On this day in 1593, at Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford, a piece of 500-year theatre was staged, and although the action was over in a flash – harsh words, grapple, knife to the eye – and the hasty inquest and unmarked burial held the next day – we, the audience, are still blinking centuries later, scanning our programmes, rereading the credits, wondering if we’ve somehow missed the rest. It is indeed a ‘large Reckoninge in a little room’.
And if my fellow poet Ros Barber is right, that line of homage I’ve just quoted was written, not by our Will, but by Kit Marlowe himself, living a ‘posthumous existence’ on the Continent and writing the plays that form the backbone of English culture.
Several years ago, Ros began researching her PhD, which was based on the Marlowe-wrote-Shakespeare theory, and then began writing poems for it. She was writing a blog about the writing process. I used to read it; it was a fascinating glimpse into a state of being, a work in progress, and, frankly, seemingly, an obsession. There are a few of these people who just plough their furrow and pursue their work, and they can often look a little bit mad to the rest of us. Especially those of us whose curse is to be Quite Reasonable.
So Ros writes the poems and completes her PhD. The theory is that Marlowe was not murdered, but that his murder was staged by his fellow spies, to save him from impending charges of treason. Or blasphemy. It’s all a bit unclear. Despite my friend Jan’s old adage, ‘Never attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity’, a little unclarity is excellent soil for a conspiracy theory.
I’ve never been massive on Shakespeare conspiracy theories – I tend to just think William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote his plays, people do it all the time you know – but if there is one I quite like (they’re like murder mysteries, an amusing whodunnit with the added advantage of no Angela Lansbury) it’s the Earl of Oxford one. It’s so engagingly random – and there are all those tantalising personal parallels… I even went to a play last year about it, George Dillon’s ‘The Man Who Was Hamlet’: a one-man show staged as a monologue by De Vere, but it makes nothing so crude or spoilsport as an overt assertion. Rather it’s a series of playful suggestions, masterfully put together with liberal familiar quotes. (I’m sure George Dillon’s friends also thought he was a bit mad.)
I’ve never even considered the Kit Marlowe theory; it all seems a bit histrionic for my tastes. James Bond in doublet and hose. And we’ve already got Marlowe, just like we’ve got Shakespeare. (If Marlowe is Shakespeare, what happened to Shakespeare? What was happening while he was meant to be, say, delivering scenes on the hop and advising the company on their parts?)
Ros then, having got her PhD, put her manuscript together into a book. And got an agent. And got a publishing deal. Not just some poxy little poet publishing deal, either! No, it’s with Sceptre, which is part of Hodder, and now – right now, this week – her book, The Marlowe Papers, is taking the broadsheets by storm, with a gold embossed apple on the cover!
I’m sorry, but how many poets get that. Your correspondent is consumed with jealousy.
It’s very inspiring.
And let me tell you: Ros’ book is very impressive and inspiring. A ‘novel in poems’, it is written in a Marlovian blank verse with a dramatic personae at the front. It begins with a sonnet for introduction,’To the Wise or Unwise Reader’: ‘The tapping on the coffin lid is heard… //Stop. Pay attention. Hear a dead man speak’. Then, straight into the action with a midnight flit, a boatman with his tongue cut out, a tempting widow, a black market horse, messages in code, the terrors, nightmares of rape and tongues cut out… ‘And so to precious papers I commit/ the only story I can never tell’.
Shakespeare in his later works references ten separate times Ovid’s story of Philomel, who was raped and had her tongue cut out by her brother-in-law. (Sidney wrote it too, as did Sir Walter Raleigh; it was currency for the Elizabethans with their intrigues, plots, illegal religions, and indeed habits of espionage…) The Marlowe Papers, then, is a novel-in-poems about not telling.
I haven’t yet read all of it. In fact I’ve only read ten per cent of it, already the length of some poetry collections; before the notes it runs 407 pages. So I can’t give the story away. But I did skip to the end (‘Exit Stage Left’), and it makes me want to read the book more.
As for the poetry itself, I might have quibbles with words (eg, ‘brassy’ in the second line of the first poem seems overdone and slightly attention-getting, where ‘brass’ would be accurate and not have that jarring ‘y’ sound; and ‘whittled’ in the next line draws a lot of attention to itself for a word with an extra syllable, especially when you probably just mean ‘carved’). I might smooth out the metrics a bit (the tempo can vary a disconcerting amount from line to line in places). I might have wanted to change some abstractions to something more concrete (my skin/ is wrinkled as the elderly’ doesn’t sit well, and surely there are vivid similes aplenty for this). But it’s brisk and alive and muscular; the characters are proper characters; and the story is compelling as story. There are also lines of admirably neat Elizabethan cleverness: ‘They sign their papers only with a cross/ …Anon,/ now Christopher is too much cross to bear.’)
And, published in this London season of Shakespeare-fest, with the Jubilee and the Olympics and theatre companies from around the world performing Shakespeare at the Globe, The Marlowe Papers takes its controversy head-on. Here is part of a conversation between Marlowe and his ‘friend’ Tom Watson (I think), in ‘The Authors of Shakespeare’ (p302):
‘A lawyer playwright told me in faith last week
that William Shakespeare’s not a real name.’
‘He’s a real man!’
………………………..‘But not that can be seen.
He comes to London only twice a year.
Picks up a play from Bacon, drops it off,
collects his cash. He is invisible.
To all intents and purposes, hot here.
The masses are none the wiser, but the cream
of literate society suspects
the name’s a front for someone else.’
‘For Bacon. Or the Earl of Oxford.’
‘Don’t be offended, Kit! You had a death
more documented than most royalty.
The lewder gossips spin it off in yarns
you could strangle cats with. Since you’re loudly dead,
the suspects are the living.’
The man’s a nincompoop. He churns out verse
fit only for lighting fires.’
…………………………………..’It could be worse.’
…………….‘They could be gossiping it’s you.
The clues you keep leaving, Kit, for pity’s sake.
As if your style weren’t badge enough
for your friends to work it out. Your enemies
must be gifted nothing. Non licit exigius.
Let them chase shadows. Let them not chase Kit.’