PEOPLE who complain that we have so few biographical facts about Shakespeare, and use that lack of data as an excuse for indulging in fantasies about who "really" wrote his plays, should ponder the case of Christopher Marlowe (at one time a favorite candidate for that ghostwriter role), about whom even less is known. He flashed across the Tudor literary scene for a stunningly brief period, raising the standards of poetic achievement and transforming Elizabethan theater. Few pre-Shakespearean English plays still hold the stage; they include at least four of Marlowe's. In recent decades, "Tamburlaine the Great" (its two parts usually condensed into one evening), "The Jew of Malta," "Doctor Faustus" and "Edward II" have had regular revivals.
This is all the more remarkable because Marlowe (1564-93), unlike Shakespeare, is not the writer to comfort an audience with a jolly evening in the theater. A contrarian of epic stature, he's most often celebrated as an embodiment of rebellion in every form: a cynic about all received ideas of society and religion; almost certainly a homosexual; most likely a government spy; probably an atheist; possibly even a dabbler in the occult; and, to round off the list, a glorifier of violence who died in a tavern brawl. Much of the eyewitness testimony we have of Marlowe was supplied by people anxious to depict him, for their own petty reasons, as an evil influence: he is the man who supposedly said that Jesus' mother was "dishonest" and that "all they that love not tobacco and boys are fools." Among Renaissance bad-boy artists, he ranks in the top echelon, along with his equally notorious Italian contemporary, the painter Caravaggio.
The hot-blooded, wickedly sardonic rebel Marlowe, however, can be glimpsed only intermittently in Park Honan's new biography, "Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy." Honan, best known for his widely read "Shakespeare: A Life," has an agenda. He does not want to whitewash Marlowe (hardly possible anyway, given the evidence), but he does want to rescue his subject from the bad-boy image that makes Marlowe a figure of popular myth, and restore him to his full value as poet and dramatist. The result is a book that frustrates, and occasionally infuriates, as often as it fascinates, because at its core the myth fits the facts of Marlowe's life and art only too well, driving Honan into an apologetic swarm of digressions, speculations, half-evasions and logic-choppings. He gives a sumptuously detailed picture of Marlowe's world, but rarely brings the poet himself into focus. In its unsteady shifts from topic to topic, his work sometimes resembles one of those Renaissance miscellanies in which scholars delight: from it you can learn about Elizabethan wills, trade guilds, ecclesiastical politics, real estate deals, military maneuvers, family trees, college living conditions and every kind of courtly or legal intrigue. But when it comes to Marlowe himself, Honan buries the scant available evidence in a small forest of imagined scenes and unwarranted assumptions. "With success, Marlowe had become fonder than ever of personal display." About Marlowe and Shakespeare: "Did they meet often? Or become intimate? Plainly, no record of their talk together survives." In fact, we know nothing about Marlowe's fondness for personal display, or whether he and Shakespeare ever met.
One can't wholly blame Honan for making free with such limited materials. The information on Marlowe is so tenuous that there is uncertainty even about his last name, which appears variously in the existing documents as Marlow, Marle, Marley, Morley, Marlen, Marlin and Marlinge. The son of a debt-ridden cobbler in the cathedral town of Canterbury, Marlowe, or whatever his name was, must have shown his gift for language early on: he was granted a scholarship to the best local school and a subsequent one to Cambridge, from which he emerged after six years with an M.A. degree in 1587. By that time, Marlowe was apparently both an aspiring poet and a spy. Recently unearthed documents cited by Honan suggest he received his degree, after academic years that included long, unexplained absences, only at the intervention of the Privy Council, on grounds of his unspecified "good service" to the nation.
More than likely, this "service" involved posing as a Roman Catholic. In Tudor England, religion and politics were one: roiled by sectarian strife, the country was menaced on one side by Catholics, with support from France and Spain, and pressured on the other by Puritan extremists who viewed the official Church of England as too dangerously close to "papistry." Expatriate English colleges at Reims and elsewhere sent home streams of double agents, intending to reconvert England to Catholicism, by assassination if necessary. Elizabeth's advisers maintained an elaborate network of agents and couriers, to keep tabs on one another as well as on these infiltrators and on heretical Puritans; more than one of Marlowe's Cambridge classmates ended up martyred or in exile.
We know little of Marlowe's own activities as a spy, any more than we do about the composition of his plays or what profit he derived from their tremendous success. That they were successful is undoubted. Once produced, plays in that era were the theater company's property, kept out of print (to avoid rival productions) until they went out of use, unless demand for them was exceptional. Marlowe's effect on the public can be gauged by noting that the two parts of "Tamburlaine" and "Doctor Faustus" were both published within a few years of their production; the latter went through an extraordinary nine quarto editions by 1632.
Part of what made, and still makes, Marlowe's drama fascinating makes Honan uncomfortable. Wishing to find something in the plays besides a brute, unrepentant nihilism, he tries to present a case for Marlowe as a philosopher, struggling to analyze society and religion, and as a satirist attacking the abuse of power. This leads to some of his fuzziest writing, for the plain truth is that Marlowe is admirable exactly to the extent that he is unredeemable. The world of his plays is a vicious one, in which the temptations to attain power and, once attained, to abuse it are mankind's principal motives. No one would deny either Marlowe's analytic gifts or his darkly satiric temperament, but they are put at the service of an all-encompassing negativity. Writing for a Christian nation that lived in constant suspicion of foreigners and heretics, he finds Muslims, Jews, overt homosexuals and other outsiders marginally preferable to Christians, because their bloodlust and greed come without Christian hypocrisy attached. His superheroes are all also supervillains. ("Tamburlaine," C. S. Lewis memorably quipped, is "the story of Giant the Jack Killer.") When they die, fighting or defeated, they may regret, but never repent, their deeds.
The obvious affinity between Marlowe's bleak vision and those of our own time, from the ultraviolent Terminators and Hannibal Lecters of filmdom to the wholehearted despair of Beckett's desolate mindscapes, makes him seem, in many unnerving ways, more our contemporary than Shakespeare. Even the disheartening fixation on gratuitous cruelty in so many plays today finds an ancestor in him. Shakespeare learned from him technically, in matters of both verse and stagecraft, and was inspired by him to take risks. That he can't be equated with Shakespeare (and could not possibly have written Shakespeare's plays) is self-evident precisely because his own sensibility is so distinctive. Honan had no need to defend Marlowe's reputation from imaginary detractors. Marlowe's forthrightness proves that a bold attack is the best defense. But though his absence from his own biography is a pity, the rich, complex vision of Elizabethan life that "Christopher Marlowe" supplies can make his poetic gift for cutting to the passionate core of that life seem even more astonishing.
Michael Feingold is the chief theater critic of The Village Voice and literary adviser to Theater for a New Audience in New York. His translation of Schiller's "Mary Stuart" will be produced at the Pearl Theater this spring.