The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs

A poet in the underworld
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Who was Christopher Marlowe? We know that he was born in Canterbury in 1564, the son of an unusually literate shoemaker, that he was educated at the local King's School, and that he went on to study at Corpus Christi, Cambridge where he received a BA in 1584 and an MA three years later. We can also state with some certainty that his blank verse dramas - Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Edward II and Dr Faustus - were both popular and highly influential; and that together they make him the most important English dramatist before Shakespeare. However, beyond this, the factual record begins to cloud, and Marlowe, in the words of his latest biographer, David Riggs, starts to be a figment of someone else's imagination. He left no first-person testimony about his life, but his enemies were always ready to testify to his odious moral character as a proselytizing atheist, a blasphemer, and a lover of "boys and tobacco".

That Marlowe was involved in violent and criminal acts has never been in doubt. In 1589 he was involved a street fight in Shoreditch in which another poet, Thomas Watson, killed a man, and was briefly imprisoned before receiving the queen's pardon. A few years later, he was deported from the Netherlands for attempting to issue counterfeit coins. Nor can his part in an Elizabethan underworld of double agents and undercover missions be disputed. In that febrile decade of Catholic plots against Elizabeth I, Marlowe was clearly a practised player. But on whose side? And might the atheism of which he was so often accused, have been merely a device designed to entrap other men suspected of the crime? Marlowe's death, stabbed in a tavern in Deptford in May 1593 following a suppposed dispute about the bill, has already been the subject of a celebrated book by Charles Nicholl. The Reckoning is a gripping whodunit, suggesting the mystery of Marlowe's end was a government set-up, organised to silence him.

Riggs isn't interested in recreating Marlowe's "absent authorial psyche" in a traditional biography. Instead, he tries to capture some of the salient aspects of Marlowe's world and their formative influence on his character, writing, and lifestyle. We see him as the son of migrant workers, who moved to post-Reformation Canterbury and ensured he received a first-class education. The influence of the classics, specifically Ovid's elegiac couplets with their unrhymed lines in alternating metres, tightened when Marlowe went to Cambridge. From Ovid and other Latin poets, Marlowe may also have learned how to treat homosexual love with complete moral indifference.

Riggs's book is subtle and delicate, and based on a profound assimilation of the welter of Marlowe scholarship that has been produced over many decades. If at times his evidence is too fragile to bear the weight of the argument he places upon it, this seems an almost inevitable by-product of the enigma of Marlowe himself. Riggs does succeed in establishing him as a dangerous outsider, not least in the area of Elizabethan religious compromise, in which Marlowe's alleged atheism (a crime punishable by death) becomes a symbol of the daring and reckless manner in which he pursued his life.