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     Volume 4 Issue 67 | October 14, 2005 |

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Book Review

Dramas and crises

Stanley Wells

Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy Park Honan

Did any major British writer lead so exciting a life as Christopher Marlowe? While at Cambridge, he was recruited as a spy. A year or two later, he was imprisoned for suspected homicide after an entanglement with another poet in a street fight. After travelling to the Netherlands, he was imprisoned and deported for conspiring to counterfeit coins. He was arrested on charges of heresy and accused of propagating atheism and homosexuality. According to spy Richard Baines, he said that 'Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest', and that 'all they that love not tobacco and boys were fools'.

And in a grand climax of self-sacrifice to the needs of novelists and playwrights as well as biographers, at the age of 29, he had himself stabbed in the eye in mysterious circumstances and died in a Deptford boarding house.

Marlowe's public activities alone would make his life worth chronicling, but amazingly he found the time and mental energy to project a no-less turbulent inner life in a series of poems and plays of extraordinary accomplishment and originality. His pioneering translations of Ovid anticipate Byron in their racy sensuality. Tamburlaine is our first great heroic drama and still one of the finest; The Jew of Malta is a mordant masterpiece of ironic tragedy; Edward II the boldest treatment of tragic homosexuality before the late 20th century; and Dr Faustus an essentially religious tragedy of astonishing, if uneven, power.

For all their qualities as entertainment, these plays add up, says Park Honan, Marlowe's latest biographer, to 'a grave, doubting inquiry into the accepted notions of human society and behaviour'. (I'm not so sure about 'grave'; Marlowe is one of our wittiest writers.) And in Hero and Leander, Marlowe wrote a poem of which Honan can claim: 'No other short narrative in English is so filled with the bustle and turmoil of erotic power or has such an overwhelming mood of amorousness.'

We are lucky to have far more revealing evidence about Marlowe's life than about Shakespeare's, who was almost his exact contemporary, partly because Marlowe was so much more flamboyant a character. The survival of the buttery books of Corpus Christi while Marlowe was a student, showing how much he spent on food and drink, tells much about his absences from college and about the fluctuations in his finances and so enables revealing deductions about his espionage activities.

Honan assembles and analyses all the evidence with fastidious care. While he does not offer major new discoveries, he is scrupulous in his re-examination of what is known and ingenious in the connections he makes between apparently disparate facts. His fascinating re-evaluation of the evidence relating to the discovery at Corpus Christi of the supposed portrait of Marlowe and of its provenance goes a long way towards rehabilitating claims that it is authentic, and even that Marlowe may have commissioned it.

In the face of contemporary accusations of atheism, Honan argues that 'one of Marlowe's assets as a playwright was that he profoundly and urgently concerned himself with religion', whatever his opinions may have been.

A strength of Honan's book is his probing examination of the relationships between Marlowe's day-to-day life and his writings in the construction of an intellectual as well as a diurnal biography. He may sometimes be a bit too fanciful in his attempts to relate the domestic events of Marlowe's incompletely recorded childhood to the portrayal of family relationships in the plays, but his account of Canterbury schoolmaster John Gresshop, and especially his analysis of the contents of the teacher's library, which ranged from the expected theological treatises through Greek and Latin drama to high-class French pornography, is illuminating about the educational standards of a provincial Elizabethan grammar school.

Marlowe's writings are soaked in homoerotic sensibility. Undoubtedly he had, as Honan writes, 'his own views and special understanding of a man's love for a man'. But direct evidence about his behaviour is lacking and Honan goes too far in asking, on the flimsiest of deductive evidence: 'Was Marlowe impotent?' I suspect that if he had had the effrontery to pose this question directly, he, too, would have ended up with a dagger in his cranium.

While Honan's book does not have the compelling narrative excitement of Charles Nicholl's classic but less comprehensive study, The Reckoning, which concentrates on the poet's death and the events leading up to it, it is an elegantly written study which must now stand as the best overall biography of one of our most fascinating writers.

The review was published in the Guardian

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