, 2004.” On Nov. 14th Annette Lyne wrote: “The official report from Smerwick, sent to Secretary of State, Walsyngham, on November 11th, 1580, states that ‘The morrowe after. . . the ffortes were yeelded, all the Irish men and women hanged’. This report from the State Papers is printed in Sir John Pope Hennessy’s Sir Walter Ralegh in Ireland (London: 1883), p. 207. (cf. Calendar of State Papers Ireland 1574-85, vol. LXXVIII, no. 27).” Lyne cites John Hooker’s The Chronicles of Ireland (dedicated to “the honorable Sir Walter Ralegh”), according to which Grey “had now in his companie about eight hundred men... under the leadings of capteine Zouch, capteine Walter Raleigh, capteine Denie... capteine Macworth, capteine Achin, and others: and then he marched towardd the fort (Dún an Óir, Smerwick) where the Spaniards and Romans were setled… Capteine Raleigh, notwithstanding that the lord deputie had raised his campe at Rekell, (Rathkeale, Co Limerick) and was gone towards the fort, yet he taried and staied behind, minding to practise some exploit”. However Raleigh later joined Grey: “This first daie of batterie was capteine Raleighs ward daie... The fourth daie was capteine Zouches ward daie... When the (Spanish) capteine had yeelded himselfe, and the fort appointed to be surrendered, capteine Raleigh together with capteine Macworth... entered into the castell, and made a great slaughter, manie or the most part of them being put to the sword" (this text is incorporated into Holinshed’s Chronicles, vol. 1, 1587, folios. 170r, 171r). A subsequent letter contested the reliability of this Chronicle.]
Marlowe’s attitude to war and to politics is more than a radical demystification or desacralization, in the footsteps of Machiavelli. His is not the grave and statesmanlike Machiavelli of Bacon, James Harrington, Cromwell and Milton (see Raab 1964; Procacci, 209-61), but the demonized Machiavelli of popular legend. He takes a delight in subversion; the rise of an obscure shepherd to world dominion, in Tamburlaine, was calculated to upset Elizabethan society, already perturbed by the breaking down of strict differentiation of social ranks. The cynical tactics of his warriors hold the mirror up to the cynicism of Elizabethan Realpolitik. “As they watched the creation of this type of Asiatic absolutism, Marlowe’s audience were being offered an ironic analysis of the culture they themselves inhabited… War, it turns out, belongs not in the realm of theodicy, as a writer like Spenser would have us believe, but in the realm of strategy… Piracy, cynically legitimized by Cecil and the monarchy, was, for Elizabethans, in reality the most notable form of war” (Hattaway, 201). What carries his vision into an almost nihilistic realm is his use of farce both to celebrate and to mock the unscrupulous violence of his subversive figures, not only Barabas in The Jew of Malta, but already the characters of Tamburlaine. “He adopts a position of sardonic detachment – bordering on contempt – from his creations, a stance which is like the position of a jester vis-à-vis his subjects… Many of the most serious moments in the plays seem to be rendered within the conventions of clownery” (Hattaway, 200).
In the later plays, Doctor Faustus and Edward II, d’Agostino discerns a new tonality: “As if the poet had convinced himself that the true essence of man can be better gleaned in the suffering of the soul than in that of the body, or as if of a sudden his heart was penetrated by a feeble ray of goodness that would surely have borne fruit if he had had the time” (25). There is “heartfelt compassion” in the scene of Edward II’s death that is “absolutely new in Marlowe” (ibid.). Perhaps a more obvious change in these last two plays is that the protagonist is no longer triumphant, but undergoes a masochistic Calvary, the object rather than the administrator of cruelty. Marlowe has grown serious, attaining tragic depths at key moments in Doctor Faustus and at the end of Edward II.
Tamburlaine’s reference, quoted above, to “aspiring minds… still climbing after knowledge infinite” is entirely out of character, better suiting the figure of Faustus. Unfortunately even in Doctor Faustus Marlowe does not much develop this theme, but it reverberates later in English poetry, in Hamlet, a tragedy acted out in the mind of its protagonist, and, as we shall see, in Milton. Hamlet’s conversation with fellow-students from Wittenberg, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Act II, scene ii) handles Renaissance commonplaces ironically: some bantering about Fortune (see Salutati; Poppi), and celebration of the mind, with a tendency toward scepticism: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”; “I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself a king of infinite space”. Marlowe anticipates Shakespeare in bringing human subjectivity to the forefront of literary awareness.
Indeed, literary criticism has flourished on taking Marlowe’s plays as fragments revealing a daring new subjectivity, making the playwright himself a star of English Renaissance self-awareness, self-confidence and what Stephen Greenblatt calls “self-fashioning”. A subject-centred approach to Marlowe, which interprets his protagonists as projections of his own fantasy and passions, is particularly alluring, since his dramaturgy, through respectable, does not set in motion a host of three-dimensional human characters as Shakespeare’s does; the creator does not disappear behind his handiwork; his own personality obtrudes at every turn. Such a writer lends himself to a phenomenological analysis of his imaginative world (monde imaginaire) in the style of the Geneva School of Georges Poulet and Jean-Pierre Richard, imitated by the early J. Hillis Miller; indeed Shakespeare has had something approximating this treatment in the works of G. Wilson Knight. Pushed aside by structuralism and deconstruction, this sympathetic and empathetic critical approach seems exactly what is required to make Marlowe’s texts speak with full resonance.
The same outrageousness that characterizes Marlowe’s treatment of politics is also in evidence in his treatment of sexual matters. “His depiction of the frolicsome suggests Marlowe’s delight – jouissance – in the ludic, the way he and his characters are, as we have seen, clowns who follow their desires and explore and subvert élite groups within their societies… Indeed Marlowe’s whole aesthetic is frolicsome, like Oscar Wilde’s – at once indecorous, sensuous, outrageous, and serious” (Hattaway, 206-7). I agree with Hattaway (210-11) that there is “enough in Marlowe to question the current orthodox opinion that in the early modern period – or at least in literary texts – there was homosexual activity without the emergence of homosexual identity.” However, the old tradition of Platonic or Ciceronian friendship was very alive at this time. Montaigne’s ardent essay on friendship (Essais I 27), based on his relationship with Étienne de la Boétie, was translated into Italian at Sarpi’s request by his faithful friend and biographer Fulgenzio Micanzio, some forty years after Montaigne in 1580 presumably gave a copy of his Essays to the French ambassador at Venice, Arnaud du Ferrier, through whom Sarpi knew the French world and who no doubt lent the work to Sarpi, who shows deep acquaintance with it from the 1580s (see Frajese, 63-9). Most of the homoerotic feelings of Marlowe probably fell comfortably within this ideology, and need be no more “licentious” than Shakespeare’s Sonnets. But even here Marlowe wanted to overstep the respectable limits of Christian humanism, and probably remained deeply conflicted, torn between the classical synthesis and his own subversive and perverse instincts.
Pico’s radiant projection of Renaissance man as magus takes on dark hues in the figure of Georg Faust, who died mysteriously c. 1539. He was denounced, under the name Johannes, by Melanchthon, who knew him, as “a latrine full of devils”. A compilation edited for religious purposes, the Faust-Book of 1587 became an international bestseller. Marlowe, knowing a good thing when he saw it, seized on the English translation of 1592 and followed it closely in Doctor Faustus.
Faust, a Professor, and what is more a Doctor, of Wittenberg University, turns his back on the Faculties of philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine and divinity in order to find knowledge through magic. This is “white” rather than “black” magic, according to the distinction made by Pico and others: “magic has two forms. One consists wholly in the operations and powers of demons, and consequently this appears to me, as God is my witness, an execrable and monstrous thing. The other proves, when thoroughly investigated, to be nothing else but the highest realization of natural philosophy”. As Pico tells us,
Just as that first form of magic makes man a slave and pawn of evil powers, the latter makes him their lord and master. That first form of magic cannot justify any claim to being either an art or a science while the latter, filled as it is with mysteries, embraces the most profound contemplation of the deepest secrets of things and finally the knowledge of the whole of nature. This beneficent magic, in calling forth, as it were, from their hiding places into the light the powers which the largess of God has sown and planted in the world, does not itself work miracles, so much as sedulously serve nature as she works her wonders. (http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Mirandola)
Disappointingly, Marlowe’s Faustus, hungry for power and pleasure, is more interested in black magic than the white magic that seeks insight into the construction of the cosmos and the semina rerum, in the spirit of the emblematic man of learning, Paracelsus (see Trunz, 470, 514). Neither does Faustus display that other dimension of the Renaissance vision of mind, a sense of its own divinity as it returns to itself. “To discover its true self, the mind must withdraw from the otherness which is involved in sense-perception and rational knowledge and turn inward. It must turn away from its contingent activity ad extra and ascend to its own necessary, intrinsic dynamism” (Lohr, 553, resuming Cusanus). What Marlowe does articulate is a deep disappointment in the power of learning, in which Renaissance humanism had invested so many utopian expectations, to bring salvation or even simple human happiness and fulfilment.
Paul Bishop is wrong to say that “whereas Marlowe’s play is a tragedy of learning, Goethe’s Faust is much broader, and could well be called a tragedy of being” (Bishop, xxx). As d’Agostino notes, “the gnoseological titanism is a gratuitous addition of modern critics to the list of his sins” (28); “Faust deserts ‘learning’s golden gifts’ for a different ‘food’, that of magic” (29). Faustus, like Tamburlaine, wants to rule the world, enjoying complete freedom, rather than to know it, submitting to the laws that learning discerns. Goethe’s Faust is also disappointed by and impatient of humanistic discipline, yet he continues to thirst for knowledge, of a more vital order.
Marlowe’s play is seen by orthodox-minded readers as little more than a medieval cautionary tale of the damnation of a blasphemer. Yet the opening Chorus presents Faustus not as a repulsive monster but as an Icarus (see Hucke, 90). Marlowe does not have us withhold our sympathy from his protagonist, but he is not interested in the harmonious resolutions reached in other versions of the Faust legend. He likes to take us to the brink of an utter metaphysical abyss:
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
I believe that Marlowe did not achieve a mature vision or wisdom and that his plays have no final message. Whatever elements of Christianity he knew had been injected the wrong way. Instead he aimed to dramatize his questions and instincts in the most electrifying way. This final scene is not a lesson on pride and its downfall, but a vivid imagining of damnation – for dramatic rather than philosophical effect. It exhibits a paradoxical conjunction of narrowness and expansion. Faustus seeks to alter the necessity of his doom, to no avail, and he counts the narrowing span of time that conveys him to that doom; but as the space of his existence narrows his imagination takes huge leaps at great speed: Faust imagines the cosmos coming to a stop or reversing its order; he projects awesome images of divine mercy and divine anger, again with a cosmic dimension; he conjures up a series of apocalypses – calling on the mountains to fall on him, the earth to swallow him up, the stars to dissolve him in a mist.
Mountains and hills come, come and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!
No, no! Then will I headlong run into the earth;
Earth gape! O no, it will not harbour me!
You stars that reigned at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist
Into the entrails of yon labouring clouds,
Then at the striking of the half-hour he broods on the endlessness of eternity, wishing his soul mortal, cursing successively his parents, himself, Lucifer. When midnight strikes, he convulsively begs to be transformed into air or water-drops. Finally, imagination, already so vivid, gives way to horrific vision: “My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!/Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!/Ugly hell, gape not!” The impotent resolution, “I’ll burn my books” mordantly underlines the crushing awareness that it is too late. This high drama stands on its own, rather unsupported by the preceding four acts. Any previous considerations of repentance on Faustus’s part have been rather summary, so his final situation is not well prepared.
(This is also true of the finale of Da Ponte/Mozart’s Don Giovanni, for the dissolute Don’s activities in the course of the opera have not been consistently viewed under the aspect of sin and repentance. The 2008 Salzburg Festival production imposed unity of conception by having the protagonist, now a drug addict trapped in a constantly revolving park, die of a wound inflicted during the initial exchange of shots in which the Commendatore dies; the latter never reappears; his thuds on the door are replaced by those of a gravedigger digging a tomb, into which Don Giovanni falls. The opera then becomes the story of a frenetic desire to live, in the face of impending death – forgoing the most dramatic property at Mozart’s, as at Marlowe’s, disposal: the flames of Hell, and missing also the unbridled joy in life that makes the work so intoxicating, and which is well caught in Joseph Losey’s film version.)
III. Milton’s Quarrel with Marlowe
The contradictions within Christian humanism, which snapped in the wilful and wanton subversiveness of Marlowe, are heroically sustained by Milton (1608-1674), who seeks to resolve them in the different genres of classical poetry which he adopted. A superlative scholar (Marlowe is a schoolboy in comparison), he built his work on the foundations of classical and Renaissance literature, much as Venice is built on the deep-laid piles that sustain it. Like Venice it may be a sinking edifice, a wishful construction eaten away, despite the perfection of its beauty, by some inner unreality. Shored up by orthodox critics like C. S. Lewis it has attracted the fury of heterodox ones like Empson, and what most readers prize in it are the elements of pagan energy and loveliness rather than the religious worldview, which few have found sustaining.
Milton, as a poet, is a latter-day Renaissance genius, though as a political activist and Oliver Cromwell’s Latin Secretary he seems a more modern figure. When his political career collapsed he returned to the dreams of his youth, when he imitated classical genres such as elegy, composing in Latin and Italian as well as in English, and mixing during his fifteen months abroad (1638-9) with Florentine literati – members of two Platonic academic societies in the line of Ficino – who were able to appreciate his genius as his own countrymen were not. Now, isolated and blind, he tackled the greatest of the classical genres, epic (Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained) and tragedy (Samson Agonistes). The struggles of his political years are replayed here in the realm of high poetic fantasy: the War in Heaven (P. L. V-VI) and the great debate in Hell (P. L. II), the glorious revenge of Samson on the Philistines, echo the great events the poet had lived through and exhibit his scars of battle and defeat. But he writes now as a poet-mage, drawing inspiration from the nightly visits of his heavenly Muse, Urania, and praying to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit.
The cosmos of Paradise Lost is fantastically old-fashioned, though the poet had probably met and certainly admired Galileo; it could scarcely be otherwise, since the argument of the epic is supplied by the Genesis story read completely literally. The creaky cosmology – Earth hangs from Heaven by a golden chain and Hell is a place located at a distance from them, reached by traversing the gulf of Chaos – and the biblical literalism are sustained in a spirit of creative play, as supports for the picturesque and dramatic imagination, and are not opposed to modern science or more critical biblical scholarship (though Milton would not have known the ground-breaking biblical researches of Richard Simon. 1638-1712). Nonetheless it is significant that Milton’s great achievement is positioned at such a distance from modernity, as if harking back to the integral Renaissance vision of the cosmos. Milton is schooled in the Neo-Classical orthodoxies of his contemporaries, as shown by the rather doctrinaire preface to Samson Agonistes, yet these canons come under strain in the baroque extravagance of the epic and in the archaic Hebraic force of his tragedy, which contains passages of jangled irregular verse that are remote from the musical structure of Greek tragic choruses.
Central to Paradise Lost is Book IX, which can be seen as a tragedy inserted into the epic (“I now must change/Those notes to tragic…”, IX 5-6). The tragedy enacts the very action which the title of the whole poem designates, for “lost” is not an adjective but a past participle denoting the completion of an action, the losing of Paradise (compare Venice Preserved, Otway’s play about the preserving of Venice from a threat, or Tasso’s Jerusalem Liberated). Milton initially planned the epic as a play, to be called Adam Unparadised, and this original inspiration may lie behind Book IX, which is dominated by soliloquies and sustained dialogues and could easily be rewritten as a play. It follows the classical and neoclassical unities of time (a few hours), place (a corner of Eden) and action (the eating of the forbidden fruit). Unlike Samson Agonistes, famously criticized by Dr Johnson for failing to fulfil Aristotle’s prescription that a tragedy should have a beginning, a middle and an end, bound together by connections of necessity, Book IX is a seamless sequence of actions that move step by step to the foreknown conclusion. As in the case of Samson, one might divide it into five acts, with Satan’s soliloquy as prologue; I: the dialogue of Adam and Eve; II: Satan’s second soliloquy and temptation dialogue with Eve; III: Eve’s soliloquies as she persuades herself to taste the fruit and then congratulates herself on her act; IV: Eve’s temptation dialogue with Adam; V: the subsequent amorous and recriminatory exchanges between the fallen pair. The Fall of Man might seem an anti-humanistic theme, recalling Original Sin in order to humble the pride of the Renaissance thinkers. But Milton’s emphasis falls on God’s providential care for Man, whose fall He foresees and whom he judges (in Book X) with mercy and understanding, while the last two books open up a bright future prospect and foretell the restoration of Man in Christ.
Milton first engages with Marlowe (along with the licentious Cavalier poets) in Comus. The Dionysan figure of Comus uses seductive eloquence that could have come from Marlowe’s pen:
O foolishness of men! that lend their ears
To those budge doctors of the Stoic fur,
And fetch their precepts from the Cynic tub,
Praising the lean and sallow Abstinence.
Wherefore did Nature pour her bounties forth,
With such a full and unwithdrawing hand,
Covering the earth with odours, fruits, and flocks,
Thronging the seas with spawn innumerable,
But all to please, and sate the curious taste?
List Lady be not coy, and be not cozened
With that same vaunted name virginity,
Beauty is nature’s coin, must not be hoarded,
But must be current, and the good thereof
Consists in mutual and partaken bliss… (705-13,736-40)
In fact, as Fowler notes (212), one of the many parallels to this speech is in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (I 199-310):
This idol which you term Virginity,
Is neither essence subject to the eye,
No, nor to any one exterior sense…
Of that which hath no being do not boast,
Things that are not at all are never lost… (269-71, 275-6)
Milton’s “Lady” reproves Comus sternly:
I had not thought to have unlocked my lips
In this unhallowed air, but that this juggler
Would think to charm my judgement, as mine eyes
Obtruding false rules pranked in reason’s garb…
Imposter do not charge most innocent Nature,
As if she would here children should be riotous… (755-8, 761-2)
Hero does not rebuff Leander with like severity:
Thereat she smiled, and did deny him so,
As put thereby, yet might he hope for mo…
Who taught thee rhetoric to deceive a maid?
Aye me, such words as these should I abhor,
And yet I like them for the Orator. (311-2, 338-40)
As a student at Cambridge from 1624-32, where he was known as “the Lady of Christ’s [College]”, Milton must have heard of the reputation and fate of Marlowe. It seems that here, in 1634, he is conducting an argument with the Elizabethan.
In Paradise Lost the “aspiring mind” of Marlowe’s heroes, expressed in vaulting rhetoric, is attributed to Satan:
High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus or of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence, and from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain war with heaven, and by success untaught
His proud imaginations thus displayed,
Powers and dominions, deities of heaven,
For since no deep within her gulf can hold
Immortal vigour, though oppressed and fallen,
I give not heaven for lost. (Paradise Lost II 1-14)
The word “aspires” occurs elsewhere:
Some other power
As great might have aspired, and me though mean
Drawn to his part. (IV, 61-3)
One feature of Milton’s style that owes much to Marlowe is the spectacular listing of exotic oriental place-names. But in Marlowe such names evoke the expanding horizons of the “age of discovery”, while in Milton they have a bookish, dreamy cast. On the political front, however, Milton was an effective and realistic thinker, a sturdy republican who perhaps thought of Marlowe’s “proud imaginations” as immature and ineffectual, intoxicated with Tamburlainian fantasies of power.
While scholars have long recognized Milton’s engagement with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in the spatial dynamics of Satanic hell in Paradise Lost, they have neglected… the fact that Christopher Marlowe is the first Englishmen to translate the Roman author whom David Norbrook calls “the central poet of the republican imagination”, Lucan… Marlowe historically precedes Milton as an English author of republican freedom; and second, that Milton presents Satan as the dark-shadow of Marlovian republican liberty perhaps because Marlowe had failed where it counted most: to disengage sufficiently his English authorship from the autonomy of royalist thought and therefore to champion outright republican literary freedom. (Cheney)
Be that as it may, Marlowe’s aspiring mind becomes a feature of Satan:
and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same (Paradise Lost I, ll. 251-6)
A similar sense of the mind’s grandeur is expressed by Belial:
for who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated Night (II, ll. 146-50)
Fowler notes that “several Senecan passages describe the soul’s power to range through heaven” (p. 96), referring to De consolatione xi 4-5, but this is a scanty matter; xi 5: inmortalia, aeterna volutat anima. Echoes of Hamlet and of Claudio’s speech in Measure for Measure lie closer to hand, along with Marlowe’s Mephistophilis, who says:
Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss? (Marlowe, 356)
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed,
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be. (364)
Similarly Milton’s Satan says:
Which way I fly is hell; my self am hell;
And in my lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven. (IV, 75-8)
horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The hell within him, for within him hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from hell
One step no more than from himself can fly
By change of place. (IV, 18-22)
“The view that heaven and hell are states of mind was held by Amaury of Bene, a medieval heretic often cited in seventeenth-century accounts of atheism; it is to be distinguished from the Ubiquism of Marlowe’s Mephistophilis” (Fowler, 59). The poetic point, in both Marlowe and Milton, is the interiorization of hellish alienation, so that in Milton’s case at least it generates a distinctively modern subjectivity.
William Blake acutely observed that “Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it”. The Marlovian power and energy, even in its blasphemous dimensions, is given free rein in Satan’s speeches, and the chiding judgment of the epic narrator can scarcely restore order, nor can the progressive degradation of Satan’s character in the course of the poem. The protagonist of Samson Agonistes unites the passions of Satan, the spite and destructiveness born of defeated ambition, with a virtuous trust in divine providence. Milton can be of Samson’s party and of God’s at the same time, as they unite their strength against the Philistines.
In its official purpose of bolstering up Christian humanism, Milton’s great epic ultimately fails. It savours too much of restorationism. The failure is confirmed by the lack of any successors to Milton. Perhaps the most successful aspect of Milton’s Christian humanism is his differentiated reception of the Renaissance rediscovery of eros and beauty. Milton finds in the marriage of Adam and Eve an occasion to bring Sacred and Profane Love into perfect conjunction, celebrate eros and beauty while holding at a distance what a biblical ethics disapproves:
Hail, wedded Love, mysterious law, true source
Of human offspring, sole propriety
In Paradise of all things common else!
By thee adulterous Lust was driven from men
Among the bestial herds to range; by thee
Founded in reason, loyal, just, and pure,
Relations dear, and all the charities
Of father, son, and brother, first were known.
Far be it, that I should write thee sin or blame,
Or think thee unbefitting holiest place,
Perpetual fountain of domestick sweets,
Whose bed is undefiled and chaste pronounced,
Present, or past, as saints and patriarchs used.
Here Love his golden shafts employs, here lights
His constant lamp, and waves his purple wings,
Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile
Of harlots, loveless, joyless, unendeared,
Casual fruition; nor in court-amours,
Mixed dance, or wanton mask, or midnight ball,
Or serenate, which the starved lover sings
To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.
The Greco-Roman figure of Eros or Amor, always linked to his mother Venus, is here snugly at home in Paradise. It is in the name of Eros, who now reigns and revels, that Milton denounces the cheapening of eros on the streets and in the court. Many divines had excluded sex from Paradise altogether and Milton is boldly rehabilitating it, and at the same time offering a phenomenology of what differentiates virtuous and holy sex from its degraded forms – which creep into the marriage bed after the Fall:
They swim in mirth, and fancy that they feel
Divinity within them breeding wings,
Wherewith to scorn the earth: But that false fruit
Far other operation first displayed,
Carnal desire inflaming; he on Eve
Began to cast lascivious eyes; she him
As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn…
There they their fill of love and love’s disport
Took largely, of their mutual guilt the seal,
The solace of their sin… (IX, 1009-15, 1042-4)
Sexuality in Marlowe is an uncontrollable and chaotic force, matter for hedonism or cynical resignation. Milton has made a strenuous effort to bring it into focus, holding at bay licence and wildness in order to show forth the glory of its ideal realization, something that survives in our present condition only as a fragile remnant of Paradise.
IV. Goethe’s Retrieval of Christian Humanism in a Post-Christian Key
Like Milton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) had taken some role in politics, as a minister of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. He accompanied his duke on military expeditions, contemplated the events of the French Revolution and the development of English liberalism, and had an interview with Napoleon. In his greatest poetic work, Faust: Eine Tragödie, however, we find him, like Milton, turned to the Renaissance past. The Italian Renaissance was the core of the aesthetic wonderment expressed in the Italian Journey and he captured its demise in his neoclassical play Torquato Tasso. The German Renaissance emblematized in the figure of Faust held his imagination securely. The choice of this protagonist was not a limiting one. His imagination was positively freed by being bound to a Renaissance milieu, whereas in his novels of contemporary life, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Elective Affinities he seems unwilling to plunge entirely into modern realities, drawing back to the realms of legend or myth instead. Goethe was a son of Frankfurt, where the Holy Roman Emperors had been crowned since 1562, including in Goethe’s own lifetime the last three, Joseph II (1765), Leopold II (1790) and Francis II (1792). (Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto K. 537 is so called because it was played at the time of the 1590 event; his 1779 “Coronation” Mass was played at the 1791 Prague coronation of Leopold II and the Frankfurt coronation of Francis II.) When Goethe penned the imperial scenes in Faust II, Act IV, in 1831, the Holy Roman Empire was a thing of the past, abolished by Francis II in 1806 to prevent Napoleon making himself Holy Roman Emperor.
Goethe’s anti-modern side is also seen in his rather murky scientific career, especially in his obsessive quest to develop an anti-Newtonian theory of light and colour. Emboldened by his success in the morphology of plants, he sought to bring the physical sciences back to the warmth and vividness of experienced qualities, which a one-sided stress on mathematics and the quantitative had banished to the poetic fringe. But in ignoring mathematics, the very language of modern science, Goethe condemned his dream of scientific fame to remain illusory. His quixotic venture had some influence on the Romantics (see Burwick) and on German Idealist “philosophy of nature”, not to mention Rudolf Steiner. The desire to get back to the phenomena would later find a massive philosophical embodiment in the phenomenological movement founded by Husserl. But phenomenology has so far had little success in addressing the sciences and the gulf between literary and scientific culture that yawned ever wider in Goethe’s lifetime still remains unbridged. Any modernity Goethe’s theory of colours can claim, then, is in the realm of creation and sensibility rather than of scientific analysis.
He can be seen as regressing to a Renaissance ideal of science as the quest for a visionary grasp of the whole, while rebelling against the cold, abstract discipline of modern science and its divided specializations. Faust, in any case, is motivated by just such an Erkenntnissehnsucht: “Dass ich erkenne, was die Welt/Im innersten zusammenhält” (382-3) (That I may know what holds the world together most inwardly); “Erkennest denn der Sterne Lauf,/Und wenn Natur dich unterweist,/Dann geht die Seelenkraft dir auf,/Wie spricht ein Geist zum andern Geist” (422-5) (You know the course of the stars, and when Nature instructs you the power of the soul arises in you as one spirit speaks to another spirit); “Wo fass ich dich, unendliche Natur?/Euch, Brüste, wo?” (Where do I grasp you, infinite Nature, ye breasts, where?) (455-6). The subjectivity of these utterances, especially the last one, has a modern inflection, and served to launch the Romantic movement. The opening monologue, which follows Marlowe, fuses the lore of sixteenth century alchemy with the eighteenth century language of inwardness (Trunz, 512-13). Faust’s thirst for knowledge is nobler than in Marlowe, whose protagonist is greedy for profit and fame and puts his magical powers to far less constructive purpose than does Goethe’s.
On the aesthetic front, Goethe was steeped in the 17th century neoclassical theories, which he deployed magnificently in Iphigenia auf Tauris and Torquato Tasso, but in Faust II the bounds of classical form are shattered, though he keeps the classical genre designation “A Tragedy” for the complete work. In its vaulting fantasy and formal freedom Faust II rejoins the latest, wildest stretches of Renaissance imagination, which had taken a baroque turn, in the vast dramas of Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681). Glorying in past traditions, Goethe turned out to be rather unsympathetic to his admirers – the Romantics and the Idealist philosophers – who were following up on the revolutionary implications of his vision of the powers and tragedy of humanity.
The 1616 text of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus had increased the elements of farce in the sparer 1604 text and launched the play on its career of decline. English players took it to Germany as a farce, using effects of mime, and it was popular there as a puppet-play, in which form Goethe discovered it in his childhood. Goethe praised Marlowe’s play to H. C. Robinson, “Wie gross ist alles angelegt” (Beutler, 607; How grandly all is designed). But the play has been more tellingly described as “a beginning, a muddle and an end”. Goethe gave it a new lease of popular life, particularly in the operatic form of Charles Gounod, by inventing the Gretchen tragedy as the missing middle. But Goethe does more than this. His Faust explores all the possibilities of human aspiration and runs up against their tragic limit in every case. The worlds of learning and of love are dealt with in Faust I. Then in a phantasmagoric fantasy, which moves swiftly from one symbolic scene to another, with unfailing metrical dexterity, plasticity and inventiveness, Faust II explores the domain of artistic contemplation, dominated by the figure of Helen of Troy (Acts II and III), who had inspired a few lines of great poetry in Marlowe but had later become a farcical figure; then it tackles the world of politics and of action (Faust II, acts IV and V). These explorations are a summation of Western literary history and also of a certain vision of socio-political history. Working on this text for sixty years, Goethe deposited in it his rich and complex answer to the questions, “What is man?” and “What is he capable of?”
The ruthless energy of Goethe’s Faust and Mephistopheles relates them to Marlowe’s and Milton’s daemonic heroes. The annihilating power of mind, in Mephistopheles, is also what lay behind the orgies of destruction in which Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta indulged:
Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!
Und das mit Recht; denn alles, was entsteht,
Ist wert, dass es zugrunde geht;
Drum besser wär’s, dass nichts entstünde.
So ist denn alles, was ihr Sünde,
Zerstörung, kurz das Böse nennt,
Mein eigentliches Element. (Faust I, 1338-44)
(I am the spirit that ever negates! And this rightly, since all that arises deserves to perish; hence it were better that nothing had arisen. So then everything that you call sin, destruction, in short evil, is my true element.)
Goethe translates Marlowe’s “aspiring” as Streben. “For Goethe this striving is not a sin, neither the hubris of the Greeks nor the pride of St. Paul. It is that which constitutes the essential human character, that which makes human beings human. Like Hegel, Goethe realizes that humanity must have eaten of the tree of knowledge to attain full human status” (Shafer). Yet Faust nonetheless remains a tragedy, for the human aspiration runs into its limits in the end and may well look back on its career as one of hubris.
At the start the Lord delivers the programmatic utterance: “Es irrt der Mensch, solang’ er strebt” (Man errs as long as he strives) (317). This necessary error or errance assures to human existence its tragic texture. “Streben” is a leitmotiv in Faust’s speech: “Ich fasse dich, das Streben wird gemindert” (I, 697); “Zu jenen Sphären wag’ ich nicht zu streben” (767); “Ihr nach und immer nach zu streben!” (1075); “Ward eines Menschen Geist, in seinem hohen Streben,/Von deinesgleichen je gefasst?” (1676-7); “Das Streben meiner ganzen Kraft” (1742); “Zum höchsten Dasein immerfort zu streben” (II, 4685) – not “immer fortzustreben” as I saw it printed somewhere (Toward highest existence ever anew to strive); “Doch immer weiter strebt mein Sinn” (7291). Finally, hovering angels announce: “Gerettet ist das edle Glied/Der Geisterwelt vom Bösen./Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,/Den können wir erlösen” (Saved from the evil one is the noble member [with a phallic overtone] of the world of spirits. He who ever striving exerts himself, him can we redeem) (11934-7). It would not be quite correct to say that Faust is saved by his very striving, nature absolved by nature itself. Rather his striving has given him a restless vitality that makes him receptive to the gift of redemption. In other works, Goethe teaches the necessity of restraining the spirit of boundless striving; one must learn to live with limits, under pain of spiritual bankruptcy (see Trunz, 501-2). But in Faust Goethe celebrates the “aspiring mind” or the creative daemon of an exceptional being, a super-hero. The intellectual and affective bulimia, against which he preaches so sagely in the Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, can be indulged and glorified in Faust, who by dint of magic overrides all normal human boundaries. If even such a being faces the limits of human achievement in the end, how much more so ordinary mortals. Goethe’s cult of Byron, the “Euphorion” of Faust II, is another indulgence of this kind. Goethe summed up the values of the play as follows: “In Faust himself an ever higher and purer activity up to the end, and from above the eternal love coming to his assistance. This stands in complete harmony with our religious ideas, according to which we attain beatitude not merely through our own power but though the divine grace that is added to it” (quoted in Bishop, xix). In a sense the conclusion of Faust II is a triumph of Christian humanism. Having reached the limit of all his endeavours, Faust is saved by grace, by the pure love of Gretchen, whom he has remembered only once in the course of his spectacular adventures in Faust II (in the soliloquy at the start of Act IV; see Trunz, 699-700).
Needless to say, Goethe, even more than Pico and Marlowe, is an apple of discord among theological critics, most tending to see him as pagan, Pelagian, glorifying egocentricity rather than authentic love. But Faust contains many of those “already theologized materials” that theology finds outside of its own domain (Hofmann, 49), and their fuller articulation and assessment is an outstanding theological task. The old tensions between Christianity and humanism are likely to flare up here, for Goethe glorifies the human and the worldly, treating the transcendent realm as little more than aesthetic trappings to this. God is far less real and present in this vision than man. God dissolves into an impersonal pantheistic presence in Nature, and Christ is reduced to one of the human icons of that presence. Unlike Marlowe, torn between fear-ridden orthodoxy and bitter revolt, Goethe has neither fear nor bitterness as he enfolds historical Christianity in the sunlight of his larger vision. Christianity in only one among several complementary ways of relating to an ultimate foundation (Thielicke, 18), though he sometimes felt a “Julianian hatred” of Christianity, notably during his Italian journey (Thielicke, 64).
Goethe was born on the feast of St. Augustine (28 August, 1749) and may have thought of himself as the long-delayed historical counter-blast to Augustinian pessimism in the name of a new glorification of the cosmos and of man, its noblest limb. The ideology of Christian humanism today is torn between the medieval tradition issuing from Augustine and the Renaissance tradition culminating in Goethe. “Orthodox” critics such as Irving Babbitt, T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot characterized the Romantic movement as “spilt religion”, but this seems a short-sighted judgment. In reality, the great Romantics attest to the universal revelation of the divine in nature and in human freedom, a revelation coterminous with human history. H. C. Robinson reports: “I gave him [Goethe] an account of Lamenais (sic) and his Ultramontanism. No doubt, said he, but all truth comes from God, but when these people say that it is through the Church God announces truth, they are not aware that God speaks by and through everything. Every insect, every leaf, has something to say” (Beutler, 606). It is within this broad vision that the Romantics and German Idealism place the Christian message, usually in a somewhat unorthodox interpretation. In Goethe’s case even the medievalist trappings of the Catholic Restoration (Chateaubriand and the later Friedrich Schlegel) are integrated into his pluralistic vision, at the end of Die Wahlverwandschaften and Faust II. Can one venture to suggest that the broad Christian humanism that emerged from the cauldron of the period around 1800 still needs to be retrieved and built on today?
The adventure of thought and creation which we have here, all too superficially, surveyed was riddled with tensions, contradictions, confusion and controversy. Yet it testifies to the vitality of a deep conviction inherited by Europe from its Greek and Hebrew ancestors. This is the conviction that the human being is an awesome reality, capable of scaling vertiginous heights and touching unfathomable depths. In those heights and depths humanity touches and opens up to the divine. In an age when technology, capitalism and a materialist philosophy threaten to strip human life of this depth and mystery, the great writers who voiced their respect and awe before the surpassing dignity of humanity are a precious site of resistance.
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