Trust the Coroner

John Bossy

  • Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy by Park Honan
    Oxford, 421 pp, £25.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 19 818695 9

Compared to boring old Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, we think, had a short life and a gay one. When not writing his sonorous verse, he was spying, preaching atheism, fighting and getting murdered. Park Honan has done one of the two already, and now has done the other. Coming shortly after David Riggs’s solid, even too-solid The World of Christopher Marlowe, his Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy feels a little lightweight. He is probably right to say that he has a better story about Marlowe’s origins in Canterbury and his doings at Corpus in Cambridge, and a rather more realistic take on Marlowe’s life. But where he claims ‘a close, unromantic alertness to politics and religion, as well as to explicit facts about individuals’, I am not too convinced. The book is full of minor errors on both points. Faversham is not one of the Cinque Ports. Reformed, with a capital ‘R’, means Calvinist. The historian of the Jews in England was Cecil Roth, not Philip. Stephen Gosson never became a Catholic monk. Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador, did not ‘trust’ that Elizabeth could be assassinated, and his secretary, Courcelles, did not become an English mole. (I confess that I said he did, but withdrew the charge in a second account which Honan cites.) Padua was not an independent city-state. The English College at Douai did not train Jesuits, and Robert Parsons, who was not a doctor, had nothing to do with founding it. Giordano Bruno was not born at Nova. Thomas Norton was not assistant torturer to Richard Topcliffe, but the other way round. There was no British army in 1586.

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