The Marlowe Studies Entry: August 13, 2011

Roman marble bust of Epicurus


Marlowe Learns Hell Is A Fable


Riggs says, "Pythagoras introduced Renaissance undergraduates to the ancient (un)belief system of Epicurus and his disciple Lucretius: hell is a fable, and belief in hell a craven superstition; the body metamorphoses into the elements after death; poets and rulers invented divine retribution to keep men in awe of authority. Renaissance divines understandably concluded that epicureans were atheists." 

       Today the term "epicurian" is used to describe someone who is devoted to sensual pleasures, a somewhat derogatory connotation because the Christian religion has demonized the Pagan for so many centuries. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher (270 BC)  who founded the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by peace and freedom from fear, the absence of pain, and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. His ideas were quite similar to those found in Buddhism: When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of "perfect mental peace". He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil, that death is the end of the body and the soul and should therefore not be feared, that the gods do not reward or punish humans, that the universe is infinite and eternal, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space.

            Epicurus was far ahead of his time. Not only was he the first Greek philosopher to admit women into his school, he was a key figure in the development of science and the scientific method because of his insistence that nothing should be believed, except that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction. Epicurus strongly favored naturalistic explanations over theological ones.  In his Letter to Pythocles, he offers four different possible natural explanations for thunder, six different possible natural explanations for lightning, three for snow, three for comets, two for rainbows, two for earthquakes, and so on. Although all of these explanations are now known to be false, they were an important step in the history of science, because Epicurus was trying to explain natural phenomena using natural explanations, rather than resorting to inventing elaborate stories about gods and mythic heroes. Many of his ideas about nature and physics presaged important scientific concepts of our time.

       Epicurus's teachings were founded on many of the same principles as Democritus. Like Democritus, he was an atomist, believing that the fundamental constituents of the world were indivisible little bits of matter (atoms, Greek atomos, indivisible) flying through empty space (“kenos”). His theory differs from the earlier atomism of Democritus because he admits that atoms do not always follow straight lines but their direction of motion may occasionally exhibit a “swerve”. This allowed him to avoid the determinism implicit in the earlier atomism of Democritus and to affirm free will. Compare this with the modern theory of quantum physics, which postulates a non-deterministic random motion of fundamental particles. 

       Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus circa 1589, after he and his fellow Cambridge students had absorbed the teachings of Pagan historicists, poets, dramatists, and philosophers. It is a fair assumption, though an assumption nevertheless, to say that he did not believe in the Christian heaven and hell, the divinity of Christ nor the Trinity by the time he wrote Doctor Faustus. If this is true, Marlowe would have penned Doctor Faustus with tongue in cheek and a desire to dramatize the plight of not just the scholar Faustus, but all men and women in the theater audience whose earthly pursuit of freedom and happiness was thwarted by the guilt-oriented Christian religion which taught them this direction would be making a pact with the devil. Long before the birth of Christ Epicurus and Lucretius had told the sea of Pagans around them that divine retribution was a concept created by rulers to keep men in awe of authority. The early Christian Bishops in Rome picked up the threads of this concept, and implanted it into the Catholic religion. 

       As Riggs says, many "atheists" emerged from within the Oxford and Cambridge college walls. "The philosopher John Case encountered clouds of these unbelieving 'scorpions and locusts' at Oxford. Laurence Chaderton, the Master of Emmanuel College Cambridge, wondered 'Whence come such swarms of atheists?' "

       The "monstrous opinions" that the informer Baines attributed to Marlowe came directly from the dramatist's Cambridge textbooks. Baines claimed Marlowe had said, "the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe" and that one ought "not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins". These ideas came from Ovid, Lucretius, Polybious and Livy. This gives us a more in-depth understanding of the motto on Marlowe's Cambridge portrait: That which nourishes me destroys me. The Divinity scholarship that this son of a cobbler gratefully received had opened the doors to an education which ironically taught him ideas contrary to those of the Church of England, ideas that pitted Marlowe dangerously against his ecclesiastic benefactors. The Cambridge BA course prepared graduates for careers in the Church, but paradoxically, taught them little about Christianity. This fact was consciously known at the time. Riggs quotes the English academic theologian Richard Holdsworth who was Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 1637 to 1643: "It is necessary to have some entrance in Divinity before you commense".


       Riggs says:

On Fridays at five o'clock, Marlowe listened to two of the Fellows dispute about 'a problem in Divinity, which continueth two hours'. Although the Fellows argued over fundamental points of Christian doctrine, the rules of dialectical disputation required them to argue for and against every thesis, and thus to uphold heretical or even blasphemous positions. Henry Barrow recalled that these exercises treated God's word 'as a tennis ball'. 


       Riggs gives us a list of these thesis dating from around 1580 which shows the students disputed such propositions as:


The style of sacred Scripture is not barbarous

There is a place of hell

The reprobate do not truly call on God

 God does not want everyone to be saved

The will acts freely

Nothing is done without prior consent and volition by God


Since dialectical disputation took up 'both parts of every question', one of the students had to argue that the style of the sacred Scriptures is barbarous, that there is no place of hell, that the reprobate truly call upon God, that God wants everyone to be saved, that the will does not act freely, and that things are done without God's prior consent and volition. Any doctrine could be made credible; none could be proven.

       The intellectual license of dialectical disputation made a strong impression on Marlowe. His notorious remark [the remark attributed to him by the informer Baines] 'that all the new testament is filthily written' simply restates, in stronger language, the academic commonplace that 'the style of sacred Scripture is barbarous'. Marlowe's crime was to broadcast such teachings, to carry the debate outside the privileged space of the university."

       We now see the seed of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Riggs goes on to say, "Dr Faustus, another academic renegade, reckons that the reward of sin is death, but takes comfort in the thought that there is no place of hell. He pleads for mercy, only to find that God does not want everyone to be saved. But does Faustus's will act freely? Is everything done with prior consent and volition by God?" Even though Marlowe's classes cultivated skepticism, the purpose of his education was to maintain the English Church as it then was. The pursuit of theological truth was discouraged by Queen Elizabeth, Lord Burghley, and Archbishop Whitgift. The state religion was more a matter of ritualistic behavior than spiritual belief. 

       Riggs says:


Tamburlaine invokes Ovid's creation myth to justify his winner-take-all ideology, and dies alluding to epicurean teachings on death. Small wonder that Marlowe's protagonist was soon dubbed 'that atheist Tamburlaine'. The epicurean Dr Faustus asserts that 'hell's a fable' (II.i.129). The Machiavellian Prologue to Marlowe's Jew of Malta boasts that: 'I count religion but a childish toy, And hold there is no sin but ignorance'. Atheism as such was not the issue in Marlowe's case. Renaissance academics and statesmen inherited the Roman view that philosophers and rulers were entitled to a sphere of private unbelief. Marlowe took the further, more provocative step of circulating epicurean ideas among the general public.


Riggs is talking about Marlowe's plays, which had a wider audience than any preacher’s in England, including the Archbishop’s. The big question is, was the informant Richard Baines working for the ecclesiastical faction when he went after Marlowe?


The Marlowe Studies Entry: September 1, 2011


I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Machiavel, Act 1, Jew of Malta


Marlowe's Sourcesf for the Christian Hypocrisy in Tamburlaine

The academics who have not made close study of Marlowe often refer to the Christian hypocrisy he has take place in Tamburlaine, not realizing that there is historical truth to it.

Wraight says:

Both Fulgotius and Ignatius confirm the exact numbers of horsemen - a thousand- and foot soldiers - five hundred, which the opposing forces of Theridamas and his Persians and Tamburlaine possess respectively. Marlowe is particular about such details to lend his play historical verisimilitude, although he is prepared to take poetic license with historic facts where this is necessary to advance the dramatic viability of his play, for he has an infallible instinct for what makes good theatre. For instance, Bakeless has shown in his exhaustive study of Marlowe's use of his sources that the scene in which Orcanes, King of Natolia, and Sigismund, King of Hungary, swear by their respective godheads, Mahomet and Christ, to keep their 'truce inviolable' is based on the text of Bonfinius's Rervm Vngaricvm Decades Qvatvor (1581) which Marlowe seems to have studied closely, but uses his material selectively.

The Turks demand an oath from the king at the Eucharist . . . Finally, there is agreement on both sides that our people should swear on the Gospel, they on the Koran. So they set down in writing, in the same terms but in two languages, the conditions of peace and they vowed that these would be maintained and kept unbroken between them, with a most solemn oath to each other.

Marlowe dramatizes this in a scene which begins with bombastic military challenges between the two kings, but ends in concluding a truce because they are both aware that Tamburlaine is fast advancing on them, whom they must face in the field together or both be vanquished. Orcanes hands Sigismund a sword as symbol of war or peace between them - a Marlovian touch here repeated in The Second Part of Tamburlaine.

Sigismund. Then here I sheathe it, and give thee my hand
Never to draw it out, or manage arms
Against thyself or thy confederates,
But, whilst I live, will be at truce with thee.

Orcanes. But, Sigismund, confirm it with an oath,
And swear in sight of heaven and by thy Christ.

Sigismund. By Him that made the world and sav'd my
The Son of God and issue of a maid,
Sweet Jesus Christ, I solemnly protest
And vow to keep this peace inviolable!

Orcanes. By sacred Mahomet, the friend of God,
Whose holy Alcoran remains with us,
Whose glorious body, when he left the world,
Clos'd in a coffin mounted up the air,
And hung on stately Mecca's temple-roof,
I swear to keep this truce inviolable!
Of whose conditions and our solemn oaths,
Sign'd with our hands, each shall retain a scroll,
As memorable witness of our league.
Now, Sigismund, if any Christian king
Encroach upon the confines f thy realm,
Send word, Orcanes of Natolia
Confirm'd this league beyond Danubius' stream,
And they will, trembling, sound a quick retreat;
So am I fear'd among all nations.

Sigismund. If any heather potentate or king
Invade Natolia, Sigismund will send
A hundred thousand horse train'd to the war,
And back'd by stout lanciers of Germany,
The strength and sinews of the imperial seat.

After some more boastful promises from Orcanes in which the sonorous names of Natolia and Trebizon are rolled off the tongue in the richly poetic vein which Marlowe relishes throughout this masterpiece, they go off to banquet and carouse in celebration of their truce.



A.D. Wraight with Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen in Canterbury


Despite his oath made in the name of Christ, Marlowe's Hungarian king, Sigismund, breaks the truce, and yet again Bonfinius supplies the historical source from which Marlowe probably drew his facts for this episode, although here Bonfinius is writing about a later Hungarian king, Ladislaus, who in 1443 had concluded a truce with the Turkish emperor, Amurath II, (the treaty of Szedin) which he was persuaded to break by the papal legate, Cardinal Julian, and launch an attack on the unsuspecting Turks. But their ruse was not successful for Amurath retreated and regrouped his armies to counter-attack and kill the perfidious Ladislaus and the Cardinal. This piece of poetic justice Marlowe seizes upon and transposes into the time of Tamburlaline to apply to the contemporaneous King Sigismund of Hungary, replacing Cardinal Julian with two Lords of Buda and Bohemia who put Cardinal Julian's arguments to Sigismund. Thus Bonfinius's report in translation:

Julian in a timely speech said: If any of you Proceres, perhaps may marvel because I am going to speak about rescinding the peace and breaking faith: Let him first understand that I am going to discuss with you nothing today other than about observing the treaty . . . In these distressing circumstances hasty counsel may impel us: having made a peace with the Turkish infidel, that we should break the solemn word of the faithful and rescind the sacred deed entered into with the supreme Pontiff and allied Princes before the treaty.

With subtle arguments of political and military opportunism Marlowe skillfully dramatizes the scene.

Sigismund. Now say, my lords, of Buda and Bohemia,
What motion is it that inflames your thoughts,
And stirs your valours to such sudden arms?

Frederick. Your majesty remembers, I am sure,
What cruel slaughter of our Christian bloods
These heathenish Turks and pagans lately made
Your highness knows, for Tamburlaine's repair
That strikes a terror to all Turkish hearts,
Natolia hath dismiss'd the greatest part
Of all his army, pitch'd against our power
Betwixt Cutheia and Orminius' mount,
And sent them marching up to Belgasar,
Acantha, Antioch, and Caeserea,
To aid the kings of Soria and Jerusalem.
Now, then, my lord, advantage take thereof,
And issue suddenly upon the rest;
That, in the fortune of their overthrow,
We may discourage all the pagan troop
That dare attempt to war with Christians.

Sigismund. But calls not, then, your grace to memory
The league we lately made with King Orcanes,
Confirm'd by oath and articles of peace,
And calling Christ for record of our truths?
This should be treachery and violence
Against the grace of our progression.

Baldwin. No whit, my lord; for with such infidels,
In whom no faith nor true religion rests,
We are not bound to those accomplishments
The holy laws of Christendom enjoin;
But Sigismund is not so easily persuaded and the discussion continues.

Frederick. Assure your grace, 'tis superstition
To stand so strictly on dispensive faith,
And, should we lose the opportunity
That God hath given to venge our Christians' death,

. . .

And scourge their foul blasphemous paganism,
So surely will the vengeance of the Highest,
And jealous anger of his fearful arm,
Be pour'd with rigour on our sinful heads,
If we neglect this offer'd victory.

With Machiavellian persuasiveness they win Sigismund over, and he attacks Orcanes, but (as happened to the perfidious Ladislaus of history) Marlowe presents his audience with moral justification for the Christian king's defeat at the hands of Orcanes (Amureth II). For the scene in which Orcanes rages over this perfidy by the Christian king, challenging Christ's divinity, Marlowe once again has his authority from Bonfinius.

Now, O Christ, if you are God (as they say, and we are not suffering from delusions), turn away your wrongs and mine, I beseech you: and to those who have not yet professed your holy Name pronounce the penalty for broken faith.

Marlowe dramatizes this in a passionate outburst by Orcanes.

Enter a Messenger

Messenger. Arm dread sovereign, and my noble lords!
The treacherous army of the Christians,
Taking advantage of your slender power,
Comes marching on us, and determines straight
To bid us battle for our dearest lives.

Orcanes. Traitors, villains, damned Christians!
Have I not here the articles of peace
And solemn covenants we have both confirm'd,
He by his Christ, and I by Mahomet?

. . .

Can there be such deceit in Christians,
Or treason in the fleshly heart of man,
Whose shape is figure of the highest God?
Then, if there be a Christ, as Christians say,
But in their deeds deny him for their Christ,
If he be son to everliving Jove,
And hath the power of his outstretched arm,
If he be jealous of his name and honour
As is our holy prophet Mahomet,
Take here these papers as our sacrifice
And witness of thy servant's perjury!
(He tears to pieces the articles of peace.)
Open, thou shining veil of Cynthia,
And make a passage from th'empyreal heaven
That he that sits on high and never sleeps,
Nor in one place is circumscriptible,
But everywhere fills every continent
With strange infusion of his sacred vigour,
May, in his endless power and purity,
Behold and venge this traitor's perjury!
Thou, Christ, that art esteem'd omnipotent,
If thou wilt prove thyself a perfect God,
Worthy the worship of all faithful hearts,
Be now reven'gd upon this traitor's soul
And make the power I have left behind
(Too little to defend our guiltless lives)
Sufficient to discomfit and confound
The trustless force of those false Christians!
To arms, my lords! on Christ still let us cry:
If there be Christ, we shall have victory.
II Tamburlaine Act I, Sc 2, II.24-64I

With his depleted forces Orcanes is then victorious, and the perjured Sigismund staggers

wounded onto the stage to die, crying -

Let the dishonour of the pains I feel
In this my mortal well-deserved wound
End all my penance in my sudden death!
And let this death, wherein to sin I die,
conceive a second life in endless mercy!
II Tamburlaine Act II, Sc 3 11.5-9

In Marlowe's works the questioning mind that holds the mirror to man's sinful nature comes to rest always in moral justice and while venturing into unorthodox beliefs returns at last to orthodoxy. This is as true of Marlowe as it is of Raleigh, who was also accused of atheism but lived to refute it.

Bakeless' invaluable research into the astonishingly extensive range of Marlowe's historical sources in compiling his material for Tamburlaine has been a revelation.

Bakeless says

'The study of Marlowe's sources for Tamburlaine is of particular importance because it definitely reverses the view of his mind and character which has been generally accepted for three centuries. Detailed, minute, even trifling though the necessary investigation may be, it is rewarded in the end by a new understanding of the mind of a very great poet. It shows Marlowe as something more than an impetuous youth with a gift for poetry. It shows him as a careful writer who bases work of the purest poetic beauty on an elaborate and careful study of all available materials.'

The research of Dr. Bakeless has provided these sources, here given as Englished excerpts from the original Latin texts from Bakeless, whose scholarly mind makes no concessions to the latter day students whose Latin is rusty or non-existent, alas. His great work on Marlowe is consequently and regrettable to some extent beyond the reach of many readers, for practically every ancient document he quotes is in its Latin original. A reprint of this classic work with translations would be timely.

Bonfinius is only one of a dozen authors, tracked down by Bakeless and Ethel Seaton, whose books were available in print and were possible sources for Marlowe's historical research for Tamburlaine, for the facts and episodes he dramatizes are all there scattered through the pages of these source books. I have quoted in particular the scenes based on Bonfinius because these are concerned with religion and reflect the theological arguments which have been attributed to Marlowe as being entirely his own. Bakeless has demonstrated that this is a fallacy, for they are in fact based on his historical sources - a detail which was evidently obscured to the critics of Marlowe's own time as well as ours until Bakeless' fascinating research into his sources revealed the true situation. As he himself has commented:

'The oath of Amurath (Orcanes in Marlowe's play) is a good illustration of the way in which the study of sources sometimes throws light upon an author's mind. This passage has long been supposed to illustrate Marlowe's "atheistic" leanings and has been pointed out as an example of the sort of blasphemy about which Richard Baines bore tales to the authorities. But when the 'blasphemy' turns out to be merely a vivid bit of history, we see that it is merely once more instance of the selective skill with which Marlowe has sifted the material in his sources.'

This evidence shows that his main aim in researching his material was to supply his dramatic Muse with the stuff from which effective drama could be created. His eclectic taste was catholic in its foraging, and his long years of study had made him a disciplined and dedicated seeker after knowledge, drawing his inspiration from the rich fount of human history in which he found the endless variety that stimulated his art. His theme is humanity, which he interprets preferring to base his portraits on real people whose lives his poetry lifts into the sphere of dramatic art.

. . .

Wraight says

Man's violence and cruelty have ever been popular subjects for what we deem entertainment, from the gory horror stories of ancient Greek tragedy to our own day when violence in the television screen occupies the highest proportion of all our viewing of drama. The self-avowed gentle Kyd chose to wallow in the dramatized cruelty of his popular revenge play, The Spanish Tragedy, only slightly less horrific than Titus Andronicus. Tamburlaine the Great has cruelty in full measure, but here again Marlowe's historical source provided him with the evidence for this in the life of the real Tamburlaine, who was a monster of cruelty, curiously combined in a man who reverence learning and in some respects possessed an aspiring mind even as Marlowe depicts him. It was a tension of opposites that held great attraction for him.

Marlowe's interest in the Mongol conqueror may have been first aroused through some traveler's tale told in his Canterbury boyhood, for all Europe had been agog with his exploits for the past hundred years. Henry IV of England, Charles VI of France and Henry III of Spain had each sent ambassages to his court, anxious to maintain cordial relations with so victorious a conqueror. Tamburlaine, Tamerlane or Timur the Lame, hence Timur-lane, for he had one lame leg (a physical defect Marlowe chooses to ignore) had lived from 1336 to 1405, and led his nomadic hordes to overrun large tracts of Asia, carving himself and empire which stretched from the Volga to India, and included Persia, Turkey and Egypt. His capital was Samara [Samarkand], near Book (now in Uzbekistan in Asiatic USSR) lying on what was known as the 'silk road', for merchants with Median silk traveled this route to Europe, and situated in the foothills about 150 miles north of the Afghanistan border where the mountains of the Hindu Kyushu rear their snowy peaks. At least two intrepid Europeans who penetrated as far as his court at Samara [Samarkand] had written marvelous accounts of what they saw there, one of which was still in manuscript in Marlowe's time - that by the Bavarian Johanna Chatterer whose Latin manuscript was translated into German and edited by Professor Karl Fried rich Neumann in 1859 and finally English ed by Commander J. Buchanan Teller, R. N. as The Bondage and Travels of Johanna Chatterer (1396-1427). The other was a report of the Spaniard Rudy Gonzales de Claudio, the ambassador of Henry III of Castile and Leon, who visited the court of Timor in 1403. This was printed in 1582 and could therefore have been available to Marlowe's, Claudio's account of the splendour of Timor's court, and the richness of the jewels he saw adorning the emperor's clothing and furnishings of his palace, would have interested Marlowe greatly. There are also accounts of Timor's ghastly cruelty to those who displeased him, with which he enjoyed demonstrating his despotic power to visitors. By this time, almost at the end of his life, the Mongol emperor had developed a passion for splendid architecture and conceived the ambition to make Samara [Samarkand] the most beautiful city in the world. He lavished art work in porcelain and turquoise and jade on his Palace of Heart's Delight, which was made of white marble, employing chinese and Persian artists, and he brought in scholar's to supervise his libraries and run his academies of philosophy, mathematics and science. The historic Timor developed into a demoniacal, almost schizophrenic personality, and some of this Marlowe's may have heard about if he did not read it, for in The Second Part Tamburlaine becomes a despotic, megalomaniac following the death of his beloved Zenocrate, without whose gentle restraining influence he descends into the sheer obsession of unending bloody conquest, making impossible demands to satisfy his lust for ostentatious power; just as the real Timor, in his craze for building his perfect city, had newly-erected mosques torn down if something in the design displeased him and ordered that they be rebuilt in ten days on pain of death to the frenzied builders.

Later, Wraight says

The historians on whom Marlowe based his narrative were themselves only partly true to history, and they tended to look to each other's books as authoritative sources which were quoted and requoted. A character like Tamburlaine invited legend, and the interest in his exploits and his extraordinary person had been so wide-spread over so many years that it is surprising that the drama he created is as near to the true history of this exotic conqueror.


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