Poet & Spy
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Why review a biography about a historical figure that most Evangelical Christians would rather forget, assuming they knew of him in the first place? Those who know Christopher Marlowe by name or reputation might also wonder what lessons we have to learn from a shadowy theatrical figure that lived in the same era as the great William Shakespeare. I count at least three types of lessons in the pages of Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy by Honan Park, but even so I would not recommend this book to anybody but diehard Elizabethan period theatre buffs.
Before identifying the lessons, a word on the style and content. While I have not yet read Park’s works on Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, and the matchless William Shakespeare, based on his Marlowe work Park appears to be a meticulous biographer. To say “meticulous” is not to say all of Park’s conclusions are swimming in firewalled evidence. As one might expect in a 400-page biography of a somewhat mysterious figure, Park makes good use of conjecture and speculation. But even Park’s considerable biographical skills cannot rescue the flow of this book from its superabounding Marlowe arcaneness.
For most readers interested in the playwrights and/or politics of the Elizabethan period, this book will be 200 pages too long. The details of Marlowe’s two most successful plays will be an impossible slog without having read them (and understood them!) beforehand. Reproductions of primary documents are elucidating, but once again, nobody but the most obsessed aficionados of Elizabethan theatre are likely to summon up interest sufficient to complete the book. I did mention three lessons, so without further ado (a Shakespeare reference, of course), here they are:
- Marlowe’s profanity cannot be boiled down to his sexual preferences. His recorded coarse and vulgar talk, which often conveyed a jocular, biting atheism, shows a vein of profanity coursing throughout his words and his actions.
- Any person such as the one described in #1 shows signs of being created in the image of God, even while amply demonstrating the effects of the Fall. Park asserts that Marlowe’s talent was at least equivalent to Shakespeare’s while they were duelling playwrights on the London stage. His life was cut short, so we cannot know what an artist he might have been at the height of his powers.
- Brief Marlowe play revivals notwithstanding, God is alive and on the throne while Marlowe died young and is buried in an unmarked grave.
Unless you are tasked with detailed study of Marlowe’s two best-known plays, Tamburlaine or Faustus, I would not recommend this book. Its greatest feature is the taste and class with which the author addresses the profane parts of Marlowe’s character. Its worst feature is its failure to bring Marlowe into crisp focus – an unavoidable issue based on the scarcity of evidence, in my opinion. This is not a bad book, but neither is it a necessary one, even for a reader interested in the Elizabethan stage.