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Reviewed by:
  • Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy
  • Ruth Lunney
Park Honan . Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xvi + 422 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. $23. ISBN: 978–0–19–923269–7.

Like Doctor Faustus, we are "glutted . . . with learning's golden gifts." After waiting since the 1940s, students of Christopher Marlowe now have three substantial biographies to dine on: Park Honan's Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy has joined Constance Kuriyama's Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life (2002) and David Riggs's The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004) on the bookshelves. Each study has its own particular virtues; each gives a somewhat different picture of an intriguing sixteenth-century figure.

Honan's Marlowe is more sympathetic than the others. He exhibits the usual antisocial behavior (spy, blasphemer, streetfighter, homosexual) but is committed to the role of poet. Where Riggs presents the playwright as skeptical, libertine, and the voice of the underclass, Honan views him as "a highly critical and original enquirer into human nature and social behaviour" (1). His heroes are "not autobiographical at all" (302) but psychologically complex. His art "privileges" the audience (64): it "does not judge life but evokes, challenges, disturbs, and delights" (329). In bringing "our sense of him [Marlowe] up to date" (2), Honan suggests that the plays' insights into violence, prejudice, and power accord with our post Holocaust understandings. Marlowe, our contemporary.

This is a generous and fascinating book. Honan's stated aims are simple: "to offer the facts of Marlowe's life reliably" with "modest inferences about personal relationships" (2). His project, nevertheless, is decidedly more ambitious, synthesizing earlier research and assembling a mass of material: documentary traces; the "fine detail" (sights, sounds, smells) of living in Canterbury, Cambridge, London, and Flushing; potted biographies; and information about education, culture, religion, politics, diplomacy, espionage, and sexuality. The comprehensive approach extends to useful analyses of Marlowe's plays, poetry, and translations. There is little new material. Honan ponders the Timon manuscript as a possible juvenile play, adds details about the discovery of the "Marlowe portrait" at Corpus Christi, and reviews the Scadbury archaeological dig. On responsibility for Marlowe's death, he rejects political conspiracy (Charles Nicholl), Queen Elizabeth (Riggs), and Marlowe himself (Kuriyama) to blame the man with the dagger, Ingram Frizer, who murdered him (Honan suggests) to protect his interests and, quite possibly, those of his master Thomas Walsingham.

Honan searches assiduously for the connections between life and works, for mutually reinforcing details. Spying and writing plays are thus both seen as the product of an innate "inquisitiveness" : "a need to pierce the surfaces in life" (37). Of course, imaginative reconstruction and even speculation are necessary tools of the literary biographer, especially when the facts of a life are few and their interpretation contentious. Honan is less cautious than Riggs or Kuriyama, and his argument less clearly structured; yet his attention to "fine detail" does result in convincing descriptions of physical and social contexts. There are occasions, however, when the point of the narrative is lost in digressions and obscurities, as with [End Page 1033] some of the summarizing of history, or "the kind of circular report" on Marlowe's probable relationship with Shakespeare, featuring "convivial" lunches hosted by Burbage (292).

More disconcerting for the reader are the book's uncertainties and inconsistencies. Honan's inferences become less "modest" when much of his argument is hypothetical and analogical. With the "Marlowe portrait" he resorts to wishful thinking: "Anyway, it is important to know what he looked like" (111); and finally to intuition: "the picture looks right" (119). Indeed Honan's opinions are not always settled, and he switches between caution and assertion. One small instance is Marlowe's influencing a "Mr Fineaux of Dover" to turn atheist: Honan signals this as "seduction" and a "species of pederasty," then explains that any personal contact was most unlikely, but then concludes that "the poet, if new data comes to light, may yet be linked with the 13-year old boy" (249–50). The sensational is always a temptation for writers on Marlowe. The example also points to another area of uncertainty: Honan's book is aimed at both popular and scholarly audiences...


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pp. 1033-1034
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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