EXITING THE STAGE

By Charles Nicholl

Published: January 27, 2013

The pre-eminent fictional Marlowe is still the hard-boiled detective created by Raymond Chandler, but novelistic treatments of the real-life Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe are running him a close second. The earliest, now seldom read, was a book called “It Was Marlowe,” published in 1895. Its author was an Ohio lawyer, Wilbur Gleason Zeigler. More recently there have been Anthony Burgess’ “Dead Man in Deptford” and Robin Chapman’s “Christoferus,” both published in 1993, the 400th anniversary of Marlowe’s death, as well as “Tamburlaine Must Die” (2004) by the Scottish thriller writer Louise Welsh. The list goes on.

The latest addition is Ros Barber’s “Marlowe Papers,” and while it is not the first to reimagine aspects of Marlowe’s life – and, more particularly, his mysterious death – it is almost certainly the first to do so in verse. Barber is an accomplished poet, and as a sustained exercise in nuanced poetic narrative this is a remarkable book. It is also a brave one, given that the public’s appetite for verse-novels has diminished rather drastically since their 19th-century heyday, when writers of the stature of Byron, Browning and Pushkin rattled them off with aplomb.

As raw material for historical fiction, the life of Marlowe – or the fragmentary records of it that remain – could scarcely be bettered. It has an arc of aspiration and downfall, a charismatic glow of loucheness and violence, a spicing of espionage. The son of a cobbler, he became the most popular dramatist of the day with such plays as “Tamburlaine the Great,” “The Jew of Malta” and that great Elizabethan spinechiller “Dr. Faustus.” A supposed portrait from 1585 shows a sardonic-looking young man in a snazzy velvet doublet, though the evidence that it is him is tenuous, and to identify the portrait as Marlowe’s is in itself a kind of fictionalizing. So too were the reports of state informers alleging his reckless blasphemies, dissident opinions and irregular sexual tastes. “All they that love not tobacco and boies were fools,” he was reported to have said (a recent spoilsport suggestion that “boies” was a mishearing of “booze,” which Barber repeats, is without foundation). And, of course, he came to a suitably sticky end, stabbed to death near the dockyards of Deptford at the age of 29, leaving us with a murder mystery whose secrets have yet to be fully untangled 400 years later.

His story is a ready-made noir from the mean streets of Tudor London. What more could a novelist want? Or, from another point of view, why do we need a novelist at all? In particular I wonder if we need a novelist with what amounts to a propagandist agenda in tow. For – caveat lector! – Dr. Barber is a “Marlovian,” not only in the generic and beneficial sense of being an admirer of Marlowe, but in the more specific and, some will say, more tiresome sense of being a believer in the theory that Marlowe wrote the plays of Shakespeare.

The crux of her story is similar to the one put forward by Calvin Hoffman in his 1955 book “The Murder of the Man Who Was ‘Shakespeare.”’ Hoffman proposed that the official account of Marlowe’s death – as given in the original coroner’s inquest of 1593 – was a cover-up; that it concealed an elaborate hoax whereby Marlowe was spirited away to the Continent in order to escape the charges of heresy being leveled against him; and that once safely abroad, he pursued his dramaturgical career under the nom de plume of a dull-witted but compliant actor named William Shakespeare.

The “anti-Stratfordians” (as the doubters of Shakespeare’s authorship are called) are becoming ever more vociferous. As well as Barber’s book there has been a feature film, Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous,” a kind of Shakespeare authorship thriller – a “quiller,” perhaps – which promises that the “conspiracy will finally be revealed.” Marlowe makes an appearance and is played by Trystan Gravelle, one in a line of screen incarnations that include Ian McShane in John Mortimer’s “Life of Shakespeare” and Rupert Everett in “Shakespeare in Love.” But Gravelle’s Marlowe is only there in a supporting role, for “Anonymous” takes the “Oxfordian” position, which claims Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the author of the plays.

That Barber’s book and Emmerich’s film propose two different candidates indicates one of the weaknesses in the anti-Stratfordian case. Another, of course, is a glaring lack of contemporary evidence. In the intimate, gossipy world of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, in the letters and diaries and epigrams of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, in the ad personam jibes that were flung about “like hailstones” in the “war of the theaters” around 1600, not a whisper of doubt is heard about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. This silence lasts through to the 1850s, when it is suddenly announced that the plays had been written by Sir Francis Bacon, and that if you read them as puzzles you would find various coded clues of his authorship.

Despite this shaky scaffolding of literary conspiracy, there is a great deal to enjoy in “The Marlowe Papers.” Barber conjures up some beautifully realized scenes. The chapters, which are really poems, are brief – there are well over a hundred of them – and briskly move the story along. The language is convincing, and free of the gadzookery of Elizabethan pastiche. Her medium is mostly blank verse in iambic pentameter, that wonderfully supple form that could accommodate both exalted poetry – “high astounding terms,” in Marlowe’s own phrase – and those natural, casual-seeming speech-rhythms at which Shakespeare excelled.

She is also very good at the mood of lethal gamesmanship among those denizens of the political underworld with whom Marlowe mixed. One of her best creations is the sinisterly charming spy Robert Poley. He tells Marlowe: “Who serves the Queen / must travel with the currents, like the tide / is pulled by the moon – you poets have compared / her to the moon, I think.” Poley was, in fact as well as fancy, one of the three men present with Marlowe on the night he died. “Rob Poley smiles / that noose of a smile he saves for lethal words. / ‘This is goodbye.”’

Our knowledge of a distant historical figure like Marlowe is based on difficult and delicate fragments of evidence. Fictional history gives us a story much fuller, and in some senses much richer – it gives us more, and delivers it quicker, and if that sounds like a marketing slogan, it seems to be one that works. The genre is currently very popular, with successes ranging from “The Da Vinci Code” to “Wolf Hall,” but I dislike this creeping supposition that what a novelist or scriptwriter produces is a kind of alternative, pumped-up history that is somehow as valid as the more boring kind of evidence-based history. It is much harder to discover something about Marlowe – even something small and particular – than it is to invent it, and the more the line gets blurred between the two, the less we will know of him.

(Charles Nicholl is the author of several books, including ``The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe.'')
Back to The New York Times Bestsellers
Be the first to review this book. Reviews need to be more than 75 words.

Tag this book

Browse books by tags

Browse books by categories


Just a moment while we sign you in to your TheReadingRoom account.
loading...
Just a moment while we sign you in to your TheReadingRoom account.
loading...