Book and article reviews: Stapleton

Michael L. Stapleton.  Marlowe’s Ovid: The Elegies in the Marlowe Canon. Farnham, Ashgate, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4724-2494-5. 261pp. £65.00 (hb).

Yves Peyré


Many critical studies of early modern English (and European) Ovidianism tend to focus, almost exclusively, on the admittedly decisive importance of the Metamorphoses. Michael L. Stapleton’s research consistently offers an invaluable contribution to the field by usefully drawing attention to the significant impact of Ovid’s other works as well. While Spenser’s Ovidian Poetics (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009) demonstrates the influence of the entire Ovidian corpus on Spenser’s poetics, the last chapter of Harmful Eloquence: Ovid’s Amores from Antiquity to Shakespeare (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996) explores what Shakespeare’s Sonnets owe to Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s Amores, which is considered here as a “formative intertext”, one that helps shape the literary characteristics of another text.


In Marlowe’s Ovid: The Elegies in the Marlowe Canon, this critical tool of formative intertextuality offers the key to an in-depth re-examination of Marlowe’s works. With the understandably obvious exception of The first book of Lucan—although phrases from Marlowe’s Lucan are occasionally invited into the discussion to broaden the landscape and point to significant convergences—, the seven plays and Hero and Leander are read in the light of Marlowe’s own translation of Ovid’s Amores: Certain of Ovids Elegies (1599) and All Ovids Elegies (no publication date, probably 1603). Rather than dismiss the Elegies as juvenilia or schoolroom exercises that the poet was soon to outgrow, and instead of impatiently tracking down the translator’s occasional mistakes, it is more fruitful to reinstate the translation in its own right as a poetic achievement and to assume that the very act of translating Ovid taught Marlowe literary themes and techniques that he put to profit in his other works. This notably rests on an appraisal of the dramatic strategies exemplified in the Amores, as well as reading Ovid’s series of love poems as a proto-sonnet sequence and exploring what these complementary features meant to Marlowe in terms of literary practice.


Central to the purpose is the persona Ovid creates in the Amores, whom Stapleton names “desultor amoris” and describes as a “glib, delusional, and self aggrandizing young lover”: the disjunction between controlling author and inexperienced persona becomes one of the main sources of Marlowe’s ironies, humour, and distanciating techniques. Double-edged statements constantly rebound against the characters, not only Doctor Faustus’s unforgettable “O lente, lente currite noctis equi”, but Tamburlaine’s speeches expressing ambivalent attitudes to femininity, or Guise’s sardonic sneer that ironically turns against himself when he murders Ramus.


Stapleton sees the influence of the Elegies as consistently pervasive throughout Marlowe’s literary production. Some readers might be tempted to consider this approach somewhat over-systematic, but grounded as it is on sustained analysis and careful close reading, it provides remarkable insights into Marlowe’s poetics and dramaturgy. The chapter on Dido, Queene of Carthage avoids the all too frequent anachronistic and simplistic opposition between a morally respectable Virgil and an engagingly disreputable Ovid to offer a subtle reading that captures the sophisticated complexity of Marlowe’s Ovidian reconfiguration of Virgil’s epic. As in Dido, influences are often tri- or multi-partite. Stapleton’s analyses of allusions to the Danae story draw on its occurrences both in Amores and Metamorphoses to reveal enlightening reverberations between Edward II and Hero and Leander.


The overall focus on Amores, described as “Marlowe’s Ovid”, does not, of course, ignore borrowings from the Metamorphoses and Heroides—mainly in Golding’s and Turberville’s respective translations—which are called to witness whenever necessary, as in the chapter on Hero and Leander, where, besides Heroides 18 and 19, both Pygmalion and Salmacis open up useful vistas. Stapleton adopts here Vincenzo Pasquarella’s suggestion in Studies in Philology 105 (2008) that Hero and Leander, 762-84, should be read as printed in the 1598 Edward Blount quarto, thus refuting C. F. Tucker Brooke’s transposition of lines 773-84 before line 762. This restitution of a more authentic text is all the more convincing since it enables Stapleton to offer a masterly analysis of the poem’s climax, the lovers’ consummation. One might regret, however, that his brilliantly proleptic image of “spent Leander ashore on Hero’s quivering breast” in Hero and Leander did not lead him to examine potential echoes with the first lines of Edward II, when Gaveston imagines himself “to have swum from France / And, like Leander, gasped upon the sand”.


Beyond its avowed purpose of assessing the formative impact on Marlowe of translating the Amores, the book provides many riches. “Formative intertextuality” cannot be separated from what Stapleton calls “crosswise intertextuality” that makes two literary works converse. Marlowe’s plays and poems may have been shaped by his knowledge of Ovid, but our knowledge of Marlowe also retrospectively reflects on our appreciation of Ovid’s Amores, especially after reading Marlowe’s Ovid, which also refines our own perception of Ovid. The book excels in its fine sensibility to tonal shifts, disjunctions and dissonances. One of its guiding threads, that runs throughout the book, also follows up how Marlowe’s felicitously creative rendition of Ovid’s “proba” as “the 2 leaued booke” in the Elegies diffuses and diffracts in the whole works to constitute one of their focal points.


As Stapleton wisely admits, “untangling a skein of allusions in a writer’s consciousness that might have informed a line or passage may ultimately prove impossible”; Marlowe’s Ovid also amply demonstrates that “in the course of speculation that underlies this analysis, the reader benefits from the rewards of observing such a mind at work, a dazzling experience”.



How to cite


Michael L. Stapleton. Marlowe’s Ovid: The Elegies in the Marlowe Canon. Farnham, Ashgate, 2014. Reviewed by Yves Peyré. In Studies in Early Modern Mythology 3 (2015).


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