I give you two playwrights: one is a fire eater, a blade which swung towards both sexes, a spy, a comer, a brawler, a scoundrel with a heart of gold, and, from the portrait we have of him, one gorgeous piece of flesh; then there's the other, a businessman, a usurer, a tubby village moneybags, a mean, scrounging, heartless capitalist who left his wife nothing but his second-best bed. The second is, of course, William Shakespeare, the first Christopher "Kit'' Marlowe. Now wouldn't it be wonderful if the dashing poet were also the author of the plays attributed to the mean old Shylock of Stratford? Wouldn't that satisfy our romantically induced conviction that mighty writers should also have mighty souls?
Of course it would, and Rodney Bolt, in his History Play: the Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe, a semi-fictional biography, wittily plays on this longing. In his foreword he mentions the usual niggles about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays - that "Will Shakespeare'' of Stratford left no books or papers, that even in his time that the association of his name with the plays was only ever an association, that there was not the slightest hint of a fanfare on his death. The list goes on, and has provided much amusement for scholars ever since a descendant of Francis Bacon decided that her ancestor must have written the plays.
But we are here in the more lush valleys of the Marlovian theory, according to which the wild boy of Elizabethan theatre was not killed in that tavern at Deptford, but was spirited away to the continent, there to continue writing the plays that would commemorate the name of Shakespeare and not his own. Were this book simply a rehash of this theory, it would be good for a laugh, and then a bore. But Bolt is subtler. His thesis throughout is that putting flesh to fact is a gloriously democratic game. If the "Stratfordians'' can extrapolate a whole life from the sparsest of events, then so can anyone - about anyone.
The Marlowe presented here is a reluctant firebrand, hot-headed but compassionate, who betrayed his patrons and friends, but had the decency to agonise about it. He travelled widely, acquiring a knowledge of Flemish, Italian, Danish and French, and used this facility in languages to find other patrons in other lands after his faked death. He fell because his tortured conscience put him on the wrong side of Sir Robert Cecil. Forced to flee England, he went under the name of the man he murdered in Italy, Walter Hoochspier (the W H of the sonnet dedication), whose death haunted him. He learned at the feet of Montaigne, hobnobbed with Rubens and was inspired by Cervantes. He changed his name according to where he was, and sent back plays to England, whereupon another's name was affixed to them.
It goes without saying that Will Shakespeare is the villain of the piece: a shameless opportunist who rises from bit-part actor to bungling collaborator to cynical plagiarist. We hear of Marlowe's rage at Shakespeare's mangling of his texts, and of Shakespeare's brutal use of blackmail to secure his title to the works of the exiled Marlowe. Bolt is as adept as any Authorship Heretic in steering the facts in the direction of his chosen candidate. His Marlowe met the real Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, the real king of Navarre, the real Elsinore - where, according to Bolt, Marlowe travelled with players. Of course these models existed, but Bolt offers no proof that Marlowe knew any of them. Then again, that's part of the point. Bolt is challenging us to attack mindless conjecture.
A good deal of the joy to be derived from this book lies in the incidental detail concerning the Elizabethan world. The English style of acting, with its burlesques, its refusal to acknowledge the difference between comedy and tragedy and its insistence on learning lines rather than reciting them, astounded the staid continentals, much as the "Method'' style of acting, imported from America, astonished Europeans in the 1950s. The tribulations of your low-ranking English spy as he tiptoed his way across a war-ridden and still largely Catholic Europe are also vividly evoked. But battles, it seems, were an inconvenience rather than an ever-present danger; Richard Lassels, "a gentleman traveller,'' spoke of having to take a detour because of two armies that "lay in the way".
Bolt does not argue the Marlovian case, he assumes it. This gives rise to a couple of problems: first, it makes suspension of disbelief extremely difficult; secondly, he makes no attempt to account for the discrepancy - obvious to anyone with a healthy pair of ears - between the pound of Marlowe's verse and the skip of Shakespeare's. Still, he has offered us a learned and clever piece of historical investigation which cocks a snook as much at the heretics as at the orthodox.
Louise Welsh's novel Tamburlaine Must Die is the story of Marlowe's final days as told by Marlowe. Someone should have warned her off such a formula: it is as jinxed as the subject of her book, and what follows, while not exactly dire, is just an interesting failure.
Kit Marlowe thinks he's got it made. He's a successful playwright with an ever-generous and exceedingly hunky patron. Then, under torture, fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd turns him in for atheism. The Privy Council summon Marlowe and, in public school parlance, "gate'' him. He must report to them every day before noon, but is otherwise free. This last little loophole gives him time to ponder how things have come to this, and to discover who it was that used the name of his most violent character to implicate him. The professional stalker finds himself stalked. In the world of Elizabethan espionage, no-one is above his suspicion, except, of course, his dearest friend.
Louise Welsh wrote something truly startling and original in The Cutting Room, so it is a shame that this novel should fall so flat. The idiom used by the characters is unconvincing, the sexual episodes laughably gratuitous, and the ending deeply predictable.
Marlowe, and the mystery of his death, will always be more interesting than the staid burgher of Stratford. He had style in spadefuls. His adapting of blank verse for the stage was an achievement which would give not only Shakespeare but Jonson and the Jacobeans the medium with which they would establish English drama as the greatest in Europe. Parts of Faustus, much of Tamburlaine and all of Edward II have the brand of genius on them. But it's surely time to leave it at that. Shakespeare may have been only a wren on the wings of this eagle, but he still flew higher.
To order a copy of 'History Play' (HarperCollins £17.99) for £16.99, or 'Tamburlaine Must Die' (Canongate £9.99) for £9.99 (both with free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 or post your order to: Independent Books Direct, PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TPReuse content