When I heard that someone was going to write a blank verse novel about the master of tragedy and blank verse I was initially less than enthused.
Then I read that Ros Barber the author and notable poet in her own right had won the Hoffman Prize for an essay based around this idea. Now I was becoming intrigued
She was inpired by Jonathan Bate's idea in Much Ado about something that the Marlowe story would make a good novel. Barber is a Marlovian, a group who believe that not only did Marlowe not die in a knife fight in a tavern or was it a boarding house in Deptford as supposed but went on to write the works of Shakespeare. Unlike other authorship candidates Marlowe's influence on Shakespeare is widely acknowledged particularly among early Shakespearean scholarship.
Ten days before Marlowe had been arrested in connection with the 'Dutch Church' libel, (an inflammatory poem signed in the name of Marlowe's most famous character Tamburlaine) and summoned to appear before the Privy Council. He was released. His writing partner Thomas Kyd, apparently innocent in the matter, was also arrested and tortured.
Around the same time the Bane complaint appeared, charging Marlowe with atheism, reading an atheist lecture, proselytising atheism, and making numerous gibes against the Bible, and particularly claiming he had as much right to coin as the Queen of England.
A year earlier Marlowe and Bane, both spies, were arrested in Flushing Holland on charges of counterfeiting. Bane initiated the charge against Marlowe. Marlowe was deported with Bane to England to Lord Burghley and Marlowe was released without charge. Now Bane reappears with a vengeance. Is he a spy with a personal grudge, or is someone pulling his strings?
One of the three people present at Marlowe's demise was Robert Poley, a noted spy and on Her Majesty's payroll. The other two Skeres and Frizer both worked for Marlowe's patron Thomas Walsingham. The Queens own coroner Danby handled Marlowe's inquest, and Frizer was pardoned by the Queen for his role in the murder a month later. While few commentators trust the testimony of these professional dissemblers most still still consider Marlowe's death to be true.
Frizer continued to work for Marlowe's patron for many years as if nothing had happened, and Hero and Leander five years later was dedicated to Lady Audrey Walsingham, the patron's wife. Thomas Walsingham was a cousin of Francis Walsingham the head of the intelligence service.
The poem Venus and Adonis was registered anonymously at the Stationers Office on April 18, 1593.
Within days of Marlowe's reported death on May 30,1593 the name William Shakespeare appears in print for the first time as the author of Venus and Adonis. The first recorded sale was entered in William Stoney's diary on June 12, 1593. A dedication to the Earl of Southampton promises a graver labour. The poem contains many eerie similarities to Hero and Leander as yet unpublished, and there is apparent cross referencing between these two works. What is the precise relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe?
How can a first time poem refer to a poem that would not appear for five years? How can a poem five years later by a dead poet have the exact same allusions for example to Narcissus drowning in a brook, when that story is unrelated to either of the two source stories. The manner of Narcissus death is a mistake/embellishment consistent only to both these poems, but to no other English source at the time. Both poems refer to Adonis as rose-cheek'd. Why does the latin dedication lead to Marlowe's Elegies which not appear for six years? And the elegy to which it refers talks of envy biters pulling down great poets who get their due fame after death.
In the Marlowe Papers Barber pursues an alternative history, from the one received.
Did Marlowe shuffle off this mortal coil, go to discover countries yet unknown or stay to haunt the works of Shakespeare? Did highly placed friends once again protect him from scandal, serious charges and possibly execution?
The Marlowe Papers offers a highly skilled,enjoyable, even moving account as when Marlowe meets several of the characters that would inform his life. I found it enjoyable not only for the story but for the skill with which it was told. It is a novel, and therefore not to be taken as true. Still as not true stories go it may be closer to the truth than you imagine.
I think you will enjoy it and I hope this was helpful.
on 14 February 2013
I find it difficult to find books that I like. Maybe I'm particularly fussy or peculiar, but the important point is there are so many books shrieking for attention and barely half a dozen of them are in the same league as The Marlowe Papers. I buy it in every way that this phrase implies. For me its a poetic delight, a tour de force that explores the creative psyche and I love it. Its such a pleasure to read slowly, taking in all the pleasure of words and thoughts at a rhythm that connects with understanding. I can't be doing with all the worrisome reviews about correctness. Its art and that's it for me. Well done Ros.
I thought this was a really interesting idea; a 'novel (if that's even the right word!) written entirely in Blank Verse. Obviously the subject matter was also one that interested me.
The book apparently formed part of Barber's PhD and her central theory is the one that playwright and intelligencer Christopher Marlowe did not in fact die in Deptford as supposed. Subsidiary to this is the idea that William Shakespeare was just a front man for a whole host of plays written by an exiled Marlowe. Despite appearing in a production of Doctor Faustus as a teenager, I will admit that I am not terribly au fait with the details of Marlowe's life but having read Barber's work and the notes at the back, I can see there is some mileage in the idea of him having not actually died as reported; certainly there appears something fishy going on. I'm less convinced by the idea that someone else 'must' have written Shakespeare's plays. If Marlowe could be successful as the son of a Kentish Cobbler, why can't we believe the same of the son of a Stratford glover? Be that as it may, that is the stance Barber has chosen to take and I can accept what she gives me for the purpose of her 'entertainment' of 'what might have happened'.
As to the book itself, it's about 400 pages long and I think it took about 100 of those before I felt I was really getting into it. I'm not sure if it was adjusting to the style of the work (I read some plays in Blank Verse, but I'm not a great poetry lover) or if the early section was more chronologically disjointed and more tricky to get into the swing of the action? I am glad I persevered though, as I did end up enjoying it. On the other hand, I can more than understand that some people won't find it their cup of tea at all - I don't think there is any other work, at least not in English, that is written in quite the same way. It certainly must have been a labour of love getting exactly the right words to make all that Iambic Pentameter work, so hats off to Barber on this score.
Now I feel like seeing if I can find a decent biography of Marlowe, and surely that can only be a good thing.
What a fantastic idea! What a great structure!
Before I use too many exclamation marks, I'll calm down.
Have you ever tried a book that wasn't written in prose? It's a nervy prospect - will there by rhymes? Do you need to sing it? Will it make sense?
Just a page or two into The Marlowe Papers and you end up feeling that the style is quite natural while still being a little different. It suits the subject.
And the subject is Christopher Marlowe. Not being a historian I knew only a little about Marlowe - that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare, was quite well-travelled as a spy (allegedly), and died in a tavern brawl. (And none of this from Shakespeare in Love, but A-Level English and Edward II). This book fills in the story, and embellishes it by asking - what if his death was faked, and it was MARLOWE who wrote Shakespeare's plays?...
It is as compelling a read as any thriller. The period detail is brilliant, I could picture the scenes, the man, Tudor London.
And I must confess, it does make you wonder - what if it were true?!
It's very well done, a lovely blank verse style that is by no means hard to read. Made me research Marlowe's history a little more after I'd finished.
Really quite beautiful at times, and a superb book for a group, plenty of material to get your teeth into. I hope being on the Women's Prize longlist brings it a larger readership.
on 16 January 2013
At times the book reminded of Wolf Hall. That too was written in the first person, and if not actually in blank verse it often felt like it. The Marlowe Papers is not so versified that you don't often think it is actually just plain prose.
Once you sort out the chronology of what is going on, the story is quite gripping. It seems entirely plausible that Marlowe fell foul of various pressures. He was a much more serious thinker and writer than Jonson, but too revolutionary. And getting mixed up in spying is always going to be a dangerous move.
Having just read the Jonson biography by Donaldson, the contrast between the two men is fascinating, both came from relatively "humble" backgrounds. Although, back then a proper trade like shoemaking (Marlowe) or bricklaying (Jonson), if you were successful, is not at all what we today might think of them.
The book will lead me to read a leading source or two for the idea that Marlowe really did write the Shakespeare canon, even if like for the man from Stratford himself, the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney there is still zero contemporary and relevant personal evidence that any of them wrote the works (see the almost unarguable work of Diana Price, "Shakespeare: The Unorthodox Biography").
While waiting for real, hard evidence to turn up on the authorship question, we will just have to sit back and enjoy the best of the speculative works, of which Ros Barber's book is definitely up there among them.
A young man, sent into exile to save his life, his enemies everywhere accuse him of blasphemy on shaky grounds, writes a poem to his love:
Love? If you’d asked me yesterday, I’d say
love is a saw that amputates the heart.
I’d call it my disease, I’d call it plague.
But yesterday I hadn’t heard from you.
So call it the weight of light that holds one soul
connected to another. Or a tear
that falls in all gratitude, becoming sea.
Call it the only word that comforts me.
The sight of your writing has me on the floor,
the curve of each letter looped about my heart.
And in this ink, the tenor of your voice.
And in this ink, the movement of your hand.
The Alps, now, cut their teeth upon the sky,
and pressing on to set these granite jaws
between us, not a mile will do me harm.
Your letter, in my coat, will keep me warm.
This is just the most amazing book. It’s the story of Kit Marlowe in verse and it is absolutely beautiful and finely wrought. This is a library book, but I’m determined to get a copy of my own. The poetry (okay, what difference between verse and poetry? First question – verse is the less valued, it only lilts along, jiggety-jog, but not here, this language sings arias. And I don’t care what its name is because it is truly glorious.)
Ros Barber is a marvel. Try this book, if you like poetry, you will adore it.
on 26 December 2012
It was intriguing proposition: a story spun around the assumption that Christopher Marlowe did not die in a tavern brawl on 30th May 1593. The assumption that another man died and Marlowe fled, fearing being charged with heresy, and lived in exile. The assumption that he continued to write with his work being published under the name of another man: William Shakespeare.
I lack the depth of knowledge to assess whether or not the tale is viable, but I can say that, to me, Ros Barber made her case convincing and her story compelling.
The initial proposition was made even more intriguing by the fact that it is written entirely in blank verse. I thought that it might be hard work but it really wasn't: it read beautifully. The language is not of the period but I think it would be fair to say that it is sympathetic to the period. It feels right.
Now writing a story of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare in such a way has a particular danger. It invites comparisons by which even very fine writers would suffer. But I think that to dwell on such things would be a mistake. Because this is a book that tells a story, celebrates its subjects, and throws intriguing questions into the air. And to write it in such a way was a marvellous feat and quite clearly a labour of love.
Most of the writing is in the form of iambic pentameter, as Marlowe considers his past and faces his future. He writes, he travels, he forms new relationships, he makes covert trips back to england, and he finds himself caught up in intrigue.
I couldn't say whether or not the voice that Ros Barber created for Marlowe was authentic, but I can say that it was engaging and that I wanted to go on listening.
From time to time there are sonnets that bring significant points into focus. I loved so many of them, and in the middle of the book when they were sparse the story's hold weakened a little. But it didn't let go.
After a compelling opening, telling of the flight from England, considering the consequences, and looking to the future I really didn't want to let go. And as the story unfolded I appreciated the atmosphere, the characterisation, and the wealth of detail.
Historical figures and incidents moved through the story, adding substance, and I am quite sure that if I knew more I would have noticed much more.
What I did notice was an extraordinary web of history, intrigue and emotion. The first two were wonderful but was is the third that really, really made the story sing.
After the tale had been told I found, at the back of the book, clear notes about the history and theories that underpinned the story, and generous acknowledgment of many sources. I hadn't refered to them along the way, because I wanted to stay as I was, caught up on the story, but I was glad they were there for me to consider afterwards.
I realised that, although I wasn't convinced that the story had been entirely plausible, I had still been caught up. Because the story was so vivid and because its telling was so effective.
on 3 February 2014
You'll start this wondering why anyone would write a novel in blank verse in the twentieth century.
Ten pages in you'll wonder why no one has thought of it before. Germine Greer said that Shakespeare turned blank verse into the heartbeat of the English Language and Ros Barber's blank verse is a bit of a triumphant restatement of that fact. Her story-telling is pretty good too.
Such a shame she's on the wrong side but she does remind all us SAQ gladiators that this can be a literary argument after all. Once that pesky impostor Oxford has been knocked off the leader board, this will be an effective recruiting tool.
No hesitation, even as a dyed in the wool Stratfordian, in recommending this. It is one of the best period novels I've read in years.
The idea that poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe was not killed in a tavern brawl in 1593 and lived on to write as William Shakespeare has been mooted before. What is more there are a number of well documented discrepancies in the official records about Marlowe's death. These are explored in Ros Barber's extensive notes about the incident and provide pointers to scholarly evidence for this. While this has not become mainstream thinking, it is certainly more coherent than some theories that have been mooted, even if this one has not been conclusively proven.
This book however, is not a thesis. It is a novel told in verse. The notes are there to provide the historical details and to put Marlowe into the context of his time and contemporaries as well as the story told here. In some cases they are invaluable to place some of the lesser known characters who turn up in the story who are also historical personages, as well as those who are better known like Walter Raleigh, Francis Walsingham and William Cecil. But it can be read without looking these up.
If you are not inclined to believe that Marlowe was the author the works we now attribute to Shakespeare, this novel can also be taken as an alternative history exploring this possibility. There are plenty of literary examples of this, A favourite of mine in this genre is Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle (Penguin Modern Classics). Another is John Pearson's in his entertaining James Bond: The Authorised Biography which uses the amusing conceit that the fictional super-spy, was in fact a real personage, and the Ian Fleming novels were a conspiracy to protect his identity.
I mention the last example, because Marlowe's life also has its "spy- story" elements in it. He performed various tasks abroad for the intelligence services of Elizabeth I. Some of theses feats are mentioned here -not all of them by Marlowe- which seem straight out of a John Le Carre novel, one being the infiltration of a Jesuit College. Thus the falsification of someone's death by intelligence services was not an impossibility even in Elizabethan times.
The novel suggests why this might have come about. Marlowe had been accused of being an atheist after the publication of Doctor Faustus: The A text. This risked death in his time, so his death was faked to prevent his being persecuted for heresy. The novel, told in the voice of Marlowe, explores this, telling poignantly of the price he might have paid for this: loneliness and exile, being unable to see the people he loved and having his later works attributed to someone else. All this is carried off with great panache.
One thing that may put off some readers is that this novel is in verse. Non-poetry readers should not worry about this. Though Barber uses some words that come from the Elizabethan time to add a contemporary flavour, the novel is told in a language that is accessible to present day readers. The scholarship, though extensive, is kept to the notes and the story can easily be read without referring to them.
In short, this is an entertaining romp through history whether you believe the events described are real or not. It also sheds a great deal of historical detail for those who are curious. There is also a useful bibliography at the back for those wishing to investigate this Shakespeare/Marlowe thesis further. This book can be read on many levels. It will be interesting to see what reactions "The Marlowe Papers" provokes. So far the critical reactions I've seen is positive.
Read this and make your own mind up. But above all enjoy.
Before I start I must declare bias. I do not hold with all the conspiracy theorists who assert that Shakespeare's plays and poems were written by anyone other than William Shakespeare. I do not understand why people cannot accept that a master glove maker's son from Stratford was as capable of writing the plays as a shoemaker's son (Marlowe) or a feckless lordling (Oxford or Southampton) or, heaven help us, that cold fish, Francis Bacon. Grammar school education in Elizabethan England has never been equalled and it saddens me that this canard is still being peddled, often, as in the film 'Anonymous', altering the facts when they don't fit the theory. I don't claim that Ros Barber has done this, but the form of her work allows for ambiguity and obfuscation.
That was my rant. Let's look at the book. It is in verse, but don't let that put you off. It is very accessible. While reading, I kept asking myself if writing in verse enhanced the story or was merely pretentious. Given my prejudices I was looking to decide pretentious, but I can't. The verse works magnificently. It allows Barber to draw vivid vignettes of the action, so we do not get a straight narrative but scenes and conversations that illuminate what is happening far more effectively. There are occasional lapses of control (the use of the word "comfy", for instance, right for the meter but anachronistic and weak; or an unhappy simile "a voice as curious as kittens") which stand out precisely because they are rare. The overall effect of the verse is to generate shafts of light onto the murky distance between us and the sixteenth century to clarify the elements she wants us to see.
Even though I do not believe her theories, it is a very good story that holds our interest to the end. The characterisation is sharp and convincing and the sense of time and place is excellent. You can smell the stale beer, sweat and the rankness of life.
At the end of the book there are useful notes which give extra information about people and events that would have bogged down the thrust of the narrative. You don't really need them to enjoy the story, but they do add interest.
Overall, this is a stunning achievement, well worth overcoming any worries about reading a book in verse. Just don't believe her thesis!