(Photo credit: Chris Scott on flickr)
And I have been gripped by Charles Nicholl’s investigation into the killing of Christopher Marlowe in The Reckoning. In 1593, the playwright was stabbed to death in an upper room in Deptford during an argument over the dinner bill, according to the coroner’s report. The killer, Ingram Frizer, pleaded self-defence and was acquitted. Nicholl has picked away at this story, revealing the three witnesses to be a secret agent and two conmen who spent eight hours with Marlowe before his death. What was the meeting about? Why would Marlowe have been there? Although I am less than halfway through the book, the trail has already taken him through the Elizabethan criminal underworld, literary spats and international espionage. It’s as exciting as a detective novel, whose witnesses are court records, wills, poems and government documents. On the way, we encounter famous Elizabethan figures – spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham; the writer Thomas Kyd, in terror of his life incriminating Marlowe to the secret police; Henry Percy, the ‘Wizard Earl’ of Northumberland, with his love of the occult; Sir Anthony Babington, plotting to snatch Elizabeth’s crown for Mary Stuart – and a host of now-forgotten people whom Nicholl fleshes out through his careful scholarship and sympathetic imagination, such as the sinister and treacherous Robert Poley, infiltrator of Catholic networks, betrayer of the Babington conspirators and one of the three men present at Marlowe’s death. With its backdrop of war, treason, religious hatred and plague, the society Nicholl presents is the shadow world to the Elizabethan Golden Age. Nicholl very occasionally over-states the significance of his evidence, and the publishers decided not to bother with indicators in the text for the end notes which I find deeply annoying, but these are minor quibbles.
Here is the famous supposed portrait of Marlowe at Corpus Christi:
(Unknown artist, 1585, oil on wood; from Wikipedia)
And here is a reminder of just how beautiful and violent his writing could be – it’s part of Faustus’s speech at the end of Dr Faustus:
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! – Who pulls me down? –
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! –
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him: O spare me, Lucifer! –
Where is it now? ’tis gone: and see, where God
Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!
Then will I headlong run into the earth:
Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbour me!
You stars that reign’d at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist,
Into the entrails of yon labouring clouds,
That, when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven.
And so, on that cheery note, a belated, happy new year to you, dear readers! I hope you enjoyed the holidays, and that 2012 brings you all good things (and not eternal damnation like Faustus).