Knowledge, Love and Epistemic Uncertainty in Marlowe's <i>Dido</i>, <i>Faustus</i> and <i>Edward II</i>


  • Mickael Popelard University of Caen Normandy



Skepticism, Dido, Faustus, Edward II, epistemic tension, certainty, love, Cavell, Descartes


In Disowning knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (CUP, 1987), Stanley Cavell insists on works of art being read in « the company of philosophy » - even if, he continues, such company can sometimes be « restive, difficult, occasionally impossible » (Cavell, 2). The book’s main issue is « that of the communication between philosophy and literature ». Cavell’s intuition, he says, is « that the advent of skepticism as manifested in Descartes’s Meditations is already in full existence in Shakespeare ». What is particularly striking about Cavell’s analysis is how the notion of skepticism is ultimately bound up with desire : « the issue posed is no longer, or not alone, as with earlier skepticism, how to conduct oneself best in an uncertain world. Our skepticism is a function of our now illimitable desire » (Cavell, 3). What is true of Shakespeare’s tragedies appears to be even truer of Marlowe’s works. Yet Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, or – even more surprisingly – Doctor Faustus have only too rarely been submitted to a similar epistemic or philosophical probing. With a few notable exceptions, most critical readings and interpretations of Marlowe’s drama tend to engage with politics, religion or identity, thus foregrounding the way the Marlovian protagonist – or the Marlovian text – strives to interact with the cultural and social environment they belong to, while leaving the epistemic question in the background : Patrick Cheney’s Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (2004) is a case in point, containing as it does many references to politics, sexuality and religion but none to either knowledge or science. This is all the more surprising as (epistemic) desire and knowledge are themes which are just as prominent in Marlowe’s plays as they are in Shakespeare’s. By drawing on Stanley Cavell’s philosophy, this paper will aim at exploring how Marlowe’s plays abound in epistemic « tensions, clashes and oxymora » addressing, or perhaps springing from, the desire/knowledge nexus. It will be my contention that these tensions and clashes can be read as so many sites of a fruitful, if restive, conversation between early modern drama and philosophy – a conversation that seems to further validate the advent of skepticism within early modern philosophy and literature, while also testifying to Marlowe’s philosophical relevance and topicality.

Responding to Ruth Lunney's suggestion that more attention should be paid to such a issues as "identity, memory and place in Dido", this essay will also aim at analysing the knowledge / love nexus in light of Cavell’s twofold hypothesis that skepticism amounts to the position that the world is fundamentally unknowable and that love is often presented as one of the possible remedies to uncertainty, in so far as it constitutes what Cavell calls a “return of the world”, that is to say a possible way of acquiring at least a modicum of certainty. In Marlowe’s dramatic universe, however, love often proves to be more of a trompe-l’oeil solution than a real and solid escape out of skepticism, as the absence of certainty can only be resolved by the destruction of the loving subject.