On Wednesday 30th Mat 1593, the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer; Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres were also present. This book is one of many attempts to get at the truth behind this event.
All four of the actors in this scene had links with the Elizabethan espionage world. Marlowe had been given a document by the Privy Council exonerating him when Cambridge had attempted to block his MA on the grounds that he was recruiting students to go to Reims where there was a college turning out Catholics for subversive activities; he later probably worked for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster general who used a sting to gather evidence that Mary Queen of Scots supported the assassination of Elizabeth; Marlowe worked for Walsingham's brother Thomas, who was a diplomat and probably gathered intelligence from abroad. Poley was in and out of prison, sometimes probably as cover for his informing activities, at other times possibly to listen to prisoners, and was involved with Throckmorton and with Babington, Catholic plotters against Elizabeth. Skeres was also involved with the Babington plot. Frizer worked for Thomas Walsingham and also, later, the Earl of Essex. All four would have known one another before the meeting and all four probably, as spies do, mistrusted one another.
And Nicholl's thesis is that this world of espionage was responsible for Marlowe's death. He follows various twists and turns within this secret world but this part of the book is so tortuous that I was quickly confused, largely unimpressed and rather bored. In the end, Nicholl concludes, Marlowe was killed because he was associated with Sir Walter Ralegh, who, having fallen from the Queen's favour, was making a nuisance of himself in Parliament and whom the Earl of Essex wished to put down. I'm just not convinced that Marlowe was murdered for this. The fact that the spies were together for eight hours before the murder, eating and drinking together, makes this scenario unlikely. It is even more unlikely when it becomes clear that Poley worked for Robert Cecil who was an opponent of Essex. Why would Poley collaborate with Frizer, even if it were just to cover the crime up?
Furthermore, Nicholls more or less ignores other avenues. Marlowe was reputedly homosexual (he is reported to have quipped: "All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools" but this is by yet another lurker on the sidelines of espionage and may be untrue; this writer also accused him of atheism) but Nicholls avoids this dimension to the extent that 'homosexuality', 'sodomy' and 'buggery' do not appear in the index.
There is also very little discussion of Marlowe's plays. This must have been a major part of his life; despite dying at the age of 29 he wrote the best-selling Tamburlaine the Great parts I and II (which I saw in a production by the Lazarus Theatre Company at the Tristan Bates Theatre on Friday 28th August 2015), the Jew of Malta, Edward II, the Massacre at Paris, and his masterpiece, Dr Faustus. Marlowe's literary work is chronicled in Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells; it also tells about the other playwrights in his life such as Thmoas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, with whom he shared a room and accusations of atheism.
A great book about the Elizabethan world of espionage is The Watchers by Stephen Alford. A fictionalised version of spying for Walsingham is AEW Mason's Fire Over England, a ripping boys' adventure yarn
The late great Anthony Burgess produced a brilliant fictionalised version of Marlowe's life and death in Dead Man at Deptford. This has all the bits that Nicholl has, and more, fictionalised but told with much more coherence.
The brilliance of this book, like The Lodger, also by Nicholl, about Shakespeare, is the meticulous forensic scrutiny of not just the main protagonist but all the other players in the scene; we find out that Frizer the assassin is buried in Eltham having lived into a presumably peaceful old age. But the price for meticulous detail is sometimes readability and this is better as a sholarly work than a general introduction to the topic.
May 2016; 337 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57