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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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Christopher Marlowe's life was short, sharp and irresistible. His fame rests not only on six violently glittering plays written in his 20s but also on the tantalizing story that may be considered his masterpiece, for Marlowe inhabited his time like a player strutting upon an invisible stage. His life was his most remarkable piece of theater.

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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Everyone imitated Marlowe. His first play, Tamburlaine, was staged when he was 23, and its success can most readily be gauged by its imitators. As David Riggs notes in his new biography, The World of Christopher Marlowe, within the next couple of years three new plays were staged that were more or less direct copies of Marlowe's original, while Shakespeare wrote his early Henry VI plays under the influence of Marlowe's style. A decade later, as the church authorities burned copies of Marlowe's semipornographic love poems in the streets, Shakespeare again returned to imitating his predecessor in As You Like It. Marlowe's contemporaries regarded him with a mixture of awe and fear; as his friend Thomas Nashe wrote, "No leaf he wrote on but was like a burning glass to set on fire all his readers."

We are still Marlowe's readers today: Riggs's biography follows Constance Brown Kuriyama's Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life, published in 2002. The early death of such a man is written in the swagger of his life, and Marlowe's murder at the age of 29 in a bar brawl has been endlessly commemorated in the fantasies of his fans. The movie Shakespeare in Love imagined that Marlowe died for Shakespeare's cowardice; Crimelibrary.com, a website devoted to "criminal minds and methods," includes a feature on Marlowe's death among its litany of serial killers, terrorists and outlaws. Louise Welsh's novel Tamburlaine Must Die is the third book in the past fifteen years to return to the circumstances of the murder, and to spin stories around its fantastic possibilities.

While their treatments differ--Riggs's biography has the footnoted weight of a sober academic study, while Welsh's novel is as quick and dark as a child's nightmare--these two books agree that here, indeed, is quite a man. Riggs wants to give us a Marlowe of his time, but he does so uneasily. His is a slippery subject. Marlowe spelled his name many ways--"Marlin," "Merling," "Marlen" and "Marley"--and moved through as many worlds. Marlowe spent his childhood in Canterbury: His father was a shoemaker, and his education at the local school consisted mainly of the memorization of religious texts and Latin literature. In 1580 he won a scholarship to Cambridge. So far in the story, much is typical, but at some point while he was at Cambridge, Marlowe's life became extraordinary. He began writing love poetry and the plays that would briefly make him the most famous playwright in England; he also started working as a government spy, informing on English Catholics in exile in Europe.

It is precisely this combination of ordinary and extraordinary activities, played out in a single life, that makes Marlowe a fascinating, and yet impossible, biographical subject. Riggs's painstaking research allows him to tell us what a typical contemporary of Marlowe's might have had for lunch--"a small piece of beef and barley broth, at eleven a.m."--but this is not quite the same as telling us what Marlowe himself ate. In the great epic of human activity, lunchtime is a relatively marginal interlude; but in the biography of a specific individual, what he thought and when is vital. And this cannot be known, as Riggs himself admits, "for the simple reason that he has left no first-person utterances for us to interpret."

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.

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.

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.

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