Monday, November 10, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“THE RECKONING” by Charles Nicholl (first published 1992; revised edition 2002)

There’s an incident in my life which I still remember with incredulous amusement.
About fourteen years ago, my wife and I were visiting one of our sons, who was then a student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. We were having breakfast with him and a bunch of other students in the college’s ancient and august dining hall, when a cleaner walked past our table with a cleaning rag over one arm, and a framed portrait under the other. I did a double take. The portrait was the famous Elizabethan image (dated 1585) of a young gentleman, who has often been identified with one of Corpus Christi’s most famous (or notorious) alumni, Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). It’s the image that most often appears on collected editions of Marlowe’s plays.
Surely that isn’t the original?” I said to my son.
Of course it is,” he replied, and explained that it was often taken down for its frame to be wiped.
To me, seeing it carried along as casually as this created about the same effect as I would have felt had it been van Gogh’s sunflowers or the Mona Lisa. Here’s a world-renowned, and obviously very valuable, work of art being carried as casually as if it were a cheap household article.
I am not an obsessive about Christopher Marlowe. Comparing Marlowe with
Shakespeare and Jonson is a bit like comparing Dylan Thomas with Eliot and Yeats. On the one side there’s a young man who can come up with compelling and memorable phrases, but whose range is very limited and his outlook un-nuanced – on the other, two mature literary geniuses who, for all their own shortcomings, had a vaster range, more mature vision and greater depth of feeling. Marlowe (dead at 29) is the enfant terrible. Of course with his best lines and phrases, you thank him for liberating drama “from jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits / And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay” and you have heard all the stuff about “Marlowe’s mighty line”. But when all is done, you end up with a young guy who left us great promise unfulfilled and a heap of fragments.
I turn to the volume of his collected poems, and find what he left of Hero and Leander is shorter than the “completions” by George Chapman and Henry Petowe. I go to his collected plays and recall fondly reading them all as an undergraduate. Easy enough to do, as there are only seven of them. My score card goes thus: Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris are clearly unpolished, incomplete fragments, though there is some fun in the latter when Marlowe inserts lots of sick humour into what should be straightforward anti-Catholic propaganda. Yes, the two parts of Tamburlaine did introduce the “mighty line”, and you are happy to parade along with it for a while – but, my God, it does go on and on and on as tediously as The Lord of the Rings movies, being more a spectacle, pageant or Elizabethan “progress” than a play. For structure and design his two most finished plays are Edward II, a pretty good royal tragedy, and The Jew of Malta. But the latter has to be forbidden territory. I know most of the commentators are eager to tell us that the Christian characters are as nasty a lot as the Jewish villain is, and that Marlowe is playing with Machiavelli. I know Barabas has been designed with the same sort of sick humour as Shakespeare’s Richard III or Dickens’ Quilp – he is a demonic character along with whom we gloat and laugh as often as we deplore him. But the play is still irredeemably anti-Semitic. And so we are left with what should be Marlowe’s masterpiece, Doctor Faustus. But (in either of the two very different surviving versions) even here there are problems – the brilliant scenes, especially as Faustus approaches his end, jostling with the overlong, irrelevant and unfunny knockabout. I prefer the shorter version, but it’s still fiery flashes in a bucket of mud rather than a full tragic drama.
So I look at Marlowe’s career and I say “Such brilliance (in the literal sense of the word)! Such talent! So clearly a young man who could have written more. What a pity he died so young.”
Which brings me at last to Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, subtitled The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. Nicholl is fond of literary mysteries [look up the index at right for my take on his Somebody Else, a book about the post-poetic life of Arthur Rimbaud].
The Reckoning is one of, by now, many, many attempts to reconstruct what “really” happened when Christopher Marlowe died, and why it happened; but it is probably the most detailed and (given that it inevitably contains much speculation) it is also the most plausible.
            In 1593, the 29-year-old Marlowe was killed in a fight in a room in Deptford by a
nondescript thug called Ingram Frizer. At least that was the official story. Frizer said he drew his blade in self-defence when Marlowe attacked him in a quarrel over the “reckoning” (bill) for a meal they had shared. The coroner accepted this version of events, which was corroborated by the other two men who were in the small room at the time, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley. Frizer was acquitted of murder and there the matter should have ended.
            The trouble was, though, that this tale was just a little too convenient, especially for some in high places who had a short time earlier arrested and interrogated Marlowe about his blasphemous views. They weren’t at all displeased to have the budding young literary genius out of the way. Even more suspiciously, Frizer, Skeres and Poley were all low-level operatives in England’s early spy service, directed by Robert Cecil and others. They were mainly involved in the business of entrapping Catholics for not conforming to the newly-invented state church, the Church of England, or, as agents provocateurs, devising treasonous plots that could be blamed on Catholics.
It seems that Marlowe too was part of this grubby business.
Though he came from a financially humble background (his father was a shoemaker), Marlowe had been to Cambridge and had studied for an MA. But rumours of his unorthodox beliefs – and possibly rumours that he himself was going to cross to a seminary in France and train as a Catholic priest – meant that there was a dispute over whether he should be awarded his degree. This was solved for him when high-ranking government officials signed a document – which still survives – refuting such rumours and declaring that Marlowe had actually been about official business. He was duly awarded his MA. There is the strong implication that, under Robert Cecil’s orders, he had been infiltrating Catholic groups in order to spy on them and to dob them in.
            Since the coroner’s report on Marlowe’s death was first discovered (by Leslie Hotson) among official records in the 1920s, there has been speculation about what really happened in that small and private room in Deptford (often wrongly assumed to be a tavern and therefore giving rise to stories of Marlowe’s death in a “tavern brawl”). Given the personnel involved, given that Marlowe was in the company of three fellow spies, it is at least possible that Marlowe’s death was more a deliberate “hit” than the outcome of an impulsive fight.
            The Reckoning trawls carefully through such documents as survive, Nicholl’s 500-odd pages draw out the networks of influence that existed between the spies, the playwrights, the propagandists and the politicians of the day. His case is that Marlowe’s death was incidental to a larger plan to entrap and discredit Sir Walter Raleigh. A gadfly in parliament, a man accused of unorthodox beliefs, and an enemy of other powerful people, Raleigh was often called an atheist. In some of his most illuminating passages, Nicholl argues that “atheism” in late Elizabethan England did not mean what it means now. The term was used for any religious view that was not clearly Catholic, Anglican or Puritan-Protestant, including the type of Arianism (the belief that Christ was less than God but more than human), which Marlowe and Raleigh might both have espoused.  We have to remember that “evidence” that Marlowe was guilty of even more blasphemous beliefs was mainly drawn out of “witnesses” under torture. “Evidence” that Marlowe was homosexual also has to be treated with some caution. Here is the poet who writes of Jove and Ganymede; the playwright who gives the most overt depiction of a homosexual relationship in Edward II – yet again, direct evidence for Marlowe’s sexual life is ambiguous and was mainly extorted (from Thomas Kyd and others) under duress.
Like his “atheism”, Marlowe’s homosexuality could have been something manufactured to discredit him and, by association, to discredit Walter Raleigh.
The world depicted in The Reckoning is a sordid and dangerous one. Late Elizabethan England is aptly described as a police state, not as some Hollywood fantasy of “Merrie England”, and the espionage game here is as ruthless as its modern equivalent. Reviewing this book some years ago I described it as “a wonderful piece of historical detection and a riveting read”, and I still hold this view. Yet here I must add some words of caution.
First, Charles Nicholl is aware that many of his conclusions have to be speculative, but he does play fair with the reader, signalling what is verifiable fact and what is informed guesswork. Even so, there are holes in his case. The inference that Marlowe was murdered on some authoritative person’s word seems a good one, given that the meeting of four spies is unlikely to have been merely a social gathering. But how Nicholl connects this with moves against Sir Walter Raleigh is a lot more tenuous.
Second, it should be noted that, after doing more research, Nicholl changed his mind about one key matter between the first (1992) and the second (2002) editions of this book. The earlier version fingers Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, as the chief mover against Sir Walter Raleigh. The second edition fingers the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil
The second edition also has an added chapter on the modus operandi of the Elizabethan spy Thomas Drury, and a thirty-page appendix answering some objections that historians had raised to his earlier edition.

Dyspeptic footnote: Like Shakespeare, Marlowe has been the subject of much fiction as well as of much factual research. Anthony Burgess’s last completed novel A Dead Man in Deptford (published in 1993 on the 400th anniversary of Marlowe’s death) assumes that Marlowe really was both homosexual and atheist in the modern sense, and has him coping with this in an angsty manner before he is murdered. More irritatingly, there are those nitwits who wish to reassign Shakespeare’s works to somebody else. Some of them – with absolutely no documentary evidence to back their claim – would like to believe that Marlowe’s death was only faked in 1593, and that Marlowe then went off into exile where he spent his time writing those plays that were attributed to the talentless frontman Shakespeare. The trigger for this absurdity is the observation (not entirely accurate) that Shakespeare’s first good plays began to appear shortly after Marlowe died. Essentially this theory is just more evidence of the old snobbery that refuses to believe a non-university-educated chap like Shakespeare could have had any genius, and that therefore wishes to hand over his plays to somebody like Cambridge-graduate Marlowe. Most recent advocate of this fantasy is Ros Barber, though in fairness her verse-novel on the subject, The Marlowe Papers, is avowedly a work of fiction. Nevertheless it is an unpleasant experience to hear her – as you can on line - arguing with Charles Nicholl at the Cheltenham literary festival in 2013, shouting over him as he attempts to make his case, and generally speaking in a fashion bordering on the bloody rude as she drowns out his measured comments.

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