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The Man Who Wasn't There | The Nation

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The Man Who Wasn't There

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Riggs's response to this dearth of evidence is to produce a lovingly researched yet broken-backed and reticent book. The structure is split. Half the chapters are small masterpieces of historical scholarship: Riggs traces the everyday structures of sixteenth-century intellectual life with anthropological precision. His description of the education system and its obsession with rhetorical games, and of the murky intricacies of the spy networks contrived by the paranoid Elizabethan state, are exemplary. There is today no finer guide to Marlowe's world than David Riggs.

About the Author

Daniel Swift
Daniel Swift has written for Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement.

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The book's title, however, bears within it a promise on which the remaining sections fail to deliver. Marlowe may have been of this world, but he was also in it: emotionally, viscerally and--more so for him than for other men--bloodily. Riggs's Marlowe, however, is cold. The plays and poems, the only surviving traces we have of Marlowe's emotional and intellectual engagement with his world, are diminished: The sexy and seductive love poetry is described for the ways Marlowe's versions manipulate the Ovidian sources, and Tamburlaine, which flaunts its bloodthirsty blasphemy in the story of an atheist who conquers the world, gives Riggs the opportunity to explain Elizabethan cosmology. Marlowe himself is a cipher, a ghost haunting Riggs's narrative.

Riggs's wariness is most evident when he is faced with the lived details of his subject's life. In the autumn of 1580 Marlowe left school and went early to take up his university scholarship. "If he followed the usual route from Canterbury to Cambridge, Marlowe went up Watling Street past Faversham to the cathedral city of Rochester. He would have found rides with agricultural or trade vehicles," Riggs writes. "The seventy-mile trip probably took Marlowe about three days, unless the cold December weather slowed him down." There is a whole novel lurking here: a 16-year-old boy on an unknown midwinter journey from his hometown to the greatest center of learning in England, where he would become a spy, a love-poet and a notorious atheist. But Riggs instead chooses the conditional tense, and his ifs and probablys tell us a lifetime more about what Riggs will not do than what Marlowe might have.

Academic criticism requires this reluctance, but it is not the only mode in which literary history can be written. Put simply, Riggs has little sense of the creative impulse that drives people to write works of literature. This is doubly unfortunate, since his book is not only a biography of a writer but of a writer who was the target, during his lifetime, of a series of extravagantly creative fictions. Marlowe's contemporaries understood that he was something special, and they reacted, in envy and in fear, by spinning wild tales around him.

Marlowe's life was full of libels--attacks upon him circulated like flies long before his corpse was in the ground--but two in particular sealed his fate. On the night of May 5, 1593, an anonymous set of rhyming couplets appeared on the wall of the Dutch churchyard in London. The poem threatened the city's commercial immigrants, whose presence was protected by the Queen; it alluded to two of Marlowe's plays, and was signed simply "Tamburlaine." Three weeks later, the Queen's governing Privy Council received a document titled "Note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgement of Religion, and scorn of God's word." The note was signed by Richard Baines, an old acquaintance of Marlowe's: The two men had been jointly investigated a few years earlier for counterfeiting currency, and Baines was well-known as a spy and double agent. According to Baines, Marlowe believed "that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest," "that St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ" and "that all they that love not boys and tobacco are fools." The combination was lethal. Marlowe was summoned to appear before the council, and a week later was stabbed to death in a bar in Deptford by a government agent.

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