The Murder of Christopher Marlowe
The World of Christopher Marlowe
Writing a biography of Christopher Marlowe — or William Shakespeare — is like reconstructing a dinosaur skeleton from a single tooth. There is an isolated fact or two, and not much else.
Still, the work must be done. A paleontologist will argue that there is much more to the matter than the single tooth. There are footprints, allowing for an estimation of the animal's weight. There are the fossils of plants and other animals, indicating what the creature might have eaten. There are myriad incidental clues surrounding the location and position of the tooth.
So it is with Christopher Marlowe. A new biography by David Riggs, The World of Christopher Marlowe, reconstructs the world around Christopher Marlowe, so that what little is known about the man can have a context, as well as a number of reasonable surmises. The detritus surrounding Marlowe can tell us a great deal about this elusive man. That is precisely what the author does.
There are works of literary criticism that are better for analyzing Marlowe's plays, and Charles Nicholl's book, The Reckoning, is a thorough analysis of Marlowe's career as a spy and the causes of his death at the age of 29 in 1593. However, none of the books about Marlowe explain as much about the man as Riggs'.
Riggs has provided an exhaustive study of middle-Elizabethan culture that gives us insight into what Marlowe might have been like, and why. How does one explain Marlowe's purported atheism? Riggs not only explains it, but also develops arguments with a staggering bundle of research that suggests his atheism was inevitable. What about Marlowe's homosexuality? The culture of the time promoted such behavior among the literati, and Marlowe certainly belonged to that group of Epicureans. What could have been the effects of Marlowe's education at King's School in Canterbury and Corpus Christi College in Cambridge? Riggs demonstrates how the systems of education and the curricula could shape Marlowe's behavior, as well as inform the content of his plays. He reports an Elizabethan observer's comments about university education with humorously modern reverberations:
"...the universities [were brought] into much slander. For standing on their reputation and liberty, they ruffle and roist it out, exceeding in apparel and haunting riotous company (which draweth them from their books into another trade.) And for excuse, when they are charged with breach of all good order, think it sufficient to say that they be gentlemen, which grieveth many not a little."
With this amount of research and explanation, Marlowe finally comes into clearer view.
Regrettably, a reader must be dedicated to plow through this impressive scholarship. There are facts and explanations important to the understanding of Marlowe, which are, at times overwhelming, detailed and arcane. Unless one is really into Elizabethan history, politics, religion and culture, this is a very difficult book. Those willing to put forth the effort will find the reward great.
One striking feature of this book is that it leads one back to the plays, which are, after all, the basis for caring about Marlowe. Riggs' explanations seem to give life to the plays in a way that makes them less bombastic, more subtle and less naïve. That alone is an accomplishment.
For readers who are primarily interested in Marlowe as a victim of either a brawl over a bill ("the reckoning," as Nicholl puts it) or a murder victim of a political plot, Riggs doesn't add much to Nicholl's wonderful account. He does provide a bit more context, and enlarges the political plots and counterplots of Elizabeth and her ministers against Catholics, Mary Queen of Scots, and the other figures struggling over the throne of England. Nevertheless, for the most part, the mystery of the death of Christopher Marlowe is solved in much the same way as in The Reckoning — Marlowe met his end at the hands of political low-life in the employ of Thomas Walsingham.