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Marlovian Joan la Pucelle

(This was a paper I was going to give at a conference in Florida last March, but it didn’t work out. This is somewhat “lite,” like the beer.)

The Joan episodes in 1 Henry VI  have struck Shakespeareans as Marlovian from the era of the duo of Victorian Fredericks, Fleay and Furnivall, though Marlowe scholars have not reciprocated the attention.

Joan la Pucelle, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

To this end, a careful reading of the scenes that the New Oxford Shakespeare recently attributed to the poet-playwright is entirely in order. No matter who actually made Joan, or whether we view her as la pucelle or de Arc, her lineage was Marlovian, even to his Ovidian core, as descended from his speaker in the Elegies, his translation of the Amores.

The authorship question concerning 1 Henry VI is nothing new. It has unsettled scholars since the mid-nineteenth century. They have expressed their doubts in equally unsettling ways, taking strong positions to the point of demonizing their opposition. This unfortunate trend continues today. A polemical PMLA article by one Henry David Gray from a century ago, 1917, typifies such exchanges. He argued that Shakespeare merely revised an old play by an anonymous author who was abetted in some fashion by Robert Greene. His emotional appeal to the truth of his thesis would seem to rival the histrionics of those politicians debating our entry into the Great War in that very year.

“no one will deny that in most of the scenes there is not the faintest evidence of [Shakespeare’s] workmanship. . . . It is certain that he left much that was crude and raw, I presume because it was theatrically effective.”

academics pointlessly disputing

Moreover, the Joan who is captured, exhibited, and interrogated by the English at the end of the play is “shameless and disgusting,” at odds with the more modest figure earlier in the action. Though Gray’s predecessors occasionally detected Marlowe’s hand, the playwright’s infrequent “double-endings” to finish his mighty lines ruled him out as authorial candidate for this person. “There is something Marlowesque in the opening lines and in other bits; but I think that Marlowe himself cannot be read into this drama,” Gray concluded.

Nearly four decades earlier, the genial and eccentric Victorian Frederick, Furnivall, had championed the opposite view in his preface to the Leopold Shakespeare, his English-translated version of the edition by the great German scholar Nicholas Delius. He was not only a founder of the Early English Text Society and the Oxford English Dictionary, but of the sport derivative from rowing known as sculling. He in fact helped design early sculls.  Furnivall’s Dictionary of National Biography entry says that he undertook the sport “with his usual boyish enthusiasm, for it brought together two of his favourite activities: vigorous outdoor exercise and enjoyment of the company of young women.” However, I wouldn’t want you think this latter activity–innocently enjoyed by many of us old men, even today—denotes an impure heart beating in Dr. Furnivall.

Professor Furnivall and the rowing club

As a Christian Socialist, he was a vociferous advocate for women’s rights, education, and exercise. He founded the Hammersmith Rowing Club for working-class girls and women, still in existence, now named for him. And he encouraged young women to pursue scholarship.  He lamented “the abominable way in which Joan of Arc is treated by Frenchmen as well as English. Traditional as the witch-view of Joan was in Shakspere’s time, one is glad that Shakspere did not set it forth to us.” He clearly thought of Joan as a real person in need of gentlemanly encouragment and nurturing. Very much like a Miss Jane Lee he praised highly for her analysis of 2 and 3 Henry VI: “never before has the [authorship] question been so ably and thoroughly handled.” Believe it or not, in 1876, the year of our Centennial and of the massacre of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, she argued for full collaboration between Shakespeare and Marlowe in these plays, long before there was even the first Oxford Shakespeare by W. J. Craig, not to mention the New Oxford of today.

As it happens, many of Jane Lee’s exercises in Marlovian detection regarding 2 and 3 Henry VI  by way of the parallel passage method anticipated those claims by the New Oxford attributionists with their big data and function-word-clusters. For 1 Henry VI, Gabriel Egan and his crew assigned most of Act 5, scenes 1 and 2, to Marlowe. Hugh Craig preferred to think of scenes 2, 3 and 4 in the same act in the same way.

A “word cloud” cluster based on Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech

The results of the two methodologies are the same. The difference is that one is no longer considered intellectually tenable. An advocate of the newer and officially approved method derides work such as Lee’s as “aimless” and “old-fashioned parallel hunting.”

As Desdemona said to her father, I feel a divided duty. Let me say that I do not care one bit who wrote what. I find attribution study in any age to be the equivalent of a fool’s errand, one that I must admit to having undertaken myself. At the same time, I would be delighted to have the Marlowe canon expanded. 41lonke+5pL._SR600,315_PIWhiteStrip,BottomLeft,0,35_SCLZZZZZZZ_Or, better yet, it would be wonderful to stretch our understanding of Shakespeare’s Marlovianism, building on the great work of my predecessors: F. P. Wilson, Nicholas Brooke, Harry Levin, Irving Ribner, Harold F. Brooks, Marjorie Garber, Kenneth Muir, David Riggs, Laurie Maguire, Robert Logan.

I’ll turn my attention to Joan and ask: what is Marlovian about her?

Though Marlowe is not known for writing women well, his talent for actualizing androgyny such as Joan’s was notable, albeit with gender reversal. Shakespeare of course made boy actors into women who pretended to pretend to be the young men whom they actually were. Marlowe preferred to remove one step and turn another upside-down so that male characters explored their feminine inner cores without shame. I think of Ganymede, King Edward, Gaveston, King Henri Trois, Leander, and Neptune. He was also adept at making such figures great rhetoricians and persuaders who are greatly self-deluded, like Joan: Faustus, Barabas, Gaveston, the Guise, and my favorite, the speaker in the Elegies.

Isabella and Mortimer, from a production by the Diversionary Theatre, San Diego, CA

Marlowe’s Isabella in Edward II is another Joan doppelganger. This neglected queen finds herself becoming a woman warrior and, by necessity, the enabling mistress of the Incredible Shrinking Mortimer Junior. The very men who secretly despise Isabella and Joan because they fail to fulfill banal notions of womanliness deceive them into trying to prove themselves worthy of the masculine power and respect that they can never, as a result, earn.  Yet both male playwrights would seem to allow for empathy toward these women. The men they create as virtual escorts are, in a word, vile.

1 Henry VI  presents Joan as an oddly appealing antagonist, a Shakespearean touch: Iago, Edmund, Cassius, Suffolk. Or, to invoke Harley Granville-Barker’s defnition of such a figure: “the character of which a dramatist not morally, but artistically, most approves.” This observation is almost always true for Marlowe in all his genres: Barabas, the Elegies speaker, the unreliable tale-teller who editorializes in Hero and Leander, the epic narrator of Lucan, Gaveston, Aeneas, Mephistophiles, and the ever-blank-versifying Tamburlaine. 

Production of Tamburlaine by Shakespeare Theater

The dramatic members of this crew get the best lines: “how sweet the bells ring now the nuns are dead”; “’Twas thine own seeking, Faustus, thank thyself”; “Musicians that with touching of a string May draw the pliant king the way I please”; “infinite riches in a little room.” The observation is equally true with Marlovian Joan, whose poetry illuminates her play like a pulsing arc light.  Her confident declaration in its final act on the plains of Anjou shows her at her sententious, imperative-delivering best:

Of all base passions fear is most accurs’d.

Command the conquest, Charles, it shall be thine,

Let Henry fret and all the world repine.

This tendency is constant, from her first speech, where she tells Reignier, “Be not amazed, there’s nothing hid from me.” And this continues: “Glory is like a circle in the water.” “Come, come, `tis only I that must disgrace thee.” Some critics have suggested that Joan is a parody of Tamburlaine, whose wise sayings and boasts tend to run a little longer than hers. He too is a former shepherd grown great, self-elevated like the Maid of Orleans. “Lie here, ye weeds, that I disdain to wear!” “Hallo, ye pampered jades of Asia!” At the same time, his eloquence, like Joan’s is indisputable.

1 Henry VI 5.3 seems most Marlovian of all, the author himself or a Shakespeare haunted by his late contemporary. Faustian Joan occupies its first half with her rhetoric full of maxims, spells, and curses. And at her departure, the initial appearance of the Mortimer-like Suffolk and the guileless Isabella-Margaret appropriately finishes the scene.

Suffolk and Margaret, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The earl who will find himself headless in the sequel either anticipates or echoes Shakespeare’s sonnet 41 when he says of Anjou’s daughter: “She’s beautiful and therefore to be woo’d; / She is a woman, therefore to be won.” Sonnet 41:

Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,

Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;

And when a woman woos, what woman’s son

Will sourly leave her till she have prevailed?

These complementary episodes recall the ancient writer most important to both poet-playwrights, Ovid. Joan’s angry and unsuccessful magic seems a parodic inversion of the fearsome Medea in the Metamorphoses. And the tableau of the soon-to-be adulterous lovers re-enacts the dynamic of the Amores, the sourcetext for Marlowe’s wickedly witty Elegies.

Joan’s speeches and failed spells recall the incidentals of Doctor Faustus and the rhetoric and personality of the Elegies speaker. John D. Cox once observed that the magus and the woman warrior share a libido dominandi, the will to power, though 1 Henry VI  merely grazes the edge of the demonic so central to Faustus. I would add that both characters share a guilelessness and blindness to their hypocrisy, along with considerable rhetorical chops. Burgundy says of Joan, “she hath bewitched me with her words,” a feat that Marlowe’s character tries often to perform on others, albeit with comic effect regarding a pope and an emperor, and with considerable assistance from Mephistophiles, at that.

Joan’s changes in rhetorical direction and skill in self-creation can be summarized by Marlowe’s Ovidian speaker with his “ambitious changing mind.”  She succeeds in creating herself ex nihilo, designing an androgynous identity in order to function in a world hostile to her. In this, she resembles the Elegies lover, the Sulmonian parvenu come to Rome with its worldly Corinnas and their easily-deluded husbands.

The second edition of Marlowe’s translation

And ultimately, both metamorphose into failures perhaps intended to appeal to an audience’s empathy. Joan rightly curses her despicable captors as they lead her to the stake: “Changed to a worser shape thou canst not be.” Marlowe’s Elizabethan reincarnation of Ovid’s young man complains that the libertinism he claimed to have adopted redounded against him: “This is he whom fierce love burns!” In short, those married women he thought he had seduced to his exclusive use peevishly refused to be faithful to him.

The last two scenes of 1 Henry VI  contain some phrases usually associated with Shakespeare. York mocks Joan by referring to the Dauphin as “a proper man,” an epithet that Desdemona and Iago use to describe Lodovico and Cassio, respectively. Joan’s peasant father exclaims at her disavowal of him before execution, “this kills thy father’s heart outright,” an expression that appears seven other times in the Shakespeare canon, most notably when Mistress Quickly says of Falstaff, “the king hath killed his heart.” As it happens, Catherine de Medici turns the same phrase in Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris, “thou kill’st thy mothers heart.” York again savages Joan, saying that “she hath lived too long, / To fill the world with vicious qualities.” This hyperbolic metaphor of voluminousness shows up twice more in Shakespeare, once in the same play, and another time at the end of 3 Henry VI when Gloucester-cum-Richard III exclaims of Margaret, “Why should she live, to fill the world with words?” So Marlowe, in Lucans First Booke: “Filling the world, leapes out and throwes forth fire.” Does this mean that Shakespeare and Marlowe were echoing each other? Perhaps. Though none of Marlowe’s characters refers to someone as “a proper man,” the adjective surfaces nine times in his canon, for the record.

The prosody of 1 Henry VI is in some ways Marlovian. The late Russ Macdonald once observed that Marlowe tended to chisel his mighty lines of blank verse into epigrammatic, self-contained distichs such as one sees in Tamburlaine. I think this is because he had been working in couplets such as comprised the Elegies and Hero and Leander. We forget that Shakespeare’s blank verse did not begin as the discursive, enjambed, and naturalistic type he perfected in his tragedies and romances, but was similar to his contemporary’s unrhyming couplet-ism. This seems especially true in 1 Henry VI. Whoever wrote it knew his Marlovian verse effects, but added trochaic reversals for emphasis, and was not afraid to rhyme.

Critical opinion of Joan has remained dichotomous. One recent commentator insists that she is “a whorish witch and conjuror, exaggerating even the English chroniclers’s calumnies against her.”

Handbook for whorish witch-conjurors

Another more diplomatic voice suggests “her triumphs are based simply on boldness, common sense, and resourcefulness. . . . this supposed witch is the most down-to-earth pragmatist in the play.” I would add that her Marlovian vaunting in her final scene results from terror, since the flames await. One set of men who has used her then betrays her to another set of men who will burn her at the stake, no gunpowder necklace provided.

Sometimes being the only woman is not much fun.

I’d like to conclude with an editorial, for which I hope you’ll forgive me.

That the New Oxford Shakespeare attributed significant portions of Shakespeare’s Henry VI  plays to Marlowe furthers a sensible concept that needs advancing. Early modern dramatists were artisianal as well as artistic, and as craftsmen, they collaborated by necessity, the size of their enterprises demanding it, leaving scant space for our anachronistic notions of rivalry. This concept of teamwork relieves Shakespeare of his solitary splendor while valorizing Marlowe by expanding his canon and joining him with his more esteemed colleague who survived him. This association might encourage more and better scholarship about the interdependency of playwrights concerning textual production.

Yet the New Oxford means of attribution, big-data analysis of function-word syntactic placement, creates an obstacle for itself as a tool for general use.

Diagrams, tables, graphs

Its laudable aim of authorial fingerprinting would appear to create foolproof results, but these methods cannot be reproduced or challenged except by another computer program or formula. And unless a scholar regularly immerses herself in machinery of this kind, its many tabulations and percentages might seem inaccessible or useless for interpreting the texts whose words the algorhithms have spun thus into diagrams, tables, and graphs. Should a means arise for investigating function-word similarities that does not require computer assessment, such likenesses would probably be invisible to the investigator, likely advised in advance that because of the impersonal authority of such data, the case, as they say, is closed. For this reason, the methodology appears to provide its adherents with what most academics secretly desire most: the last word.

But the approach does not allow for human reading skill or ingenuity. To one New Oxford editor, this is for the best, deriding these talents as “old-fashioned parallel hunting” for the sake of detecting ephemeral similarities of character or verbiage.

A parallel hunter found a new friend instead

The critical practice of inter- or intratextuality, investigating multiplex correspondences between one author and another or a work by a given writer and the rest of his canon, ought not to be so cavalierly dismissed.  And it can only help a function-word-frequency case for attribution if the disinterested reader may employ such techniques in discovering how authors or works could be in dialogue with one another. Graphs and tables are not enough.


Those of you who have read Horace’s great Actium ode will remember that though it was intended to please and honor Augustus and Agrippa, its real praise was for the unnamed and toxic Cleopatra, that enemy of the Empire, who burns through the poem like a comet. In its Marlovian antagonist, 1 Henry VI would seem to perform a similarly subversive maneuver. It advances Joan to the most prominent position at play’s end. She becomes dolphinlike, her back above her element, and embodies Horace’s epithet for the unnamable Egyptian queen. non humilis mulier: not a base woman whatsoever.

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