Christopher Marlowe’s story begins and ends with a brawl, in the hands of Michelle Butler Hallett.
This Marlowe focuses on the final months of the playwright’s life, with his death registered as May 30, 1593.
His patron, Thomas Walsingham, openly supported his plays and verses, but they were indeed controversial, in an age characterized by tensions between church and state.
“–Violence, degradation, deceit: thou dost write them well. Doth this cause thee no shame?”
While accusations and suspicions simmered beneath the surface, violence and conflict erupted on- and off-stage, even though the theatres were closed in the wake of the plague.
“–I write what I see. History is no window but a mirror.”
Snippets of lines which Marlowe penned are scattered throughout This Marlowe, along with references to the works of Thomas Kyd, a scrivener whose bed Marlowe shares in Michelle Butler Hallett’s novel.
Because few records exist, the author has room to play in her depiction of these Elizabethan writers. Whether or not there is evidence of an intimate relationship historically, between Kyd and Marlowe, it is at the heart of this contemporary work.
Marlowe is not easy company. “He stopped outside another tavern, small and dark, called Cry of the Kite and, recognizing no one, drank alone, drank enough to trick out a sense of confidence and calm, not quite enough to make him obnoxious – a fine line, he knew.”
Nonetheless, he is as often charismatic as he is obnoxious, and this quality pulls readers into the story, but it is Tom’s character who invites readers to invest in the outcome.
His love for Marlowe makes him vulnerable, not only on the pages of fiction but of history. The historical record reveals that he was questioned about writings deemed heretical, which were found in his lodgings and attributed to Marlowe.
Michelle Butler Hallett is not alone in believing that this statement was elicited under torture, and her depiction of these events is visceral and raw. Elizabethan England in This Marlowe is as bloody as it is tapestried, as fragmented as it is luxurious.
Authorship in this time is a slippery concept. Plays were not typically printed, only a few in quarto editions. Playwrights often officially collaborated (partly because writers were paid intermittently and sometimes unpredictably) and sometimes unofficially, by “borrowing” or “elaborating upon” successful and popular works. With few written documents as evidence, scholars in recent years have continued to debate which plays are attributed to individual authors. Echoes abound, even between works currently attributed to different authors.
Loyalty, too, is complicated, and conversations amongst a large number of secondary characters seem to echo as frequently as the allusions and tributes.
At times, the deceptions blur and the distrust swells: readers unfamiliar with the era might temporarily lose their footing on the details, and there is no overarching authorial voice to lean on (which leaves readers free to respond on a personal level).
The depiction of the time and place are vibrant and consistent; although the central characters are literary giants, the setting offers readers a broader understanding of sixteenth-century life.
Michelle Butler Hallett’s use of language allows the contemporary reader to feel the flourishes of the Elizabethan era (just a sprinkling of ‘thee’s, for instance) without a burdensome, trying-too-hard reproduction. The modern reader feels appropriately displaced but not overwhelmed by the weight of the centuries between.
“–Whores in the pillory? Slow patch, is it?
–We all got our quotas. See you Thursday.”
Ultimately, the overarching questions have endured. The death of one man: is it an assassination or a tragedy at the hands of one misguided assailant? What might a government sanction in the pursuit of truth or in the desire to quell dissent? What power truly exists in the capacity to shape words in the posting of bills and the telling of tales?
This Marlowe by Michelle Butler Hallett is a quietly mesmerizing tale, which rewards a patient and attentive reader.