Christopher Marlowe has been a frequent subject of biographers since Tucker Brooke’s landmark 1930 study of the playwright, but there remains as much conjecture as incontrovertible fact about the short life of this first noteworthy English dramatist. Before he was murdered on May 30, 1593, at age twenty-nine, Marlowe had written and seen staged the five plays upon which his reputation stands, an achievement all the more impressive when measured against that of William Shakespeare, his junior by two months, whose output by age twenty-nine consisted of only the minor comedies and histories. Notwithstanding the brevity of Marlowe’s careerfive or six years at mosthe left a legacy of four tragedies that stand with Shakespeare’s at the highest rank, a history play that set an early standard for the genre, and an epic love poem (Hero and Leander, 1598) on a par with Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, (1593).
It is no wonder then that Park Honan, author of Shakespeare: A Life (1998), would choose to write a biography of Marlowe, an acquaintance of Shakespeare and, as some would have it, an erstwhile rival. With the fruits of past scholarship at his disposal and his discovery of new sources, Honan has written the most authoritative study of Marlowe’s life and milieu to date. Nevertheless, because so many lacunae remain and much of the documentary evidence is equivocal, many of Honan’s conclusions are speculative, qualified, and tentative. In common with previous biographers, he reveals Marlowe through the testimony of others, including the familiar (and perhaps overly stressed) evidence of fellow University Wit Thomas Kyd and that of Marlowe’s friend Thomas Watson, whose writings in Latin provide Honan with significant new information about Marlowe’s life.
Honan utilizes new evidence to strengthen the circumstantial case that a Corpus Christi College portrait of a young man indeed is that of the playwright. Honan’s research also has yielded additional facts about Marlowe’s comically unsuccessful espionage trip to the Continent, including his arrest and involvement in an abortive counterfeit money scheme. Notwithstanding his gathering of fugitive pieces into a compelling narrative, Honan has not produced the definitive life of Marlowe, who remains a somewhat elusive figure four centuries after his death and likely will remain so.
Honan’s title, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, is somewhat misleading because it suggests an equivalence of careers that is not the case. Young Marlowe was first and foremost a playwright and poet, and he dabbled in espionage only occasionally to earn money, cement friendships, and satisfy a desire for adventure. Though he apparently had some assignments as an undercover courier and rendezvoused on the Continent with covert operatives, he accomplished practically nothing in the field of espionage other than fostering a relationship with a patron, who ironically may have betrayed his acolyte and orchestrated his death. On the other hand, the title label of Marlowe as “Poet” accurately reflects Honan’s emphasis in the biography, for although he fully credits Marlowe’s contributions to the developing tragic drama in Elizabethan England, he deals extensively with the poetry, nondramatic as well as dramatic, suggesting that the Cambridge M.A. was as interested in the language of the theater as in its stagecraft.
Developing his narrative chronologically, Honan begins with Marlowe’s childhood and basic education in Canterbury as a shoemaker’s son whose intellectual gifts were recognized at an early age. Honan builds upon the scholarship of local historian William Urry and others to provide a comprehensive portrait of the Canterbury milieu in which Marlowe was raised. Honan’s approach in these early chapters is the same as later in the book, presenting detailed family histories of Marlowe associates and acquaintances and giving elaborate descriptions of places where he lived. Such information occasionally seems only peripherally relevant to his work, but Marlowe is a product of his environment, and the milieu as well as his formal studies affected his writing. There is, Honan shows, a contemporaneity to Marlowe’s subjects and themes, albeit his characters and conflicts are of the past. Honan’s treatment of the plays, though in the context of biography, includes close textual analysis as the basis of his interpretations, and he also discusses the plays in relation to the dramas of his contemporaries, notably Shakespeare and his indebtedness to Marlowe.
The portrait of Marlowe the man in the book has two loci: his atheism and his homoerotic tendencies. The former Honan presents through documentary evidence and informed interpretations of events and statements in...
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