He had the hair, the Mona Lisa smile, the subtle hands, the loudly fashionable clothing, the bad-boy attitude – it’s little wonder that Christopher Marlowe has been an extremely popular subject for fiction-writers over the years (especially blossoming after 1952, when the portrait we all so badly want to be a 21-year-old Marlowe was discovered). My own personal library has two shelves devoted to Marlowe books, and one whole shelf of those are novels rather than biographies, although the two genres symbiotically share the same skinny 61 known facts of Marlowe’s life, including the key ones: that the young man was to become a flashy, enormously popular playwright, that he was purported to have scandalous, heretically opinions, that he performed some kind of service for the Crown while still in college, and of course that he was stabbed to death in Deptford.
You can see immediately the appeal for novelists: there are so many tantalizingly open mysteries! What did Marlowe do for the Crown? What were his real controversial opinions, if any? And maybe most of all, what prompted his murder, if we discount the possibility that it was all a drunken brawl? These are the kinds of questions novelists were born to answer, and dozens and dozens of them have taken up the challenge. I’m fairly certain I’ve read all the resulting books, give or take one or two, and here I’m presenting just a smattering of those:
Prove a Villain by K. C. Warwick (2010) – Since one of the things a friend-then-enemy of Marlowe’s gossiped that he once said dealt with a partiality for boys, the playwright has very, very often been adopted as a kind of neck-ruffed patron saint of outed homosexuality. The writers who’ve embraced that version of Marlowe aren’t especially interested in learning that public accusations of buggering were very popular in Shakespeare’s day, a slander chosen for its stickiness rather than its factual accuracy. No, these writers want a gay hero who’s not hiding – indeed, who’s not only open but famous and formidable, and Marlowe (rather than fawning, opaque Shakespeare, several of whose sonnets actually are openly homosexual) is their man. K. C. Warwick is one such author, and in Prove a Villain, tailor Hugh Seaton, back in London after an absence of two years, is happy to return to the acting troupe he used to work with, even though it might mean more encounters with his former lover-boyfriend, you guessed it:
He stood for a moment, resting his hand on the curved wooden wall as it it were the flank of a favorite hound – but that was a mistake because it brought to mind the last time he had stood there, his shoulder blades pressed against the hard wood by the weight of Kit’s body. The other man’s breath had been warm against his cheek as he whispered angrily, “Don’t tell me you care more for some woman than you do for me! That’s a falsehood!” Even though it was two years ago, Hugh could remember exactly how it had felt. How, despite his anger, he had enjoyed being pinned with Kit’s warm strength holding him …
Prove a Villain absolutely must carry on as an explicit fantasy, naturally. Gay men couldn’t hope for open happiness in Elizabethan times (there’s some real historical doubt that they could have had even private happiness, psychologically), and Marlowe can’t hope for happiness in any case. As we’ll see with upcoming books on this little list, that brick wall in the narrative, that looming doom in Deptford, bedevils almost all attempts to dramatize this dramatist.
Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (2004) – The fragmentary nature of Marlowe’s life – those tantalizing gaps at key points and key periods – prompts some writers of Marlowe fiction to mirror the terrain in their books, and Louise Welsh’s pretty little novella is the best of that impressionistic lot. It’s raw and raunchy, wasting no time plunging its readers into both Marlowe’s mind and the seedy, back-stabbing nature of his age:
I am of an adventurous nature. I have often invited danger and have even goaded men to violence for the sake of excitement. I like best what lies beyond my reach, and admit to using friendship, State and Church to my own ends. I acknowledge breaking God’s laws and man’s with few regrets. But if I die tomorrow, I will go to my grave a wronged man. Were this fate of my own doing, I would greet it not gladly, but with a nod to virtue’s victory. As it is, if I meet death tomorrow I promise to face him cursing man and God.
In fact, Tamburlaine Must Die was at times so telegraphic and sensory that I often wanted it to be more fragmentary, not less, a full-blown fantasia rather than anything connected to plot. As a result (no doubt unintended by the author), I always find the actual plot of the story a bit silly, especially in its concluding scenes. But the bulk of this slim volume is composed of scenes and flashes that will stick in your memory.
Blood and Ink by D. K. Marley (2010) – Some Marlowe novelists, as noted, opt for what essentially amounts to a bells-and-whistles fictional version of the straight-up biographies historians like Park Honan produce; they ransack the registers of famous Elizabethans and crowd them all into as many street-and-tavern scenes as possible. Marley’s tale is one such, lavishing the outline of Marlowe’s life with a 21st-century version of the purple overwriting that made the playwright a star:
Kit looked over his shoulder. Through the haze of the candlelight, Richard Burbage entered, and following him, another man in a simple brown doublet and worn boots. Marlowe recognized him straightaway as the man whom he had seen with Burbage near the Curtain theatre, yet not only then; before him stood the boy from Kenilworth and the Stratford actor, William Shakespeare. Kit felt an illness creep about his heart.
As is the case with many Marlowe novels, there’s a good deal to overlook in Blood and Ink; its excesses can be wretched indeed, and it too often opts to omit the kinds of subtlety for which Marlowe even today doesn’t quite get his due. As an adventure story, it’s very Edwardian-style arch, which will prevent it from being everybody’s cup of sack.
The Marlowe Conspiracy by M. G. Scarsbrook (2010) – Scarsbrook opts for a plain old rather than arch adventure story: this Marlowe, both a famous working playwright and a busily-working spy, comes under official suspicion of atheism and sedition and has only a small window of time to clear himself. He’s helped by his friend and colleague William Shakespeare, and Scarsbrook does a very attentive job in helping readers to see the dramatis personae:
Kit was tall, with lithe arms and compact shoulders. Oval of face, he wore his long brown hair pulled back from his brow, and he grew a faint moustache over his lip and a thin beard on his chin. Dark, sun-stained eyes stared back at him from the looking glass. Between his slanted eyebrows lay a small crease worn into the skin through frowning. In his late twenties, he was a man fully in his prime. He was also a man of hidden tension: focused yet undisciplined: alert but frustrated; confident yet racked by anxiety.
The Marlowe Conspiracy is inevitably bottlenecked by its own premise, as are so many Marlowe novels (but not our next one!): we know that no long life of happy endings awaits our hero. But Scarsbrook is a talented enough author to make us temporarily forget.
The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (2014) – Some Marlowe novels are, of course, more ambitious than others, and this one by Ros Barber is doubly so: not only does it commit itself fully to the idea that Marlowe faked his death in Deptford, moved to the Continent, and wrote all the plays we now attribute to William Shakespeare, but it tells that story in verse! Verse that’s fluid and always readable, even if it won’t give either Marlowe or Shakespeare much cause for envy:
From all this, I am dead. Reduced to ink
that magicks up my spirit from the page:
a voice who knows what mortals cannot think of;
a ghost, whose words ring deeper from the grave.
Corpse-dead. A gory stab-hole for an eye;
and that’s what they must think. No, must believe,
those thug-head pursers bent on gagging speech,
if I’m to slip their noose and stay alive.
Now I’m as dead as any to the world,
the foulest rain of blackened corpses on
the body that is entered in my name:
the plague pit where Kit Marlowe now belongs.
Barber has since gone on to mount some very good, very exhaustive assaults on the validity of Shakespeare’s authorship of the works we read under his name, and this novel-in-verse is clearly her Iliad along those lines. It stands out in every way from most other Marlowe novels, which is, as we’ve seen, high praise on its own.
Entered from the Sun by George Garrett (1990) – Nothing stands out quite so well or so naturally as genius, however, and that word certainly applies to George Garrett’s greatest historical novel, a Marlowe story in which Marlowe never appears and is long since dead – though no less present in the recollections of Garrett’s smart, troubled main character, Joseph Hunnyman:
It is true that I am … or, more truthfully, that I have been from time to time a player. And I think it would be truly remarkable to find any player alive in England who s altogether ignorant of Marlowe’s plays. Is there any company, large or small, celebrated or obscure, which has not, one way or another and in one version or another, performed his plays and earned both profit and general applause for their efforts? I doubt it. Is there a living poet in England who has not flattered Marlowe and honored his memory by trying to imitate the matter of his plays and the thunder and lightning, the drums and trumpets and gunpowder blasts of his words? Not to my knowledge. There was a time, believe me, sir, and it has not yet fully dissipated, either, when all that the managers wished to see and to consider for performance was something or other, anything really, which had at least the counterfeit sound and echo of Marlowe in the lines and some shadowy copy of the astonishing spectacle of his fables.
Garrett’s novel is the pinnacle of his life-long immersion in Elizabethan times; it rings with the poetry of the age and strides and swaggers and staggers like the age. And like all of Garrett’s books, its plotting is deceptively laconic, revealing its steel and snapping closed only toward the very end (in the case of this book, in part in the very last paragraph). In the realm of fiction, Christopher Marlowe has inspired hundreds of books but only one real masterpiece, and this is it.
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