Review: The Marlowe Papers


The Marlowe PapersI’ll be honest: when The Common asked me to review Ros Barber’s new book, The Marlowe Papers, I was leery. Novels-in-verse aren’t really my thing. Reading the back cover blurbs, I became even more skeptical: a novel in iambic pentameter (rhymed and blank verse) from the point of view of the English poet, playwright, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), whom conspiracy theorists claim was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays? The book claims Marlowe’s death, in a bar-fight before the Church of England could charge him with heresy, was staged to let him escape England. And while in hiding, he ghost-wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays.

What the hell? I expected an overwrought, creepy fan-fiction piece in archaic diction and clumsy meter. After reading a few pages, I realized I owed Ms Barber an apology. This is a damn fine book.

The persona of Christopher Marlowe is fully fleshed out. The voice is consistent (the meter helps, but more on that later) and entirely genuine. Barber’s excitement in all things Marlowe is seconded only by the joy of sharing her passion with her readers. Her PhD in Marlowe studies grounds the book thoroughly in history and legend, but doesn’t get in the way of her developing the narrator’s humanity. And there is nothing academic or stilted about her poetry.

Take, for example, these final stanzas of the verse-chapter “Soliloquy.” At this point, Marlowe has been spirited away to live out his life in obscurity and, true to Renaissance drama, Barber allows her main character a soliloquy, the purpose of which is not necessarily to move plot along, but emotional catharsis:

The landscape sits as passive as a priest
receiving our confessions, and the globe
revolves beneath the heavens: night, then day,
then night again. A lifetime falls away
as water poured on sand until we ask,

What is a human being? Are we clay?
Exercises of light? Bright animals
adopting gross stupidity?  Or gods
pelted in human skin, come down to play,
create, destroy, find joy in misery?
The moon squats on the mountains like a pearl.
It only has to rise, and will be free.

The landscape is “passive,” yet the “globe/ revolves around the heavens.” Things are in stasis and flux in the speaker’s cosmos, both frozen and fluid. And the fluid simile for our life leaving us “as water poured on sand” is breathtaking in its simplicity of image and intricacy of  intimation. Rhetorically, the barrage of questions shows us the value of curiosity, yet it implies that the speaker thinks we are all of the things about which he asks. Human beings are “clay” and “bright animals/ exercising gross stupidity” and “exercises in light” simultaneously. Ending these high-minded, philosophical questions with the concrete image of the moon sitting atop mountains “like a pearl” calms the turmoil stirred by the lack of answers, leaving us with a sense of peace. The lyric chapters of this book could easily be standalone poems. In the context of the plot, they add depth to the narrative.

One needs a basic working knowledge of Marlowe and the historical context in which he wrote—the period following Henry VIII’s schism with the Catholic Church—to follow the plot, though Barber’s end notes are thorough and well-written. The accusations of atheism that followed Marlowe appear to have been specious. “Friends” betrayed him to save themselves from prosecution. In any case, his death is well-documented, as is skepticism that the fight was purely a personal scuffle.

Some (in history and Barber’s book) saw his play Doctor Faustus as evidence that Marlowe questioned most orthodox teachings of the church. Barber’s Marlowe is not a dangerous evangelist of disbelief: he is simply a man who thinks, who values learning, art, and beauty. “Religion is irrelevant,” he wrote in “The School of the Night.”  “What counts/ is faith in God, and love of humankind.” Reasonable to our ears, but in the context in which Marlowe lived. someone who deviated from dogma was surely hell-bound—especially if said apostate had written a play in which the protagonist sold his soul to the Antichrist himself.

My knowledge of Marlowe is rudimentary:  I’ve read his most famous play, Doctor Faustus, and “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” While in London, I had a pint or more (entirely for research purposes) at the pub where Marlowe died. No doubt, I missed some of the references and subtleties Barber swirls into her narrative. I know I’m in the minority on this, but I find end-notes much more distracting than footnotes—the back-and-forth disrupts my reading rhythm. End-of-chapter notes might make the task of the novel less intimidating to a reader whose understanding of Marlowe is limited.

The novel begins in media res as Marlowe is escaping. From there, the story jumps between past and present. Occasionally these leaps are confusing. When this happens in a prose novel, the shifts are generally easier to follow. Barber’s poetry can at times be so focused that the larger context is obscured in a way that doesn’t seem intentional.

Barber’s words beg to be spoken aloud. Here’s the first stanza of “Scadbury.”  I invite you to try it:

We wintered quietly. We fed the fires.
You let me write for hours, and touched my sleeve
when meat was served. December’s ice furred thick
across the moat; fish torpid in the depths
of the fishponds’ cloudy cataracts. I wrote
as deep as I could inside the ancient tales,
as if afraid, should I come up for air,
I’d find a bank of prosecutors there.

The iambic moves so smoothly here that I get lost in the beauty of it before any meaning bubbles to the surface. What a wonderful problem to have! This quality made The Marlowe Papers a slow read, in the same way Gabriel García Márquez can be.

I don’t buy any of the conspiracy theories that Shakespeare didn’t author his plays, but I like reading about them. Barber herself has published an e-book that presents “the evidence and arguments from both sides of the debate, point by point, a clear, accessible format.”  My assumption (or hope) is that Barber is using the authorship question in The Marlowe Papers as a plot device rather than the novel as a megaphone for propaganda. And honestly, as presented in the novel, the history moves the story along; it doesn’t  present itself as an authority. Barber’s focus is to tell a story through gorgeous verse.


James Dickson is a poet and teaches English and Creative Writing at Germanton High School in Madison, MS.  His poetry appears in The Louisiana Review, Spillway, Glassworks, and other journals.

Review: The Marlowe Papers

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