The Marlowe Papers: Ros Barber

★★★★★

When writing her PhD on the life and works of Christopher Marlowe, Ros Barber decided to present it in a novel format (unintentional pun). Instead of a weighty academic document she has turned her thesis into an ambitious and dazzling 400-page piece of fiction written entirely in blank verse. Rarely do form and subject coalesce so happily.

This book was recommended automatically by Amazon, which noticed that I’d enjoyed A Dead Man in Deptford, so I sought it out with interest. On a quiet Sunday afternoon I curled up with a cup of tea and began to read – aloud, at first, until my mind settled into the gentle, hypnotic cadences of iambic pentameter – and I presently lost myself in Barber’s lovingly recreated world.

Before I explain the nature of Barber’s theories, let me pin my own colours to the mast. I believe Shakespeare wrote the plays of Shakespeare. I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories and Ockham’s Razor seems as good a principle as any. Nevertheless, I’m perfectly happy to read sensible arguments to the contrary. My exasperation with the batty film Anonymous was not caused by its pro-Oxfordian agenda, but rather on its utterly nonsensical theories about Elizabeth I.

Fortunately Barber’s book is sensitive, subtle and beautifully crafted. Even though I don’t agree with her conclusions, I admired her skill at teasing out inconsistencies and clues which allowed her to create a poignant story peppered with persuasive ‘what if?’s.

What can a dead man say that you will hear?
Suppose you swear him underneath the earth,
stabbed to the brain with some almighty curse,
would you recognise his voice if it appeared?

The tapping on the coffin lid is heard
as death watch beetle. He becomes a name;
a cipher whose identity is plain
to anyone who understands a word.

So what divine device should he employ
to settle with the world beyond his grave,
unmask the life that learnt its human folly
from death’s warm distance; how else can he save
himself from oblivion, but with poetry?

Stop. Pay attention. Hear a dead man speak.

Kit Marlowe is dead. That’s what they say, anyway. We follow him from his half-remembered schooldays in Canterbury to his studies in divinity at Cambridge, where he gains recognition for his poetry and catches the eye of Tom Watson, one of the Queen’s spies. Bright and irreverent, Kit is lured to London. Here he pursues two careers: one as a creative, daring playwright; the other as an intelligencer, under the spidery command of Sir Francis Walsingham. His quick mind and talent for university debate mean that he can slip religion on and off like a coat, arguing either side of the equation.

While this helps Kit root out Catholic sympathisers in Europe, it proves less successful among the mob at home. People begin to notice that his plays feature a series of domineering anti-heroes who question and undermine the Christian faith. Unable to divorce character from author, people begin to point fingers; rumours start to circulate. The creator of Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta and Faustus is a godless man. An atheist. A heretic. To make matters worse, Kit has made several enemies among his fellow writers, who are only too happy to stir up the discontented crowds with pamphlets in the hope that Kit will be hustled off the scene.

So far the plot was familiar from A Dead Man in Deptford. Some sections, such as Kit’s visit to Robert Greene in Em Ball’s house, were so similar that I thought Barber must be paying tribute to Burgess. But she then strikes out on a new path. When the scandal over Kit’s supposed heresy grows more difficult to ignore, his protectors agree that something must be done. A plan is conceived by Kit’s beloved Tom Walsingham: to prevent him being arrested and tried, which might lead to confessions that would be awkward for the government, Kit must ‘die’.

Tom’s servant Frizer and some other friends will meet him at a safe house and pretend to quarrel with him over the bill for supper. They arrange for a gallows-fresh corpse to be brought, which they dress in Kit’s clothes and mutilate to hide the switched identity, with a stab-wound through the eye. Kit is sent off across the Channel into exile, deprived of his country, his friends and his name. Ever in fear of his life, he wanders: a stranger in a strange land, connected to his past by the few channels of communication open to him. He writes to salve his loneliness: plays, that his friends in London pass on to the theatres.

But how can a dead man write plays? Kit has to hide his authorship beneath a pseudonym, which he shares, rather inconveniently, with a respectable merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon. But the man receives a share, and keeps his mouth shut, while Kit, in the wilds of Europe, writes and writes and writes.

Barber weaves her varied sources cleverly together so that you can spot the slightest twitch upon the thread. Kit’s interactions with the Earls of Southampton and Essex slip in and out of the story, and there are plenty of allusions to Shakespearean characters, plots and situations. After his ‘death’, Kit returns to London where he attends a performance of one of ‘his’ plays at the theatre, disguised as a middle-aged widow. Later he meets a brother and sister who are almost identical, and falls in love with both. He visits the Court in the garb of a Moor. He finds sanctuary in the castle of Duke Orsino at Bracciano.

Some of these may be established episodes among Marlovian theorists but, being something of a newcomer to the field, I embraced them as wonderfully appropriate dramatic devices. As the book is made up of a long series of relatively short poems, the titles of the individual poems are also often quotes from Shakespeare or references in some other way. Trying to spot them all is a wonderful game.

Where Barber also differs from Burgess is in her characterisation of Kit himself. He is a gentler, sadder soul than Burgess’s more rambunctious sinner: an exile, yearning for English air and English soil and the faces of his friends; a man haunted by the thought that his secret will be uncovered, condemning him to death; a man who finds his views twisted and changed to make a rope for his own neck. I was tickled to discover that Barber (tongue in cheek, I suspect) explains away one of Kit’s most notorious quotes as the result of a half-heard drunken conversation. During a visit to the pub he rhapsodises aloud on the glories of ‘tobacco and booze’, which his inebriated friend Nashe hears as ‘tobacco and boys’. Kit sighs: ‘Misheard, offstage, / the quote that would define me for an age.’

Despite that protestation, though, Kit’s enduring touchstone is his love for Tom Walsingham, who is the intended recipient of the many ‘papers’ that make up the book. I’ve always been particularly attracted by sonnets and one, addressed to Tom during Kit’s absence, was especially lovely. Oddly enough, the tone reminded me not only of Shakespeare (Sonnet 29, my favourite), but also of George Bull’s translations of Michelangelo’s sonnets. Here’s Barber’s poem, ‘In a Minute There Are Many Days’:

Between our letters, this adopted death
becomes more real. My heart slows to a crawl,
chilled by your absence, waiting for the fall
of written words to warm it up like breath.
I’m cut like a lily water cannot save.
The endless nights are stitched into a shroud
that takes my shape, and has my weeping bound.
The weeks until I hear gape like the grave.
But when your letter opens in my hands
my heart starts up, a wild bird to a clap,
and air fills lungs as though some arid land
were suddenly ocean, charted off the map.
Two pages of your hand can bring such bliss;
and yet, without your love, I don’t exist.

You can see that, although the book’s in verse, the language is very simple and easy to read. Barber has made it as authentic as possible without it becoming off-puttingly archaic. Once you’ve become used to the form, it’s as easy as reading a conventional novel, and it’s a beautiful study of love, loss and the meaning of identity (as someone once said, ‘What’s in a name?’). It’s a remarkable piece of work, it really is, and if you have the slightest fondness for Shakespeare or Marlowe or beautiful poetry, I urge you to read it.

Barber hasn’t converted me to her cause, but she has made me think about the issues from a different perspective and I can see the argument for Marlowe having been quietly sent away into exile rather than having been killed by men who were, after all, closely linked with his friends. As for the question of authorship, I’m going to stick with Shakespeare himself (how else to explain that Shakespeare’s plays began to be staged in London before Marlowe’s death?), but this is nevertheless precisely the kind of intelligent, approachable theorising that I enjoy.

There was only one drawback: having spent all Sunday afternoon and evening reading it, I woke up on Monday morning thinking in iambic pentameter.

It might only be 9 January, but this is already a strong contender to be one of my top books of the year.

Buy the book

Update: 2016: Excitingly, The Marlowe Papers has now been adapted as a one-man stage show and will be touring in the UK next year. I will do everything possible to see it.

5 thoughts on “The Marlowe Papers: Ros Barber

  1. Heloise says:

    This does sound very interesting, but I admit I'm a bit sceptical about the blank verse – does it actually add something to the narrative or is it merely ornament and dress-up? Going by your quotes and the Amazon preview, this seems a lot more remniscent of Browning than of Marlowe to me, and while I suppose that might make kind of sense – Browning did set quite a few of his narrative poems in the Renaissance, after all – I'm not sure it's quite what the author intended.
    I will definitely check it out, though, as I've always had a soft spot for the Elizabethean age myself. And reading your review made me really want to finally tackle Elizabeth Bear's The Stratford Man duology. And Anthony Burgess' Nothing Like the Sun and Dead Man in Deptford. And Rory Clements' John Shakespeare novels… *sigh*

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, like you, I initially had 'gimmick!' alarms going off in my head, but it really worked very well. Regarding the Marlowe / Browning question, I think that Barber made the correct decision not to write in Elizabethan English because lots of readers will already be put off by the thought of reading blank verse rather than prose. The language suggests the period rather than being bound by it and I think that brings this out of a specialist poetry realm and into the arena of more general fiction. I'm no expert on Browning (though I love his 'Andrea del Sarto'); but might it not be the case that the similarity is due to the form and subject rather than style?

    Anyway, I'm really pleased you want to give it a go. Yes, I'd like to try 'Nothing Like the Sun' too; and George Garrett (author of Death of the Fox) wrote a novel about Marlowe called 'Entered From The Sun'. I'd also like to find a good, unbiased history book which lays out the facts about Shakespeare's life and Marlowe's life so that I can see how much of what we know is documented fact and how much has grown out of assumptions. I'm not about to change my mind on the authorship, but I'd like to feel that I have come to a decision based on a thorough understanding of all the evidence!!!

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