A Dead Man in Deptford

by Anthony Burgess

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1736

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, with history on one side and fictional history on the other.

If the chronology is a bit hazy, the action is crisply clear. Marlowe’s first mission for Walsingham, to the Catholic College at the French cathedral town of Rheims, allows Burgess to explore the central religious controversies of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. While Marlowe remains a committed skeptic, he still finds himself, disguised as a seeker after religious truth, having to consider the spiritual claims of those upon whom he spies, both the clergy and the soldiers who visit the town fresh from battles in the Low Countries. Religion, he finds, motivates politics, and vice versa—and both motivate spies. When Thomas Walsingham, whom Marlowe had met in London, turns up at Rheims in company of his man Ingram Frizer, his talk with Marlowe turns to two other spies, Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres. The fortunes of all five men are intertwined from this point, as Tom Walsingham and Marlowe become lovers and Frizer and Marlowe become enemies.

Other episodes in part 1 (up to Marlowe’s taking the M.A.) find Marlowe reporting back to London on those he had observed in France and later, during the term at Cambridge, being posted to Paris and London, ostensibly in on the plot to entrap Queen Mary in a forged conspiracy of high treason, taking part in brawls, witnessing the bloody public executions of Father John Ballard and Anthony Babington in September of 1586, undertaking yet another mission to the Low Countries for the Service, and using a letter from the Privy Council to explain his absences from his college and to urge the awarding of the M.A. degree.

Part 2 features Marlowe as the toast of London’s stage, unrolling Marlowe’s Mighty Line, iambic pentameter, in his verse tragedies. Burgess mingles the success of Tamburlaine the Great (parts 1 and 2, performed 1587; published 1590) with Marlowe’s first meeting with Sir Walter Raleigh, foreshadowing, through the narrator, the beginning of Marlowe’s own tragedy. Raleigh introduces Marlowe to tobacco and, even more insidiously, to his circle of religious inquirers, which includes two men named Hariot and Warner as well as young Harry Percy (the ninth Earl of Northumberland). Their inquiries, presented in the true temper of the times as reflected in the sermons and devotional literature of the era, blend well with the central concerns of Marlowe’s most famous play, The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus (performed 1588-1589; published 1604), in which the principal character strikes a bargain with the devil, venturing his very soul for knowledge and the power it brings.

Doctor Faustus is presented against the backdrop of Marlowe’s own life and concerns about being called an atheist by the playwright Robert Greene. The play’s performances are also described as prompting hysteria among the audience, some of whom claimed to see actual devils, and not actors, upon the stage. The narrator presents some pages of an unfinished play by Kyd (here Burgess achieves Kyd’s narrative style) dealing dangerously with the events and actual people of his own day, and also much discussion of Marlowe’s lost play of the Duke of Guise, similarly dangerously set in Marlowe’s own time, involving the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; it was not playable in the politico-religious climate of the age until Henslowe allegedly produced it after Christmas in 1592. So, too, the dark period in Marlowe’s life, his imprisonment in Newgate on suspicion of murder, comes in for detailed treatment, as do his release, his further dealings with those of the Service, and the writing and playing of his The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta (performed c. 1590; published 1633) and The Troublesome Raigne and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second (performed c. 1592; published 1594).

Burgess manages to cram the very life and breath of Elizabethan London into the pages of this second part of the book. The breath of plague and the life of political intrigue are featured prominently, leading all the while to the Privy Council’s fatal inquisition into Kyd’s supposed atheism and his implication, under torture that maimed his writing hand, that certain papers found in the rooms he shared with Marlowe were the latter’s. Deftly Burgess sets the stage for Marlowe’s final days by preparing the ground for his appearance before the Privy Council as well as by preparing for what will be his final assignation with Poley, now in charge of the Service, at Deptford.

Marlowe’s modern biographers speculate on what might have been the upshot of his arrest on charges of heresy, as well as on what he was doing in Deptford and in the company of those named in the official report of his death. Burgess, without spelling things out, indicates that several parties would benefit from Marlowe’s not being able to appear before the Privy Council, among them Poley and Walsingham. Then, too, Tom Walsingham was, out of policy and the maintenance of property, about to marry and beget children. Somehow one of the spies with whom Marlowe had acted in Flanders found himself before the Privy Council giving evidence against Marlowe. To have Marlowe, as an active member of the Service, arrested on order of the Privy Council would have meant much official explaining. All in all, his death convenienced a goodly number of people. This is surely the conclusion Burgess and Marlowe’s modern biographers wish readers to reach.

With rare skill, Burgess has taken a difficult subject drawn from a difficult period and brought both to life in a compellingly told tale. Readers need not be familiar with the intricacies of Elizabethan England to appreciate the novel, though some background knowledge might be helpful. Some familiarity with or at least openness to pondering the outmoded and archaic language of the period will greatly help the reading. For those familiar with both the period and its speech, this is a richly rewarding read.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, February 1, 1995, p. 971.

Commonweal. CXXI, February 11, 1994, p. 9.

Library Journal. CXX, March 15, 1995, p. 96.

New Statesman and Society. VI, April 23, 1993, p. 36.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, October 5, 1995, p. 47.

The New York Times Book Review. C, May 28, 1995, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 6, 1995, p. 56.

The Spectator. CCLXX, May 8, 1993, p. 28.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 30, 1993, p. 21.

The Wall Street Journal. April 28, 1995, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, May 28, 1995, p. 1.

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