A Novel about Christopher Marlowe
I have a peculiar fascination with Kit Marlowe as an historical figure, although I’ve only ever sat through one of his plays (a student production of Doctor Faustus). To Be A King follows close on the heels of several other fictional encounters I’ve had with him, including the strikingly original Marlowe Papers. However, the most pertinent comparison for this book is Anthony Burgess’s famous novel A Dead Man in Deptford, which has a close kinship with To Be A King both in its reading of events and in its characterisation.
Yet DeMaria’s novel predates Burgess’s by almost twenty years and it differs in one important aspect. Reading Burgess, you come away almost bludgeoned by the linguistic cleverness of the author; reading DeMaria, you find that the characters themselves have been given the space to show off their own intelligence and wit. And that’s why I found myself quickly warming to DeMaria’s novel, even though there are still a few scenes where you get the feeling that the author is showing off a little stylistically.
I say the blind pursuit of the truth absolute is the shortest way to hell.
It is the oldest sin, Christopher. Pride. That’s what it is.
Prometheus. Icarus. The Tower of Babel.
You are a scholar. Don’t you know these things?
You will fly to hell on the wings of pride!
The story is familiar: Kit Marlowe, the son of a Canterbury cobbler, makes his way to Cambridge by virtue of the scintillating brilliance of his mind. Usually young men of humble means would use university as a stepping stone to a comfortable living in the church but Kit, headstrong, passionate and unwise, has other ideas. Cambridge is not some monkish scholarly retreat, cut off from the world: on the contrary, it brings him into the burning heart of the age’s political and religious debate.
Times are hard in Kit’s England: the Virgin Queen remains unmarried, her Scottish cousin Mary becomes an ever more alluring focus for English Catholics, and there are rumours of Popish intrigues on the continent. Kit’s Cambridge is a hotbed of discussion and, furthermore, a recruiting ground for the next generation of subtle English spies. His taste for controversy brings him to the attention of Lord Burghley and Francis Walsingham, and they swiftly recognise that this clever young man can assume the layers of bluff and double-bluff that are necessary to deceive their enemies abroad. Charmed by the friendship of Walsingham’s handsome nephew Thomas, Kit is drawn into the net.
DeMaria’s Kit is a thoroughly plausible figure: ambitious and smart, though perhaps not quite as smart as he believes himself to be. Tantalised by new philosophies like those of Giordano Bruno, Kit allows himself to be tempted across the line that divides eccentricity from liability. His constant questioning, which sometimes trembles on the brink of outright atheism, breaks away from the circles of discreet conversation and explodes into his work as a London playwright. His intellectual freedom results in brilliant, troubling characters – Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil for greatness; and the magnificent, brutal Tamburlaine who will stop at nothing less than the conquest of all the earth. He’s consumed by the act of creation, driven to distraction as he writes plays that sometimes take over his very soul. Kit’s characters are giants. But he himself is mortal, and the proof of that comes (if this can be judged a spoiler, beware) in a tavern in Deptford, when he is only twenty-nine years old. DeMaria’s explanation of that is interesting, and subtly different to those I’ve read before, adding to the poignancy of Kit’s fate.
Although Kit is naturally the heart of the book, DeMaria sets him in his context. It’s a sprawling, generous cacophony of noise and colour: late 16th century Cambridge and London with all their feuds and petty (and greater) dangers. He can’t quite resist the temptation for a cameo from Shakespeare (who could?), but I liked his interpretation. Shakespeare is neither the brilliant soul of the world nor a bumpkin being used as a front by some anonymous genius. He’s a craftsman, who’s willing to work hard to make the most of what talent he has, and he has one great gift that Kit, poor Kit, will never master: a profound willingness to please. The London acting community is especially well rendered, actually, and there was one particular scene I loved. An alehouse: a company of half-drunk actors, messing around with the script of a new play by an unknown author. As they maul it and make a mockery of its seriousness, they don’t realise that the author is Kit, sitting at the edge of the room. But the great actor Ned Alleyn is also in the room and, commandeering the text, he reads Kit’s Tamburlaine with the respect and fire it deserves: the magnificent, arrogant speech in which Tamburlaine proclaims his intention to crush all the world, ending:
So shall our swords, our lances and our shot
Fill all the air with fiery meteors.
Then, when the sky shall wax as red as blood,
It shall be said I made it red myself,
To make me think of naught but blood and war.
By the end of that speech I had goosebumps and I’m now praying that someone in London puts on Tamburlaine at some point soon. He sounds like a marvellous anti-hero and I’d love to compare the ‘original’ Tamburlaine to his operatic counterpart from a hundred and fifty years later. Fingers crossed.As for the book as a whole, I enjoyed it very much. If you’ve read A Dead Man in Deptford, I don’t suppose you need to read this, because it covers much the same ground in much the same spirit. However, if you’re interested in an intelligent, thoughtful and vivid piece of historical fiction, this would be well worth your while. I’m going to have to look up some of DeMaria’s other historical novels – he has quite a back catalogue, according to the list in the front of To Be A King.
* There is a Kindle edition of the book but I would strongly recommend that you avoid it. My copy seemed to have been scanned as complete PDF pages which meant the text was not the usual Kindle format. Worse, it proved impossible to zoom in, thus making it practically unreadable. I gave up and ordered a hard copy and I’m glad I did; but don’t make the same mistake I did.