The Man Who Wasn't There
Riggs passes over the Dutch church libel in two pages; while he gives its context, he does not discuss its contents. The Baines note, however, he takes as a major source. He quotes it a dozen times, and assumes that the charges by Baines were Marlowe's sincere opinions. "Marlowe asserted," he writes; "Marlowe claimed." Never mind that Baines testified against Marlowe under the threat of torture or execution, or that he was paid more for his story than any bestselling novelist today; Riggs does not contemplate the whys or the ifs, taking Baines's accusations as reports. He forces fiction to do the work of fact.
It need not necessarily be so. These two libels provide Louise Welsh with the skeleton of her new thriller Tamburlaine Must Die, which fictionalizes Marlowe's last days with novelistic wit and interpretive imagination. Welsh is no academic: She is best known for her bestselling previous novel, The Cutting Room, a darkly brooding story about pornography and murder in twentieth-century Scotland. But every line of Tamburlaine Must Die is informed by a thorough grasp of not only the day-to-day of Marlowe's life but also a sympathetic willingness to imagine the in-between.
Close to the start of Tamburlaine Must Die, the narrator announces, "My name is Christopher Marlowe, also known as Marle, Morley, Marly, known as Kit, known as Xtopher, son of a Canterbury cobbler." Welsh gives Marlowe a voice, and it sounds like Marlowe. He is casually blasphemous--sneeringly describing the church bells calling the devout to prayer as "a sound that plagues our city"--and sexually ambitious, sleeping both with his rich patron and a nameless underage prostitute in a two-day span. He quotes his own plays, mocks lesser poets and has a hangman's sense of humor: "This is the theatre of blood," he yells, as he beats up a friend of his in a theater.
This Marlowe knows the price of stories. "Men have no trouble recounting tragedy when it is broken out of them," he tells one of his many interrogators, and the stories told here have a keen sense of cost. The Dutch church libel, in Welsh's telling, was composed by an actor acquaintance of Marlowe's who was jealous of his friend's success. Marlowe later meets Baines in a bar and, drunkenly showing off, recites the blasphemies that subsequently appear in Baines's note to the Privy Council. Marlowe's fictions later return to haunt him as a death sentence. Welsh's Marlowe lives and dies by storytelling: Her novelist's impulse to trade fact for fiction and the known for the felt is a perfect fit with the aggrandizing, enigmatic and story-haunted playwright.
If Christopher Marlowe's life is irresistible, it is in part because it was of a moment we still find irresistible. There are not any plans in Hollywood to make Marlowe in Love--though it would be quite a movie--but there is an overflow of interest in his time. Following Stephen Greenblatt's bestselling Will in the World, an imaginative account of the interplay between Shakespeare's works and his world, there are two Shakespeare biographies scheduled for publication this year and two more in 2006. The age of Shakespeare and Marlowe is sufficiently distant to require our imagination, and sufficiently close to deserve it.