The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

Staged exit? … the only known portrait of Christopher Marlowe, from 1585.
It was intriguing proposition: a story spun around the assumption that Christopher Marlowe did not die in a tavern brawl on 30th May 1593. The assumption that another man died and Marlowe fled, fearing being charged with heresy, and lived in exile. The assumption that he continued to write with his work being published under the name of another man: William Shakespeare.

I lack the depth of knowledge to assess whether or not the tale is viable, but I can say that, to me, Ros Barber made her case convincing and her story compelling.

The initial proposition was made even more intriguing by the fact that it is written entirely in blank verse. I thought that it might be hard work but it really wasn’t: it read beautifully. The language is not of the period but I think it would be fair to say that it is sympathetic to the period. It feels right.

Now writing a story of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare in such a way has a particular danger. It invites comparisons by which even very fine writers would suffer. But I think that to dwell on such things would be a mistake. Because this is a book that tells a story, celebrates its subjects, and throws intriguing questions into the air. And to write it in such a way was a marvellous feat and quite clearly a labour of love.

The Marlowe papersMost of the writing is in the form of iambic pentameter, as Marlowe considers his past and faces his future. He writes, he travels, he forms new relationships, he makes covert trips back to england, and he finds himself caught up in intrigue.

I couldn’t say whether or not the voice that Ros Barber created for Marlowe was authentic, but I can say that it was engaging and that I wanted to go on listening.

From time to time there are sonnets that bring significant points into focus. I loved so many of them, and in the middle of the book when they were sparse the story’s hold weakened a little. But it didn’t let go.

After a compelling opening, telling of the flight from England, considering the consequences, and looking to the future I really didn’t want to let go. And as the story unfolded I appreciated the atmosphere, the characterisation, and the wealth of detail.

Historical figures and incidents moved through the story, adding substance, and I am quite sure that if I knew more I would have noticed much more.

What I did notice was an extraordinary web of history, intrigue and emotion. The first two were wonderful but was is the third that really, really made the story sing.

After the tale had been told I found, at the back of the book, clear notes about the history and theories that underpinned the story, and generous acknowledgment of many sources. I hadn’t refered to them along the way, because I wanted to stay as I was, caught up on the story, but I was glad they were there for me to consider afterwards.

I realised that, although I wasn’t convinced that the story had been entirely plausible, I had still been caught up. Because the story was so vivid and because its telling was so effective.

5 responses

  1. Interesting! I wrote a high-shool term paper on Marlowe, but that’s probably the last time I encountered him. Though he was a character in the second Deborah Harkness book – have you read those?

    • I read part one of the second Deborah Harkness, but I rather lost interest when the action moved overseas and I put it to one side so I could read this. I’ll go back to it when the mood strikes.

  2. Sounds intriguing! I have read books about Marlowe and the theories he was Shakespeare – though I remain to be convinced and unfortunately it will never be proved!

    • I haven’t read much but the theory that Marlowe escaped seems rather improbable. But the idea was intriguing, the story was effectively told so it was easy to get caught up with the fiction.

  3. For some of Ros’s great non-fiction contributions on the Marlowe theory, visit The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection blog. Also, Ros is one of the co-founders of The International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, which is also a great resource. Fleur, regarding Marlowe’s possible escape, I recommend this compelling and concise piece by Peter Farey:

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