If I were to tell how I became a Marlowe enthusiast – and I’m not speaking too hypothetically, either: I was asked yesterday – I should go back to when I read, over one day and one night, Rodney Bolt’s History Play.
How I came across the book at all, I don’t remember – it’s been quite a few years, but come across it I did, and bought it from Amazon. I had already a taste for all things Elizabethan, back then, and was reading like mad about the period, and Shakespeare, and his fellow poets, but knew next to nothing about the authorship question.
In hindsight, it is strange that, up to that point, I knew so little about Marlowe, and stranger still that, of all the books about him, I should pick just this one. But I did, and I remember, on a summer afternoon, sitting in a marginally cooler spot on a marble staircase, putting aside the dustjacket, and plunging. And it was… odd.
It started off as an especially antistratfordian life of Marlowe, a very well-written and rather convincing one, too. And then… then it oh so subtly veered into academic parody, and then less subtly, and by the time I realized half the footnotes were fabrications, and half the sources made up, the thing had metamorphed again to alternate history novel, and I was not only hooked, but delighted at the clever trick that had been played on me.
Because this book was not what it seemed at a first glance, and then not even what it seemed at a second, and all the time played fast and loose with historical accuracy in a very clever way, showing how both history and fiction could be manipulated to look like the other, and shaped, and mingled, and combined, and masked – and it all came complete with gorgeous writing, a neatly twisted plot and great characters, especially Kit Marlowe.
Indeed, I might even say that Marlowe was almost a collateral effect, because after fully enjoying the game, I wanted to know what kind of rings exactly had been danced around my suspension of disbelief. So I started on a reading spree: Marlowe’s works – of which there isn’t an awful lot – and a deluge of biographies, articles, essays. And I fell in love – enough that, in time, I crossed the border into fiction, novels and plays about Marlowe, and I started writing about him, and he is still my current obsession.
So, isn’t serendipity wonderful, that made me buy this book so filled with ideas about history and fiction, and find a new obsession in the bargain? You never know what you might find between the covers of a book.
- Happy 450th birthday to William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (theguardian.com)