Bard times

The Marlowe Papers: A Novel in Verse, by Ros Barber, Sceptre, RRP£20, 464 pages

It’s enough to strike despair into the heart of James Shapiro, author of Contested Will, as well as the hearts of all the other Shakespeare experts who refute the so-called “authorship controversy”. This novel, written entirely in fast-moving iambic pentameter, embellishes the notion that Christopher Marlowe wrote the Shakespearean canon after falsely being declared dead in a Deptford brawl. It’s hard to tell whether debut author Ros Barber really believes this but the extensive notes she presents show a determination to demonstrate that if her book is based on nonsense it should at least be consistent nonsense.

We open with the newly deceased playwright fleeing to the continent (“I’m wrapped in scholar’s garb, the bright man’s drab”), while flashbacks tell his racy life story. Barber seems determined to exonerate Marlowe from all blame; tradition has him as a violent braggart, atheist and pederast but her take on the “Hog Lane Affray”, where a friend of his killed a man in the street, has Kit quaking, and the quip, “All they who love not tobacco and boys are fools” is amended to a misheard “tobacco and booze”. As for atheism, he’s appalled by the charge.

When it becomes necessary to fake his own death in 1593, Marlowe’s powerful friends in Queen Elizabeth I’s government insist that he continue as a spy, gaining the first-hand knowledge of foreign courts and Italian cities that dull Will Shakespeare lacks – though he takes the credit for the work.

But, as Barber makes clear, living on as “a lonely, shamed pretender of a man” is not a happy ending for Marlowe, but rather a protracted humiliation and a dizzying loss of self.

Barber ingeniously weaves the action of the plays and sonnets into her story, as Marlowe travels to Denmark, falls for the Earl of Southampton and meets a Dark Lady. The verse is subtle and varied enough never to disturb the ear, and in fact you forget that you’re reading poetry at all. This is no bawdy, cod-Shakespearean romp. And if it doesn’t quite make you believe, you look again at Marlowe’s dangerous era with its riddles, disguises, allusions and concealments, and you begin to wonder ...

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