Friday, January 18, 2013

Humanizing Marlowe: a Question for Ros Barber

Q:  Ros, as you prepare for the January 29 U.S. release of The Marlowe Papers, which debuted to excellent reviews in the U.K., can you shed some light on Christopher Marlowe the man whom a prospective reader of your novel might not be at all familiar with?  It is rare to find even Dr. Faustus on a U.S. high school curriculum, for example, and thus many would be reading about Marlowe for the very first time.  Why is he such a compelling figure worthy of our attention?

RB:  Thanks, Carlo.  Always happy to talk about my favourite dead man!  There are so many aspects of Marlowe I want to cover in my response that I think I’ll have to give them sub-headings. 

Marlowe as Shakespeare’s genius 

Without Marlowe, we wouldn’t have Shakespeare.  And I’m not just saying that because I’ve written a novel based on the theory that William Shakespeare was Marlowe’s posthumous pen-name! Marlowe’s plays and poems were such an enormous influence on Shakespeare’s that scholars agree Shakespeare wouldn’t write the way he did if Marlowe hadn’t existed. 

Harold Bloom said “Marlowe, himself a wild original, was Shakespeare’s starting point." And Marlowe was not only a starting point. Robert Logan observes “Marlowe’s influence rooted itself in Shakespeare and […] continued to thrive […] for the remainder of Shakespeare’s career.”1

Shakespeare copies and paraphrases Marlowe all the way through the canon.  “The face that launched a thousand ships” is just one of many direct steals. Shakespeare references Marlowe’s poetry in As You Like It and comically mangles it in Merry Wives of Windsor. His Richard II leans heavily on Marlowe’s Edward II, his Merchant of Venice reworks the Jew of Malta, his Anthony and Cleopatra rests on Dido Queen of Carthage and his Prospero is the mirror-image of Marlowe’s Faustus.  If you want to know what makes Shakespeare a genius, do what he does: look to Marlowe.

Marlowe as an innovator

Shakespeare aside, Marlowe was an astonishingly innovative writer. Though he didn’t exactly invent blank verse drama, there was only one notable example before Marlowe took to it, and he was the first person to make blank verse sing off the page.  He set the trend not only for blank verse drama but for English History plays, and spawned a huge number of imitators.  Like Shakespeare, his plays are best experienced in performance rather than read, but they remain vivid, witty and acutely observed.  Professor Tom Healy has said that Doctor Faustus outperformed all of Shakespeare’s plays for popularity from the late 1580s until civil war closed London’s theatres in 1642. Though he was disparaged as an atheist and blasphemer after his death, and subsequently forgotten for centuries, Marlowe was undoubtedly an incredibly gifted, daring and ground-breaking writer. 

Marlowe as a secret service agent

Unlike the man from Stratford, Marlowe was also extraordinarily interesting beyond his writing talents.  He was recruited to work for the government’s fledgling intelligence service while still a university student. When Cambridge University was threatening to withhold his Master’s degree, five of the most powerful people in the land vouched for him, including the Lord Treasurer, Lord Chancellor, Lord Chamberlain of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was said to have “done Her Majesty good service touching the benefit of his country." Later he was arrested in the Netherlands for counterfeiting coins, most probably while trying to infiltrate a Catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.2  Marlowe was James Bond in a doublet and hose.

Marlowe as a free thinker

A free-thinker, Marlowe was connected to some of the most brilliant intellectuals of his day.  We’re told he delivered an “atheist lecture” to Sir Walter Raleigh and his followers, and he was a friend of Thomas Harriot, the first person to make a drawing of the moon using a telescope.  In his own words, he was “very well known” to Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, known as The Wizard Earl for his experiments in alchemy. 

If you want to know what Elizabethan intellectuals talked about, Marlowe’s views were controversial enough to spawn an apparent transcript of the playwright in full conversational flow: The Baines Note,3 penned by an enemy intent on bringing about his downfall, tells us Marlowe said that “the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe," and that “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest."
Marlowe’s views are seeringly sceptical and modern: considered scandalous in earlier centuries, he’d be very much at home in ours.

Marlowe as everyman

But though he mixed with nobility and courtiers, and well as writers and musicians, Marlowe came from humble origins: his father was a cobbler.  His advancement in society came from a combination of aptitude and hard work: a late scholarship to King’s School Canterbury was followed by another to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he earned the title generosus (gentleman) through gaining his Master’s degree. Though an exceptional person, Marlowe was no elitist, bringing with him a breadth of social experiences.  He has been called an over-reacher, he was certainly deeply flawed – but his flaws only make him more human.

Marlowe as a mystery

As if he wasn’t interesting enough in life, Marlowe’s biography concludes with a fascinating murder mystery.  Scholars are torn over whether he really did die in a knife-fight in a tavern, or whether the inquest was a cover-up for something shadier.  Both named witnesses, and the supposed murderer, were professional liars – conmen and spies. Two of them worked, like Marlowe, in the intelligence service and the man who is said to have stabbed him through the eye was a lifelong servant of Marlowe’s patron. There is a huge amount of material here for amateur sleuths to get their teeth into, and at the moment the mystery remains unsolved.

Here are more than enough reasons, I hope you agree, to make Marlowe a compelling figure worthy of our attention.

 © The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, January 2013
New York Times review of The Marlowe Papers
1Harold Bloom, Bloom’s Major Dramatists: Christopher Marlowe (Chelsea House, 2002), p.10.  Robert Logan, Shakespeare’s Marlowe: The Influence of Christopher Marlowe on Shakespeare’s Artistry (Ashgate, 2007), p.8.  For a comprehensive list of scholarly quotes about Marlowe’s importance to Shakespeare, go to
2David Riggs, The Words of Christopher Marlowe (Faber, 2004, 7-9).

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JasonSager said...

I read the Marlowe Papers this summer. Beautifully written and dreamy.

Franck said...

I much enjoyed reading the Marlowe Papers last year, not only as a work of poetic fiction, but also as a hypothesis. I have watched Shakespeare avidly for many years, mainly at Stratford, and have always been fascinated by his and Marlowe's character and how their careers seem to dovetail together, almost too neatly.
Ros speaks of a lot of investigative work still needing to be done, hopefully to finally solve the mystery one way or the other - in your opinion, speaking as someone who might wish to pick up the torch, which might be the more fruitful avenues of enquiry?

Claire said...

I can't speak for Ros, but I would say investigate whatever interests and excites you. And that you have an aptitude for.

There are a lot of archives on the continent that would be worth investigating if you had archival skills & early modern French/Italian/Latin... Richard Paul Roe's book highlights a few cities whose archives would probably reward a well-planned research project. Few of us have those skills, though, even if we could get the access.

The archives of mainland Europe aside, I would say just follow whatever makes you curious and/or excited!

SilverNJ said...

A very informative post and I look forward to reading Ros B's novel.

Paige766 said...

Congratulations on a very favorable review in the New York Times. Very intriguing, and I look forward to picking up the book.

Constance said...

Midway through the book . . .quite impressive and deftly written.

RRaymo said...

Two thumbs way up for Marlowe Papers!