In 1593 – "so the official version goes" – the brilliant and provocative young playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl: stabbed in the eye, which some might call a just reckoning for the capital crime of his flagrant atheism. Drawing on four years of research, this marvellous work from Ros Barber presents an unofficial version. It fleshes out the skeletal possibility that the stabbing was a hoax, a setup by powerful friends, through which Marlowe could slip away from his enemies and public sight into obscurity.
The restless itch to write would thereafter be a risky, clandestine operation with manuscripts passed through agents and published, agonisingly for their author, under the name of "a colourless merchant from Stratford – one William Shakespeare".
There's nothing novel about this assertion, but the first point of interest about The Marlowe Papers is one of form. It's a novel in verse: enough to put off the unadventurous, but this should be taken as the advantage it is. The blank verse uses modern idiom and grammar but sustains the period feel, wit and rich imagery of Elizabethan drama. It's expansive enough to carry the passion of declamation, the intensity of intimate confession and still have enough legs to satisfy a sinuous plot.
Treason, heresy, espionage, counterfeiting, brawling and some lusty but distinctly illegal ménages à trois are all thrown into the mix, with a spritz of gallows humour.
At pinch-points of emotional strain, Barber resorts to the sonnet form itself, but her poetic craft sustains the long narrative with a supple linguistic fluency and compressed images. Marlowe distressed by his lover ("You watch the floor as though your words/are spilt on the rug between us") has a visual potency resonant from Shakespearean lines. The language is grand, loquacious and intimate.
Themes of identity and self-esteem, of truth and loyalty, give substance to Barber's enthralling plot in a work that combines historical erudition with a sharply satisfying read. Marlowe's passion infects the page; Barber's skill draws the fever.