Elizabeth McDonald Talks Interest and Imagination with Arata Ide 

Guest interview by Boydell & Brewer Commissioning Editor, Elizabeth McDonald with Professor Arata Ide, author of Localizing Christopher Marlowe: His Life, Plays and Mythology, 1575-1593.

In 2021, I took over as Commissioning Editor for our series, Studies in Renaissance Literature. I inherited a cache of superb book projects along with the position, but every editor’s first commission is going to be particularly memorable. For me, I had the pleasure to cut my teeth on a fresh approach to Christopher Marlowe. Working with such a generous and thoughtful author as Arata Ide on this project has certainly been an experience for my professional scrapbook! 

Localizing Christopher Marlowe: His Life, Plays and Mythology, 1575-1593 draws on detailed archival work to present a thoroughly engaging micro-history of Marlowe’s formative years. Despite the geographical distance and vastly different time-zones, I (virtually) sat down with Professor Ide to explore the initial inspiration for his book and his approach to uncovering details about the life of and influences on this elusive renaissance playwright.  

  1. We have few surviving records about Christopher Marlowe’s life, making his biography notoriously difficult to reconstruct. You’ve found a rich new approach to Marlowe; would you tell us how you developed this? 

Although there are few remaining documents about Marlowe, I thought there might be information available about his acquaintances at Corpus Christi College. I was then a fledging researcher inspired by William Urry’s archival approach in Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury. On my first visit to Parker Library in 1993, an archivist showed me Matthew Parker’s room allocation plan, which sparked my interest and imagination to pursue further research into the college archives. Later, I discovered Sir Nicholas Bacon’s plan held in the Norfolk Record Office; when I compared the two, I realized that several students frequently changed rooms. While searching through the college archives to find out why, I gradually became familiar with the students and fellows almost as if I knew them personally. This allowed me to get a glimpse into their intricate, tight-knit community, of which Marlowe was a member. 

  1. Why Cambridge? Would Marlowe have been a different playwright if he’d gone to Oxford? 

That’s because Marlowe came from a poor family in Canterbury. The only scholarship the King’s School could offer him was to Cambridge. But I think it was fortunate for his life that there happened to be a scholarship for him to get. It was Archbishop Matthew Parker who founded scholarships for students at Kings School and gave Marlowe the opportunity to study at Cambridge. If he had gone to Oxford, Marlowe might have become a playwright for the boys’ companies, I imagine, as Oxford already had John Lyly and George Peele writing for them. The more contentious environment at Cambridge was probably an ideal breeding ground for controversial writers, such as Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and Martin Marprelate. 

  1. In reconstructing Marlowe’s life at university and beyond, you’ve brought together material from a range of UK archives. Could you tell us about working with these?  

It was quite challenging work, that’s for sure, as I was only able to visit the UK for a week or two each year. It’s fortunate, however, that over time several catalogues of the archives have become available on the internet, even in Japan, so that I could have a good idea of the material I wanted to read before my visit. It was always with pleasure and a sense of discovery that I visited local archives, where I could feel connected with the Elizabethan era. I enjoyed looking at historical relics and, of course, going to local pubs! The archivists and librarians were always kind and welcoming, which made the experience even more enjoyable. Reading the manuscript records of the Parker Library was a particularly exciting experience. It was as if I was witnessing the college life of that time unfold before my very eyes. I am particularly indebted to Dr Elisabeth Leedham-Green, formerly Deputy Keeper of the Cambridge University Archives, and was inspired by her insights. I still hold those memories dear.

Image Caption: Dr. Arata Ide and Dr. Elisabeth Leedham-Green in Parker Library. 
  1. How does your method of studying Marlowe impact a reading of his early plays? 

Although I do not believe that my method will have an immediate impact on the ways in which Marlowe’s plays are read, I would be pleased if it offers readers valuable insights into Dido, Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine the Great, and The Jew of Malta. These plays were written during and immediately after his college days, with a full awareness of the political necessities, frustrations, obsessions, and anxieties shared by Sir Francis Walsingham and his associates. My aim was to reveal the dynamics of patronage that compelled Marlowe to support and promote his patrons’ politico-religious stance – dexterously, with some critical detachment. I hope my method will contribute to understanding how local systems of beliefs and values, which correlate with changing political circumstances, were consciously or unconsciously worked into his plays. 

  1. Your work tackles many of the myths that arose shortly after Marlowe’s death, is there one that you were particularly pleased to dispel or complicate? 

One of the myths I particularly wanted to dispel or localize is that of Marlowe as an atheist. This legend has a long history and has significantly influenced our perceptions about him and his plays. Its origins can be traced back to the statements made by his enemies and acquaintances who had motive to discredit him. Their statements should not be underestimated. Yet I think that they have high value not for revealing Marlowe’s religious or political opinions, but for tracing the development of how prejudice, gossip, and hearsay demonized him as a heretic. That given, the most important question to ask should be, why the charges made against Marlowe were presented to the authorities only in the spring of 1593, and why their target had to be Marlowe. By examining and analyzing the events of the first half of 1593, I can show the social process that produced the rich urban legends about him and his plays; and I hope this helps to dispel the myth that Marlowe was an atheist. 

This Spring is a celebration of all things Renaissance, with three new books out on key writers from the early-modern period: Marlowe, Kyd and Donne. Additionally, I will be attending the Renaissance Society of America’s conference from 21-23 March. Look out for forthcoming blogs on some of these exciting highlights. If you happen to be in Chicago for the conference, then do come to our booth to see these great books for yourselves … and don’t forget to check out our call for manuscripts.  

ARATA IDE is Professor in Renaissance/Early Modern Literature at Keio University, Tokyo, Japan. 

Image Caption: Dr. Arata Ide and Dr. Elisabeth Leedham-Green in Parker Library. 

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