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on 22 April 2008
I'm not quite sure what to make of this book. The author openly fakes data, making reference to books and manuscripts that do not exist and creates characters for which there is no evidence. Therefore the book is valueless as a biography of Marlowe and unconvincing in its argument that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays.

For me the point of books like this is the ingenuity of their argument and the light they cast on by-ways of Elizabethan and Jacobean life. Given that you cannot trust any indivual assertion the author makes and he can make up anything he wants, then it exhibits little ingenuity and casts little light. If the book was openly fiction and simply a novelisation of Marlowe becoming Shakespear then it would possibly read better but, as it is, it reads with the ponderousness of bad non-fiction.

Possibly the author is attempting to found a new genre, but its not a good enough example for me to hope that there will be more of them.
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on 12 July 2004
I can only imagine that it is because they didn't have the wit, flair and sheer downright intelligence of Rodney Bolt. Bolt has taken the biographical form and shaken it about, showing us what it is, what it is used for -- and what it could be. That he has done so while also making me laugh out loud, rethink long-held opinions and enjoy myself more than I can say makes this a triumphant tour de force. If, in Bolt's cunning rethinking of the Shakespeare/Marlowe controversy, Marlowe was the author of Hamlet, then we must now ask under what name did Bolt publish his previous books? Just as the Marlovians can't believe that the unschooled son of a glover from Stratford could write Hamlet, I cannot believe that this can possibly be Bolt's first book. More!
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on 16 February 2005
Being an ardent Stratfordian but also fascinated with the legend that has built up around Marlowe, History Play seemed like a good read. It is a very good book, looking at things from a different angle, but it should be borne in mind that Rodney Bolt hasn't created a new case for the anti-Strats; he's written a novel with some historical facts thrown in (as he clearly states himself in the afterword). This is not a criticism - quite the opposite, since it does make you challenge what you think you know about the authorship debate. Even I started to doubt some of my beliefs.
It's clear that Bolt is biased, which obviously colours the book somewhat, but then Shakespeare biographies are often likewise on a slight bias, so I'm not judging this. I sometimes found it hard to stomach the harsh criticism levelled at Shakespeare, but it is after all mostly a work of conjecture so I managed to keep my cool! The book is a great read; more so because you don't know where it will turn next. There are many facts you will no doubt recognise and which add to the authentic feel you get while reading it (it doesn't always feel like you're reading fiction. You may have to keep reminding yourself!). Bolt's notes at the back go through the book chapter by chapter stating clearly what is fact (and if so where it comes from) and what he has invented.
On whichever side of the authorship debate you stand, I'm sure you will enjoy reading History Play. It's an admirable piece of work. And as T. S. Eliot said, "About anyone so great as Shakespeare it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong."
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on 5 June 2013
It is hilarious reading reviews of this book by people who are trying to take it seriously as a scholarly biography of Marlowe. It is nothing of the kind. It is hilarious, a wonderful satire on academic research, a spectacularly successful trap for pretentious wannabe scholars. Take a look at the reviews of this book, either on this site or on others, and anyone who is expressing disappointment with the accuracy of the thesis or the quality of proof is, quite simply, an idiot. This book is a work of fiction. Anyone who reads it as anything other than an elaborate literary joke has missed the point. Bolt's footnotes are full of references of the "Sorry, I just made that one up" variety. The text is full of in-jokes. Marlowe's friend is a mythical character called "Olivier Laurens", and there are also puns on other modern day Shakespearean actors such as Geilgud, and myriad other such hidden puns and jokes. I suspect that most of the people who have written disparagingly of this book on review sites are people who signed up for Renaissance Literature 101 but have since decided to study something less taxing.

Bolt stands the biographical genre on its head. He has brilliantly parodied academic researchers, and he has given us a take on one of the great conspiracy theories of all time, which is fascinating and intiguing, but not to be taken at all seriously. A lot of the people who have written reviews of this book have missed the point entirely. I recommend it highly. The more you know about the Elizabethan world the funnier you will find it, but it is a great story even if you know nothing about the period. But it is just that - a story. He calls it a play. The clue is in the title.
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on 5 January 2008
As a Stratfordian, I would naturally disagree with Bolt's thesis, although it it clear that he has totally immersed himself in his subject. He is familiar with every detail of Marlowe's life and times, but that in itself can be counted a drawback, since he appears to be starting from a supposition and then looking for evidence to support it. As a biography of Marlowe, it's a classic, but his insistence from page one of simply assuming that Marlowe was Shakespeare and accrediting him with his works as though his case was proven is most grating. He starts out with Mark Twain's famous essay stating the 'facts' of Shakespeare's life, many of which - particularly the anti-Stratfordian assumption that Shakespeare's parents were illiterate - are not know as facts at all, but are merely supposition, and not supposition strongly supported by evidence either.

The entire anti-Stratfordian edifice is built on the notion that a mere glover's son form the boonies couldn't possibly have written what Shakespeare wrote. Nonsense. Marlowe was a mere shoemaker's son from the boonies, but we know he had a good education. There's no reason to assume Shakespeare couldn't have had one as well, even if he didn't go to university. Remember, in his day, schools normally sat from six in the morning until seven at night, including Saturdays, and moreover, "universities of the day added little...gloss to a schoolboy's studies of classical literature or logic, rhetoric or moral philosophy, existing more as training grounds for the professions..." (Anthony Holden, from his biography of Shakespeare). I would say that's plenty of education for the man who wrote Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.

All in all, Bolt's book covers Marlowe's life pretty well. It's well written and you'll enjoy it as a biography - provided you ignore the anti-Stratfordian stuff.
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on 4 November 2016
This book is an entertaining mixture of meticulous research and barefaced lies/imagination. The notes at the back clearly distinguish one from the other. 'History Play' has everything the heart of an Elizabethan literary conspiracy theory geek could possibly desire.
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