Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, by Park Honan

Piety, paranoia and the smell of curing leather
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The Independent Culture

This important biography of Marlowe raises high expectations. Park Honan has written an acclaimed life of Shakespeare and holds a distinguished record in literary biography. More is known of Marlowe's short life than of Shakespeare's long one, for Christopher, the son of a Kent cobbler, won a scholarship to Cambridge and entered the world of swirling smoke and mirrors that was Elizabethan espionage. Since Marlowe's stock rose in the late Victorian period, much has been discovered about his life. Honan not only illuminates some hitherto murky corners, but also encourages further lampwork: there is more to discover about the dangerous man in whose writings Hazlitt discerned "a glow of the imagination unhallowed by any thing but its own energies".

By heaven, this is an excellent, necessary and hugely welcome book. Though it responsibly synthesises previous scholarship, brings new perspectives and enlivens old, its greatest achievement is this: it presents a Marlowe that the sane can live with. The work is a corrective to decades of semi-fictional, fictional and downright preposterous authorial posturings over the Elizabethan marvellous boy.

To ground in what is known, and to refuse fantasy and excess, however, is not to impoverish the reader's encounter with this active man. The fact is richer than the fancy, and Honan's approach is based in his assessment of Marlowe as "not a romantic, but a questing realist". Neither is this hagiography: Honan's words, chosen with fierce and precise care, sometimes have wider applications. Marlowe's life "has something to tell us about living with endemic, provocative faults, as well as about gaiety, audacity, elated persistence".

Furthermore, the book is readable and engaging in a way that makes it one of the best general introductions, not only to Marlowe, but to the smelly, vicious and sometimes impossible world in which he lived. Honan writes vividly about the past without the suffocations of romance: we get the everydayness of Marlowe's life as well as the over-rehearsed dramas. No-one has shown us so vigorously how inescapable were the daily crowds of flat-capped, blue-clad apprentices on the London streets, or the difference between the common alehouses and the taverns "where men were drunk with more credit and apology". His thumbnail portraits leap into life: Thomas Nashe was "a thin boyish satirist with a tooth or two that poked out at angles" when Marlowe first met him. Based in new research, and especially effective, is Honan's evocation of Marlowe's childhood Canterbury, a claustrophobia of slaughterhouses, piety, paranoia and the smell of curing leather.

The glovemaker's son and the shoemaker's son turned the late 16th-century theatre into a remarkable place. Marlowe's introduction of blank verse to the popular stage was electrifying, and Patrick Cheney's reminder of his "absolute inaugural power" is fully underwritten here. Honan's account of the interplay between Marlowe and Shakespeare is not new, but it helpfully stresses the way in which theirs was a "nearly collusive relationship" - this without inventing addled trysts in Mrs Miggins' alehouse. Switching the roles of teacher and pupil, each surpassed the other in theatrical innovation. Honan's work on the plays and poetry is never less than sharp, and he has a good eye for the continuing relevance of Marlowe's preoccupations with "the roots of modern bestiality" - the brutal powers of prejudice and greed.

Marlowe's is the most famous of literary deaths, and Honan has his own suggestion as to its motive. Like Charles Nicholls, whose important work he acknowledges, he links Marlowe's murder to the unsubstantiated but riveting documents which accused him of atheism. One of these has Marlowe indulging in some outrageous claims: that "Moses was but a jugler," that "St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ," and that "all they that love not Boyes and Tobacco are fooles." Like Nicholls too, Honan sees Frizer as acting on his own account, yet with a wink from a high place. Nicholls saw a "more complex kind of meaninglessness" than a tavern bill brawl behind the murder: he suggested that the Earl of Essex was behind it. To Honan, though, Thomas Walsingham was the more likely candidate. We do not yet know: Honan reminds us that "history holds its doors open".

Amid the complexities of the Elizabethan secret service, though, and the excesses and successes of the drama, Honan keeps his focus on Marlowe as a writer. He "understood desire" with bitter clarity: "Love is not full of pity, as men say / But deaf and cruel where he means to prey." Park Honan writes with a restrained power that in itself reflects the vividness and the controlled violence of Marlowe's mighty daring.