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on 13 May 2017
Written on the quartercentenary of Marlowe’s death in 1993, having written Nothing Like the Sun on the quartercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth 1964. Burgess had done his university thesis on Marlowe. Marlowe’s stabbing during a Deptford tavern brawl of 1593 produced the most infamous murder in English literary history. Less than 2 weeks before his death, a warrant for his arrest on charges of blasphemy and atheism had been issued by the Privy Council. Burgess is haunted by the ghost of Marlowe as was Shakespeare in 1593, when his work began to take off. Shakespeare was to emerge from the shadow of Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’. Burgess was to write the novel he’d been meaning to write on Marlowe (his last), prior to his own death. The two grammar school boys met in this daring project. Writing like thought is the dagger to the frontal lobes and scream, staying accurately close to the facts. Written with extraordinary richness, and depth, pushing data into fictional form. We get the spies and
Spy master, Sir Thomas Walsingham, the thugs Skeres, Fritzer and Poley; Raleigh; there are vital sketches of actors and playwrights like Nashe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Hemming,Condell and Alleyn.
Marlowe’s protagonists had been an infidel: an Atheist or a pagan, a Mohammedan or a Jew. Catholics in the 16th century were seen as Atheists who professed to believe in Christ for reasons of policy-what John Donne would call ‘perfidiousness or dissembling of Religion.’ This was an anti-Machiavellian presumption. Burgess himself, a lapsed Catholic, was empathetic to the Atheist point of view. He seemed at ease in the world inhabited by Marlowe, he equates the assassinated Marlowe with the murdered Christ. He gives full reign to the poet’s non-belief, showing the condemnation and distrust it incurred. That Marlowe is the dead man is a foregone conclusion contained in the title. Another dead man at the feast is Anthony Burgess, who is soon to die, this his last book. He seems to prefigure this in the writing. The narrator is a player of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He later reveals: 'Enter Prince, Leonato, Claudio, and Jacke Wilson', used as an epigraph to MF and several times mentioned by Burgess as a notable co-incidence, which indeed it is. So there are two separate versions of this ghostly presence. In Part 3 Burgess speaks in his own voice: “I that die these deaths that feed this flame. put off this disguise”.
Plays are a metaphor for social life, and the roles we play, personas of religious, sexual orthodoxy, observance, politeness, when behind the scenes we deceive, blaspheme, are rude or homosexual. We follow closely Marlowe’s peregrinations abroad, to Scotland, Canterbury, London and Deptford. He is completing slowly his education at Cambridge, whilst also being initiated, involved as a government spy with several unsavoury characters. He is also shagging, shacking up with lovers along the way. Early on he helps his Father out in shoe-making and repairs, prior to Cambridge, and we meet his siblings. He is trying to uncover Catholic plots vs. Queen Elizabeth. He is also writing his plays. You could say another man’s life (Shakespeare’s) begins where another man’s (Marlowe’s) ends. Marlowe’s life was as dangerous as his thought and ,as much as he dared, he used drama as a vehicle for his revolutionary conceptions, though conclusions of his plays were necessarily orthodox. The poet of extremes preoccupied with fire, the stars, the heavens, the flight of birds, and all things clear, brilliant, swiftly moving and aspiring. This book gets even more into the Elizabethan idioms and rhythms than Nothing Like The Sun does.
Marlowe was the source of iambic pentameter, which changed English drama. Burgess was drawn to Marlowe because Burgess” was a renegade Catholic who mocked at hell but was still secretly scared of it”, especially during the war years when bombs were dropping. He felt secretly Marlowe to be such a man, “his blasphemies and beery jags the true voice of imperfect emancipation. I regarded him as a sort of proto- Joyce.” “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Burgess sees Marlowe as a young Renaissance intellectual, unable totally to free himself from the grip of medieval superstition. Hell, Christ’s blood streaming, vats of boiling oil, the damned soul pushing off midnight with bare hands. The narrative very often follows Marlowe into closed rooms, relates secret conversations with spymasters or lovers, or even travels inside the main character's head. That Burgess was able to write a great historical novel and a great gay novel, was a feat only he could pull off. He wallows in the grime, shit, piss, dead dogs, and the dirtiness of Marlowe’s sexuality, and the guilt of his association with Raleigh, another Atheist. Any man could say or do the wrong thing and end up, hung, drawn and quartered. Indeed we get a graphic description of such. It is this look at the dark side of life, the bleak dark energy, that draws you in. Burgess has fulfilled the promise he made in 1968 to write a true Marlovian book.