Patrick Cheney. Marlowe's Counterfeit Profession: Ovid, Spenser, Counter-Nationhood. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997. xii+402pp. ISBN 0 8021 0971 9
Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Lisa. "Review of Marlowe's Counterfeit Profession." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 11.1-4<URL:

  1. This is a very important book, of which all future Marlowe scholars will have to take at least some account. The advantages of having someone whose first training is in Spenser then write on Marlowe are incalculable, and although Cheney deplores the lack of a systematic study of Spenser's influence on Marlowe, he has himself come close to filling that gap. The result transforms our understanding of the subtlety and allusiveness of Marlowe's dramaturgy. Cheney goes further, however, arguing that Marlowe's borrowings from Spenser are not merely incidental but are actually structured to present the playwright as forging for himself a distinctively Ovidian literary career which counters (and implicitly disparages) Spenser's own espousal of a Virgilian career model.

  2. The idea is a deeply interesting and stimulating one, but the case is not watertight, for it depends on Cheney overriding the conventional dating of one work, Lucan's First Book, by placing it at the end rather than the beginning of Marlowe's writing life as a companion piece to Hero and Leander, and completely disregarding the massive uncertainties attendant on the dating of another, Doctor Faustus. Cheney is not alone in seeing Lucan as late rather than early, and he strengthens the case for so doing, but he is on much weaker ground when it comes to Faustus, for the best he can do is to suggest that it was written in 1589 and revised (but when?) in the succeeding years. Since his entire thesis depends on the sequence of Marlowe's works, the argument at this point feels very thinly stretched. To non-Marlovians, the difference between the 1589 and 1592 dates for Faustus may seem trifling, but to Marlovians, a vast gulf yawns between these two poles of Marlowe's brief but meteoric literary career. To suggest that Faustus can somehow be made to bridge that gap, encapsulating the concerns of what Cheney sees as 'the first triad' and 'the second triad' of his plays, seems ludicrous.

  3. Another disappointment of the book is that Cheney's emphasis on reading Marlowe's works not so much for themselves as in relation to the overall construction of his literary career leads to some odd emphases, and to accounts of some works which are not as illuminating as one would have hoped. Ultimately, I found the analyses of both Lucan's First Book and Hero and Leander to be unsatisfying, even though Cheney has an unusual enthusiasm for the former, declaring passionately 'Read Lucan. You must read Lucan'; conversely, 'The Passionate Shepherd to his Love' is analysed with an astonishing degree of detail, and the weight of meaning it is ultimately expected to bear does strain belief -- those falls, for instance, are 'shallow' as a deliberate indictment of the depths of Spenser's talent, and Cheney would also have us believe that we register an immense difference between the double 'l' of fall and the single one of 'madrigal'. This latter suggestion is also part of one of the book's other major drawbacks: Cheney is surprisingly undiscriminating about critical approaches. He has read widely, and cites it all, without ever indicating whether he thinks any particular critic or point more valuable than others. One does not like to see vitriolic attacks on other people's work, but I would have appreciated some indication of opinion, especially since secondary writing on Marlowe has been so bedevilled by eccentricities and extremism of various kinds. To this extent, the book does not serve as a particularly helpful guide to previous Marlowe criticism, and another area in which students in particular might find it less than approachable is its resolute refusal to compromise on the use of untranslated technical terms and phrases.

  4. The final defect of the book is Cheney's propensity to repeat himself. The words 'counter-nationhood', 'New Poet', 'ovidianus poeta', 'area maior', and 'meta', in the sense of a career turn, are woefully over-used, and my horror at the flowery use of 'pens' as a verb escalated during reading this to almost uncontrollable proportions (there is also a distinctly odd use of 'pristine'). Points as well as phrases recur with something of the relentlessness of a monomania, essentially because for Cheney, every aspect of Marlowe's writing works to underpin the great central truth that Marlowe presents himself as an Ovidian alternative to Spenser's Virgilian self-presentation as 'the New Poet', and does so in order 'to pen counter-nationhood' (with several sideswipes on the way at both the cult of Elizabeth in general and at Spenser's specific contributions to it). This is how it is, and you can't, it seems, say so too often, with the result that one actually feels the book might well be better read in part than in whole. Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly a very significant contribution to Marlowe scholarship. Read Cheney. You must read Cheney.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).