April 2005

Tim Kindseth

nonfiction

The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs; Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

“He was the greatest playwright that England had ever seen.” So writes David Riggs in the prologue to his woolly new biography of Christopher Marlowe. Riggs is, of course, speaking of an opinion held at the time when Marlowe first hit the fledgling, lubricious London theater scene in the late 1580s with feverishly popular productions of Tamburlaine the Great, Parts One and Two. We all know what happened next. Some poorly plumed “upstart crow” -- as barked the mangy, querulous pamphleteer Robert Greene -- flew into town from Stratford, and, quite literally, the kid stole the show.

And continues to do so. Talk of Shakespeare, who was born and baptized just two months after Marlowe, still dominates discourse about the Elizabethan stage. Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy might ring a few bells; so might professorial allusions to Seneca and his five acts, stock characters, and sanguinary crimes. But even those attributes immediately conjure not the influential early Roman Stoic but instead the inimitable genius behind Macbeth. Who can wash away the sensational image of bloody fingers in that play? Who hasn’t at least been on the losing end of a forced classroom meet-and-greet with the text?

Were he peering down from the other side of Peter’s pearly gates right now -- being a sharp atheist in his time, he probably isn’t -- Marlowe would be heaving. Finally there is a fresh look at his life and work, and what happens? Shakespeare hoards the headlines once again. Riggs’ book on Marlowe did recently garner a celebratory cover notice from The New York Times Book Review written by the typically bearish theater critic John Simon. Beyond that review, however, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare has elbowed The World of Christopher Marlowe to the sidelines.

Not that Riggs’ exhaustive biography of Marlowe deserves similar accolades. Zealously researched -- the works cited runs an incredible twenty pages -- the book seems aimed at pallid graduate students instead of curious general readers. It’s a laborious read, and there are explosive moments when, frustrated by excessive detail -- Riggs never quite separates wheat from chaff -- you wish to reaffirm gravity by tossing the book out the window. But more often than not the book is so tedious and soporific that you’ll be snoozing long before the thought of spontaneous defenestration even begins to dance in your head.

Which astounds, given the bare outlines of Marlowe’s short yet swaggering life. The man was, after all, murdered in a messy tavern brawl when 29. What could be more spirited and exciting than that? The link isn’t nearly exact, but consider him the Tupac of the sixteenth century. To be fair, Riggs’s title, which stuffs Marlowe into a hexasyllabic prepositional phrase, forewarns the reader of what follows -- namely, more of an intellectual and social history of Marlowe’s spasmodic milieu than the life of a man, who, from a childhood in spent in penury, somehow sprouted into a hunted outlaw playwright.

Though an outline of Marlowe’s life does emerge. Son of an ambitious cobbler, he was born in Canterbury, a town of roughly a few thousand people, many of whom were, as was Marlowe’s father, migrant workers who had settled in the area after an influenza epidemic in the 1550s killed a quarter of the city’s population. Riggs finely evokes life in young Christopher’s Canterbury, particularly the grim environs of St. George the Martyr, the malodorous parish where the Marlowe family resided. “Carts bearing tubs of blood and offal trundled along St. George’s Street.” And the town gallows grinned icily nearby.

Around the age of six Marlowe began his abusively rigorous education at a petty school, where he learned how to read and write. As Riggs describes it, the workload and boot-camp atmosphere of most Elizabethan schools at the time makes a full load of AP classes look like a day at the playground. Even when they were allowed to frolic, which was rare, children were forced to speak with one another in Latin and Greek. Marlowe proceeded, mostly on scholarship, to be drilled at grammar school, King’s school, and finally at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, which would be his home for six and a half years.

“1587,” Riggs says, “is the turning point in Marlowe’s career.” He received his MA, though under suspicious circumstances requiring the intervention of the government. Shortly after being awarded his BA in 1584, Marlowe had begun to unaccountably disappear from Cambridge for months at a time. We do know that in August of 1585 he briefly returned to Canterbury, where he signed his name as a witness to the execution of a last will. He also began to lustily translate Ovid’s lascivious Amores, reviving, as Riggs writes, “the Roman poet’s radical commitment to sexual licence and freedom of speech.”

During his unusually long absences from Cambridge, Marlowe was most likely working as a spy for the understandably paranoid Queen Elizabeth. “The expansion of the Jesuit mission to England, the mounting threat posed by Mary, Queen of Scots, and the outbreak of war with Spain in 1585,” as Riggs explains, “stimulated an acute demand for messengers, snoops, and undercover agents.” Double agents were part and parcel of the shifty game, and the Cambridge administration was alerted that Marlowe might be one of the crooked who planned to defect to a Catholic seminary at Rheims in northern France.

The Queen’s Privy Council, however, famously jumped in, issuing a cryptic statement to the university that Marlowe “had done her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealing.” Cambridge promptly granted Marlowe his MA. He soon after hightailed it to London and -- to streamline the tiring second half of Riggs’ book -- penned spectacular plays evincing his soaring, omnivorous intellect, and died just over five years later. Among other achievements, Marlowe innovated the unrhymed, democratic blank verse metrical scheme. “Marlowe’s mighty line,” as Ben Jonson put it.

Beginning with the chapters that meticulously chronicle Marlowe’s education -- each and every tiny step of the way -- Riggs infuses the book with a surfeit of peripheral detail, information over which only a Renaissance specialist would salivate. An abstruse introduction to classical metrical theory; pages linking Elizabethan homosocial relations to obscure chunks of text from Aristotle; and an entire chapter detailing the origins and intimate peculiarities of Dialectic, the touchstone course on logic that taught Cambridge students “how to think like a Roman”: these all obfuscate Marlowe the man, leaving him more of an impenetrable cipher than even Melville’s hieroglyphic Bartleby the scrivener.

Much of the fog can be chalked up to Riggs’s valid argument that Marlowe is “an irretrievably textual being.” As in the case of Shakespeare, Marlowe left few first-hand documents behind. There is no revealing diary, no preening, self-important memoir. Instead, we must rely on questionable hearsay, brittle anecdotal evidence, and dubitable secondary sources -- such as confessions extracted through torture -- to incompletely reconstruct his life. Riggs’ quick, bland capitulation of what happened the day Marlowe died might be due to this unavoidable reliance on fraudulent, controvertible documents.

Whatever the case, Riggs concludes his overly diffuse portrait of Marlowe and his times with an anemic report on what transpired on the mortally fateful May 30, 1593. According to the official inquest, Marlowe went to Deptford to feast with friends, had quarreled over the bill, and had attacked one of the men, Ingram Frizer. “At the climax of the quarrel,” Riggs writes, “Frizer plunged his dagger into Marlowe’s face, just above the right eye. The blade entered Marlowe’s brain, killing him instantly.” Riggs then explains that “Coroner Danby and his jury found on 1 June that Frizer acted in self-defence.”

All types of conspiracy theories about Marlowe’s end have been floated. Australian film director Michael Rubbo, for instance, recently released the wild documentary Much Ado About Something. In it, Rubbo interviews bizarre aficionados of the inscrutable Shakespeare authorship question, including a certain Dorothy Walker Wraight, the grave geriatric general of the Marlovian camp who madly claims that Marlowe faked his own death and fled to Italy, where he wrote the standards we now attribute to Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, among other Apennine classics.

Riggs doesn’t deign to entertain the thought. Whether Louise Welsh does, it’s hard to say. Tamburlaine Must Die, her marvelous new cloak-and-dagger thriller takes the form of an epistle Marlowe is writing on the simmering night of May 29, 1593 to future readers. He ominously informs his posthumous crowd, “I have four candles and one evening in which to write this account.” An account which, in the case that Marlowe does not return, he wants to “lie undiscovered for a long span, in the hope that when these pages are found, the age will be different and my words may be judged by honest eyes.”

What makes Welsh’s splendid, quasi-fictional narrative of Marlowe’s last days unique is that it refuses to dramatically reenact the scene of the final crime. In Welsh’s book, Marlowe ends his story just as the sun begins to rise on the 30th. The suspense is never quite resolved, though situational irony affords some meager satisfaction; we know that Marlowe will be killed. Still, Welsh gracefully avoids the lurid sensationalism of staging Marlowe’s death in some cheap tableaux vivant. More importantly, by forcing us to send an uncertain Marlowe off toward what only we know is sure death she humanizes him.

Much of Tamburlaine Must Die doesn’t hold up to cursory fact-checks. Thomas Blaize, Marlowe’s friable actor friend and second-rate poetaster who knavishly betrays Marlowe into order to save his own dishonorable neck, is pure fiction. Marlowe also seems to be chummy with Sir Walter Raleigh. To counter, here is Riggs as historian: “Although biographers routinely assume that Marlowe was a follower and friend of Raleigh’s, there is no evidence that Sir Walter, a notoriously proud man, had an ongoing relationship with the poor scholar and popular playwright.” In Welsh’s novella, Marlowe is even assumed to be close enough to Raleigh to be given the following lose-lose ultimatum by higher powers that be: condemn Raleigh to the authorities or get ready to string your own noose.

Welsh does readily confess her confabulations; in the “Acknowledgements” appended to the story, she discloses several sources she consulted, while admitting that the “responsibility for any inaccuracies within this text lies entirely with me.” Dissembler or not, Welsh builds a barmy narrative that absorbs the reader and teems with life. She animates the fetid streets and unlicensed pubs of Shoreditch -- the London neighborhood in which all the grotty playhouses stood or leaned -- with a rogues-gallery of cutpurses, hirsute midnight gamblers, a hump-backed fiddler, and a grumpy, blind old bookseller.

In one scene Marlowe visits a bleary prostitute. Here Welsh’s prose squeaks like overused mattress springs at the Hey Dude Ranch. Marlowe stalely tells us, “The contrast between her soft round flesh and my stiff arrow straightness was fascinating.” In another salacious encounter Welsh puts some winners of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex award to shame. Mounted by his literary patron one night, Marlowe slathers, “When Walsingham straddled my torso, broad-chested, veiny groin prick-stout, I was reminded of a back-arching centaur. The image persisted through the face-fucking interlude that followed.”

There is no historical evidence that Marlowe was sexually involved with Walsingham, and while Welsh prevaricates in this instance and elsewhere, between Tamburlaine Must Die and The World of Christopher Marlowe, the former is the more valuable read. Of course it is slightly illegitimate to compare the two, what with their obviously divergent aims. In the end, the only way to fairly judge the two together is to determine which, by piquing more interest in Marlowe, leads the reader more quickly back to the texts of his plays. With this in mind, Welsh’s slim, atmospheric book still outweighs the other.

The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs
Henry Holt
ISBN: 0805077551
411 Pages

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
Canongate
ISBN: 1841956252
151 Pages