Master storyteller Anthony Burgess returns to a subject that has fascinated him for more than fifty years in this astonishing historical novel of the life and death of Christopher Marlowe. The sketchy facts of the playwright’s life are few. Two biographies of Marlowe written in the twentieth century build upon those slender facts and add to them avowed speculation about his highly controversial life. Burgess artfully draws upon biography and speculation, contemporary events and remarks, historical possibilities and plausibilities to present a supposed Marlowe of his own creation, a fictional character with roots in the historical person. Dividing his tale into three parts, Burgess deals first with Marlowe’s student days up to 1587, next with his London years as a celebrated playwright, and finally with the last days of Marlowe’s life, in Westminster before the Privy Council and in Deptford at the public house of the Widow Eleanor Bull.
Burgess tells the story of Marlowe’s life through a fictive narrator, an actor and musician who, in Elizabethan tradition, played women’s roles as a youth and says that he is named as playing Balthasar in the stage directions to act 2, scene 3 in Heminge and Condell’s 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This narrator, named Jack Wilson in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, whom Burgess gratuitously abandons in the novel’s final paragraph to proclaim himself the author (an artistically unnecessary revelation), speaks throughout in Elizabethan language. For scholars and aficionados this will be caviar to the general, but it will please not the million with its difficulty of word and syntax. Thus does Burgess further complicate his complicated tale by using both recondite and incondite language. His playing about with an age-old Shakespearean debate about Wilson’s identity does, on the other hand, indicate the wonderful complexity of the work, a complexity that reflects the enormous variety of the period itself. For those who understand the language, this is a superlative story superlatively told by a seventeenth century voice.
The telling begins with Kit Marlowe’s Cambridge days. Upon graduation from the King’s School in his native Canterbury, he becomes embroiled in the raging religious debates of the Reformation. The religious and the political—and both laying claim to the scientific—were inextricable elements of identity and identification in Elizabethan times. Deviation from the Church of England could and did have deadly consequences, particularly for Catholic recusants, who might be in league with Mary, Queen of Scots. Marlowe, according to contemporary comments, held himself aloofly skeptical of matters religious and engaged in highly inventive blasphemies; this is the side of the Marlowe reputation Burgess adopts with ingeniously outrageous effect.
Kit Marlowe enters into London’s theatrical society; it is at this point that the narrator, playing Bel-Imperia in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, first observes him. This part of the novel affords remarkable glimpses of the luminaries of the period, including James Burbage, owner of the Theatre and the Curtain playhouses; Ned Alleyn, the foremost tragedian of the 1580’s; and Philip Henslowe, who was to build the Rose Theatre between his bear pit and his brothel on Bankside. It also provides a blow-by-blow description of a tavern brawl, followed by Kit’s induction into the Service at the hands of its chief, Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s secretary of state.
There is some haziness about the sequence of events the narrator unfolds. Most scholars contend that the role of Bel-Imperia dates from 1584 at the earliest (when Marlowe took his B.A., and so after his first missions abroad while an undergraduate). Also, while the half-written role of the Queen in Kyd’s lost play Hamlet Revenge—which the narrator claims to be conning before Kit takes his M.A. (July 4, 1587)—predates its reference in Thomas Nashe’s preface to Robert Greene’sMenaphon (1589), the plausibility of its being so early is questionable. Yet these are precisely some of the joys of reading this novel: trying to work out a two-columned sequence of events,...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)