The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe
A Dead Man in Deptford
Christopher Marlowe, the most prodigally gifted of Shakespeare’s poetic contemporaries, was stabbed to death in an apparently casual brawl at the age of twenty-nine. This bloody mayhem was merely the latest in a succession of scandals that had darkened his career; but according to Charles Nicholl in The Reckoning the killing was deliberate and politically motivated. Nicholl is hardly the first to have made this suggestion, but he mounts much the most detailed case, and does so with a panache that helps to account for his book’s remarkable popular success. In Britain The Reckoning has won several major nonfiction awards and attracted respectful notices in the press.
Its reception among scholars has been rather more equivocal, however. Extensively researched and elaborately (though erratically) documented, The Reckoning remains too speculative to satisfy a historian. Intoxicated by the whiff of ancient corruption, and fascinated by the gaps and silences in the historical record. Nicholl sets out to illuminate the shadowy, conspiratorial underside of Elizabethan public life—a “secret theatre” of espionage to one of whose more elaborate plots, he believes, Marlowe fell victim. Yet, though he is only tangentially concerned with Marlowe the poet, Nicholl inevitably succumbs to the biographer’s itch to crack the code that binds the writer to his fictions. This is a risky project—and not merely because of postmodernist theorizing about the so-called Death of the Author. For there are good empirical reasons for thinking the modern idea of “authorship,” with its assumption of absolute artistic authority, a little anachronistic when applied to a writer like Marlowe.
Elizabethan dramatists surrendered effective control over their texts from the moment they delivered them to the acting companies. Plays were often published anonymously, or in a form that gave more prominence to the players than to the playwrights; and so far from being products of unique inspiration, many (including Hamlet and King Lear) began as reworkings of earlier plays, while others (like modern film scripts) were written in collaboration by anything up to half a dozen journeyman-playmakers. Even when “authorship” of a given text can be confidently assigned, notions of authorial “intention” are repeatedly compromised by textual corruption, evidence of revision by others, or the vagaries of a publishing history that may well place the surviving text at a considerable distance from what the dramatist actually wrote. Thus Marlowe’s best-known play, Dr. Faustus, survives in two very different texts, each of which contains scenes by other hands, and neither of which probably corresponds to the version performed in his own lifetime.
Yet there are good reasons why Marlowe’s admirers have found it difficult to separate the man from his work. Indeed Marlowe is the kind of writer (like Rochester and Byron) who seems determined to blur such distinctions—whether through the unmistakable “voice” that sounds repeatedly in his plays and poems, or through the self-consciously fashioned personality that often makes his life seem like a bizarre extension of the writing. So indeed it is in A …