The Marlowe Papers, Ros Barber

It’s been going around for a fair while. What if Shakespeare wasn’t – well, Shakespeare? If you didn’t know about the Shakespeare authorship debate before The Hollow Crown era of BBC this summer, you probably didn’t escape the media ripples from Derek Jacobi’s clumsy namedrop of the Oxfordian theory; maybe you were one of the people who was entertained and/or mortified by Anonymous (which I am told is a good laugh).

In The Marlowe Papers, early modern scholar Ros Barber explores my favourite Shakespeare-wasn’t-Shakespeare theory. What if Christopher Marlowe – author of The Jew of Malta and the bloke played by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love – didn’t die in a Deptford tavern brawl? What if he just hid away and carried on writing?

Published by Sceptre; hardback £12.80

The Marlowe Papers is “a novel written in verse”. Don’t let that put you off. In fact, this should encourage you to read it. Echoing the rhythm and metre of early modern stage plays, the epic poem is beautifully constructed. Barber is a gifted poet: each line can be savoured. Her word choice might get lost in prose; in poetry, her skill gets propelled to the forefront.

What about the story? Barber concocts an alternate future for Marlowe by sending him abroad and embroiling him in all manner of adventure. Sometimes, it’s laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it’s very moving. Clever nods and references give the story a realistic grounding. The people Marlowe meets, loves and hates get to take the form of characters we know as Barrabas, Jaques, Prince Hal and more. Furthermore, Barber convincingly writes the process by which Marlowe is a slave to his creative brain: several times he answers question with a silver tongue, and is met with snide rebuttal. But he just can’t help it, and you really believe that.

Thematically, the poem repeats animal imagery – fish being caught to mirror court intrigue, for example – without being trite. My favourite theme is language and arousal: there is a beautiful passage in which Marlowe and the “dark lady” of the sonnets reach orgasm by speaking Marlowe’s forbidden name. I won’t give it all away – you must immerse yourself in Barber’s spell to get the proper effect. Other lines, like “London seduced me. Beckoned me her way / and spread herself beneath me, for a play” effectively capture the heady pull of city life and its possibilities.

Barber’s poetic skill extends to the way she guides her narrative with a steady hand. She manages to build and maintain tension where necessary, to dissipate it naturally and without interrupting the excellent overall flow. If it helps, The Marlowe Papers is just over 400 pages long; I read it in the best part of two days.

The book is two things at once. It is a scholarly work, informed by meticulous research and an obvious love of the subject at hand. There is a generous glossary and index should you find yourself wanting to investigate the characters further – but the work is never obscured by academia, and Barber herself writes that the notes are not necessary to understanding the meaning. It is also a stirring, emotional epic. It is lovingly written; in turn, I ended up loving Marlowe himself, as well as some of his supporting cast (the well-presented Henry Wriothesley in particular).

The Marlowe Papers, with its beautifully presented cover and typesetting, would make an ideal gift for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s canon. But it is also a great example of poetry written well – give it to any poetry fans in your life, too. Finally, it is a unique piece of literature – you must read it to experience it fully, and the effort is worth it.

I’ve handed out a flurry of five-star reviews recently, but please believe me when I say that The Marlowe Papers merits the accolade.




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Fictavia (noun): writer, critiquer of the publishing world and witty reviewer.

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