Fred B. Tromly. Playing With Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1998. ii+231pp. ISBN 0 8020 4355 0 Cloth.
Curtis Perry
Arizona State University

Perry, Curtis. "Review of Playing with Desire: Christopher Marlowe and the Art of Tantalization." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (January, 2000): 15.1-9 <URL:

  1. The basic premise of Fred B. Tromly's book is that Marlowe as an artist was deeply and centrally concerned with the frustration of desire. Beginning with Marlowe's translations of Ovid's Amores, moving through chapters on all but one of his plays (The Massacre at Paris is discussed only in passing), and concluding with Hero and Leander, Tromly treats the majority of the work attributed to Marlowe as a series of variations on this central theme. In Tromly's account, Marlowe's fascination with frustration manifests itself throughout the oeuvre in several ways. Marlovian depictions of erotic desire -- from his Ovid to Dido, to Edward II, to Hero and Leander -- are structured by reenactments of narratives of pursuit and frustration. For Tromly's Marlowe, this is part of the "essential psychology of sexuality" (155). More generally, Tromly argues that power is expressed throughout the Marlowe canon in terms of the ability to tease and frustrate others. This is why Tamburlaine taunts Bajazeth in the first part of Tamburlaine, why Gaveston raises the hopes of the three poor men who approach him at the beginning of Edward II, and why Faustus takes such pleasure in disrupting the papal feast. Tromly is also concerned throughout with the way Marlowe exerts this kind of power over his audiences, setting up expectations in order deliberately to subvert them. This explains formal dislocations and surprises in theatrical and non-dramatic texts alike: Barabas, in The Jew of Malta, is designed to allude to and then depart from conventional stereotypes about avarice and Jews; Hero and Leander teases and disappoints the voyeuristic impulses of its male readership.

  2. Tromly finds a master trope for all of these different kinds of teasing and withholding in the mythical figure of Tantalus, whose endlessly repeated frustration serves as the key structural model for these patterns. The book begins with a brief survey of Tantalus's place in renaissance mythography, and Tromly makes sure to find buried allusion to Tantalus throughout Marlowe's oeuvre: Edward standing in a pool of water after his deposition, Faustus straining upwards to reach Christ's blood, and so on. Though I do not find the discussion of these allusions uniformly persuasive, the figure of Tantalus does serve nicely to highlight one of Tromly's key larger points: Marlowe's over-reaching protagonists are like Tantalus in that they endlessly grasp at a kind of satisfaction that always eludes them. Tamburlaine, for example, remains restless to the end because he can never be satisfied with any of the crowns he serially engulfs. Though these characters seem on the face of things to be grand aspirants like Icarus -- a connection invoked explicitly more than once in Marlowe -- they are really figures for repetition and frustration like Tantalus. This thread of the book, we might say, elaborates upon Stephen Greenblatt's influential description of the repetitively structured desires of Marlovian heroes.

  3. Where Greenblatt's Marlowe hammers away at limitations of subjectivity which are both personally and culturally immediate, however, Tromly's is always a detached and self-conscious artist exploring recurring motifs. This, in other words, is an unusual kind of book in these days of materialist and cultural criticism: it aims to cast light on the artistic purposes and intellectual coherence underpinning the work of a single author. Tromly wants to illuminate Marlowe's artistic intent, and does not attempt to use him as a vehicle to explore, say, subjectivity or desire in early modern England.

  4. For the most part, the book does what it sets out to do: Tromly presents an interpretation of Marlowe's interests that holds together well as a whole and pays off in the illumination of numerous individual scenes and passages. This is valuable work, since Marlowe's oeuvre has not for the most part attracted the kind of complex interpretive tradition that surrounds and enriches many of Shakespeare's plays. Marlowe has too frequently been treated as a na´ve precursor to Shakespeare, and this book gives us a Marlowe who is always self-conscious and sophisticated, and often darkly comic at the expense of grandeur. One of the valuable things about Tromly's book is that his focus allows him to make sense of what he calls Marlowe's "dislocations of form" (162). Most of Marlowe's plays have been seen, at one time or another, as formally incoherent: some (like Faustus, or the second part of Tamburlaine) because they mix comic elements in with grand aspiration; others (like The Jew of Malta) because moralizing and characterization give way to violent farce. Because he is interested in the ways that Marlowe frustrates the expectations of his audience, Tromly treats these odd mixtures as artistically deliberate, part of an ongoing game of tantalization that Marlowe plays on his audiences. This in turn allows Tromly's readings of the plays to accommodate their burlesque qualities and to explore the comic effects of Marlowe's tonal juxtapositions. Though critics have of course pointed to Marlovian ironies of form and treated individual plays as darkly comic, the sustained treatment of these topics here should help do away with any lingering sense of Marlowe as a flawed primitive.

  5. The discussion of irony and formal dislocation in Hero and Leander, Marlowe's main non-dramatic masterpiece, is also nuanced and insightful. Tromly's reading of the poem focuses on the way it engages the reader's voyeuristic desires, defers satisfaction, and presents only anticlimax: "the very passage that marks the sexual union of the lovers is more an ellipsis than an apotheosis, and it is difficult to see how Marlowe's hurrying the reader past this climax is compatible with a celebration of fulfilment" (168). In one of the books bolder and more problematic moves, however, Tromly goes so far as to suggest that the poem's abrupt and unsatisfying ending is another of Marlowe's unexpected effects. The poem has always been considered unfinished, largely because it says as much in its first printed version. Since this version was published after Marlowe's death, however, all we know for sure is that its printer considered it unfinished. Tromly argues for treating the poem as complete. At a stroke, this transforms its abrupt ending from a flaw to a virtue. Instead of a fragment, the poem becomes a formal experiment in anticlimax. Suggestive as it may be, however, this seems like too much to claim on the basis of purely internal evidence.

  6. The willingness to risk this kind of interpretive fiat points out both the strength and the weakness of Tromly's approach, which privileges the putative intent of the author above all else. On the one hand, much of what is useful in the book comes directly from Tromly's willingness to assume that Marlowe knew what he was doing. On the other, the book makes no concession to ways in which authorial intent might be shaped or scuttled by external factors. Tromly's basic approach is always to see what can be gained by positing authorial agency over all aspects of the text, and this predisposes him to see the form of Hero and Leander as purposeful rather than accidental. Similar difficulties arise in the chapter on Doctor Faustus, which uses the A and B texts interchangeably for the most part and then focuses on the ending of the B text. Though he acknowledges the bibliographical controversies surrounding the play, Tromly sidesteps the kinds of interpretative problems that uncertain authorship might pose for a book about artistic intent. The Marlovian tone of the B text ending, Tromly argues, is internal evidence for his authorship. It can moreover be treated as Marlowe's since, even if not written by Marlowe, it is at the very least "an inspired elaboration of a vision which is distinctly Marlovian" (145). This brings Tromly very close to Leah Marcus's concept of a "Marlowe effect," an idea he strongly criticizes in his introduction. But while the introduction acknowledges a fundamental conflict between his approach to intentionality and the kinds of authorship problems Marcus discusses, Tromly is unwilling to face up to this conflict in his analysis of Faustus.

  7. There are also places in the book where Marlowe's artistic purposes might have been clarified further by allowing his works to stand in relation to other texts. Ovid is the only writer whose influence is factored into the book's account of Marlovian artistry, and in some cases things tacitly attributed to Marlowe's unique artistic temperament are in fact preoccupations of the age. The endless, restless desire that Tromly describes in Marlowe's heroes, for example, is not unlike the kind of ambition traced in Macbeth or Coriolanus. Shakespeare must have learned from Marlowe, but why should this template be of ongoing interest? How one answers this question will have implications for the Marlovian project that Tromly describes.

  8. One answer might be that both writers were fascinated by the restless and self-destructive desires that dominate Senecan drama. In fact, the enormous influence of Senecan drama seems to me a crucial aspect of Marlowe's larger interest in tantalization. Gordon Braden's account of Senecan drama, for example, treats restless desire and exhaustion as side effects of Senecan aspiration. This seems to me like an important intellectual source for the interplay of Icarian heroism and Tantalean frustration that Tromly discusses. Indeed, the connection is quite immediate: not only is the figure of Atreus in Seneca's Thyestes subject to an insatiable appetite for revenge, but this appetite is literally associated with the torments of Tantalus, who is forced to revisit the family curse upon the play in its first act. Tromly offers a shrewd discussion of the way Seneca depicts Tantalus, but stops short of acknowledging that Marlowe's dramatic imagination might have been shaped by any sustained or dialogic engagement with such models. Needless to say, attention to such influences and contexts cannot help but contribute to the understanding of literary craftsmanship.

  9. The real strength of Tromly's study resides in the cumulative effect of its finely argued analyses of the plays and poems. Playing With Desire is one of only a handful of books that have offered careful readings of the entire Marlowe canon, and it displays throughout an admirable sensitivity to Marlowe's artistic playfulness. This is a book either for people who already enjoy reading Marlowe or for students who want to find ways to appreciate the disconcerting aspects of his work. The former will enjoy the sustained engagement with Marlowe that Tromly offers, and the latter will find a series of useful ways to reconceptualize the more difficult formal and thematic elements of Marlowe's writing.

    Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).