The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs FABER & FABER £25 (410pp) £23 (free p&p per order) from 0870 079 8897
Who could have predicted that, in the autumn of the second Elizabeth's reign, the first Elizabethans would still retain their cultural clout? Shakespeare and his fellow penmen have not only survived, but continued to invigorate popular culture. Ben Jonson's wild gamble - when he said that the Bard was not for an age but for all time - has paid off more than he could ever have imagined. And few Elizabethans exert as strong a fascination as the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who died in a tavern brawl aged 29 in 1593.
But, as these three books show, anyone interested in Renaissance dramatists has to confront a simple truth of history: we can never know more than the surviving archives tell us. In Marlowe's case, as in Shakespeare's, there are so few documented facts that you are forced to choose one of three strategies: the self-denying ordinance of the scholar, the playful wildness of the provocateur, or the imaginative finesse of the storyteller.
David Riggs's biography of Marlowe is a straight work of scholarship. It briskly tells the tale of the Canterbury shoemaker's boy whose humble origins were no bar to graduating from Cambridge, and then working as a poet, translator, playwright and spy. His private life was notorious, and his long criminal record included disturbing the peace, counterfeiting coin, suspicion of murder, felonious assault and public atheism. But this quarrelsome low-life also had a rare way with words.
Soon after getting his MA, Marlowe changed the face of English drama with the startlingly original first part of Tamburlaine in 1587. Not only did its mighty lines thrill Elizabethan audiences, but the play invented English blank-verse tragedy. Although his best-known follow-up, Doctor Faustus, survives only in two unsatisfactory versions, its portrait of the scholar who makes a pact with the devil has proved endlessly fascinating.
Riggs charts Marlowe's rise from a childhood spent within sniffing distance of Canterbury slaughterhouses through his education - which taught him the art of verbal provocation - to the murky world of theatre-makers, and the plots and counterplots of Catholic traitors and religious radicals. He gives concise accounts of his literary hits, from Edward II and The Jew of Malta to the poem Hero and Leander, all of which explore "the sceptical and libertine" ideas of the time. Because of their constant allusions to sodomy, atheism and disruptive desire, Riggs convincing argues that criminality was "intrinsic to Marlowe's life and art".
The least satisfactory part of Riggs's book is his account of Marlowe's death, in which he argues that Elizabeth had him bumped off. Of course, the Tudor state was as ruthless as any other, but there's a good chance that, despite Marlowe's dodgy company and dangerously loud mouth, his death in a Deptford tavern fight over a "reckoning" was just an accident. Still, this readable, engrossing and well-paced biography is welcome as the best account yet.
History Play by Rodney Bolt HARPERCOLLINS £17.99 (388pp) £16.99 (free p&p per order) from 0870 079 8897
By complete contrast, Rodney Bolt's provocative book History Play tackles the problem of gaps in the archival record by indulging in some amazing speculation. Inspired by Mark Twain - who compared writing Shakespeare's biography to making the skeleton of a brontosaurus from "nine bones and 600 barrels of plaster" - Bolt takes as his starting point the astonishing idea that Marlowe staged his own death, fled to the Continent and then wrote the plays of Shakespeare in exile.
With gobsmacking audacity, Bolt recreates an alternative life of Marlowe that compellingly views the known facts from a different angle. His tongue firmly in his literary cheek, he deliberately skews our notions of the possible in this version of "lives and afterlife of Christopher Marlowe". This works better for some years than for others: when both Kit and Will were at their most productive, the theory that only one was a star writer results in a completely unconvincing picture of a frantic scribbler.
This book will appeal most to those already well-versed in the lives of Marlowe and Shakespeare. Anyone else is likely to be mystified as to why Bolt has gone to all this trouble. You can't help wondering why some people cannot accept the simple orthodoxy that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays and Marlowe wrote Marlowe's. Since the Bard never went to university, is this a case of snobbery, of not being able to accept that a low-born non-graduate could have written some of the best drama in history?
Still, you have to smile at Bolt's wicked sense of humour. In an appendix, he reproduces a striking piece of new evidence about Marlowe's time at Cambridge, a document recently "found behind a skirting board" at Corpus Christi College. But, as this was transcribed and circulated on 1 April 1996, you can almost hear the giggles at high table.
Another solution to writing the life of Marlowe is to embrace the liberties of fiction. The market-leader here is Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), which conjured up a phantasmagoric Elizabethan landscape through its lush language and vivid imaginings.
Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (CANONGATE £9.99 (149pp) £9.99 (free p&p per order) from 0870 079 8897)
Louise Welsh's second novel, Tamburlaine Must Die, revisits similar territory, but is much lighter on its pins; less dense, more readable. In her atmospheric doublet-ripper, Kit is an existential hero who gradually realises that a plot has been woven around him by Elizabethan big-shots such as Walter Raleigh and Robert Cecil.
This account of the last three days of Marlowe's life has lashings of sex and violence, plus a dash of poetry. The bad-boy playwright is pursued by a mysterious tormentor who scares him shitless by using a version of Tamburlaine's device of showing a besieged city tents of different colours on successive days to undermine morale: peaceful white, impatient red and, finally, doom-laden black.
While Welsh's decision to write this cloak-and-dagger thriller in Marlowe's own voice is hardly convincing, she mercifully avoids Olde-Worlde language, throwing in only the occasional "in my cups" or "cunny-warrens". Her strong suit is empathy: at one point, a prostitute watches Marlowe warily, experience having taught her that "this was the dangerous time, after the act, the moment men often turned and did harm to women".
All this is perfectly enjoyable, and Welsh is particularly good at conveying the feel of an Elizabethan London spooked by plague and plots. But in the end, her short novel - like Bolt's postmodern fantasy - is merely further proof of the playwright's continuing magnetism. In a parody of Parkinson's Law, work on Marlowe's life expands to fill the gaps.
Aleks Sierz's 'In-Yer-Face Theatre: British drama today' is published by Faber & Faber