Blame it on the Belgians

Hilary Mantel

  • The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl
    Cape, 413 pp, £19.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 224 03100 7

‘You don’t want to see him,’ said the porter at Corpus, when Charles Nicholl went to Cambridge to look at the portrait that is probably Christopher Marlowe. ‘He died in a tavern brawl.’

Nicholl viewed the putative Marlowe, in his opulent slashed doublet, and wondered how he could afford the outfit. He looked at his buttery bills too, and noted when the shoemaker’s son had money to spend; noted when (unless he was starving himself) he was absent from college. His conclusion? There was no tavern. There was no brawl. It is an old lie that Nicholl has set out to nail, but he is unable, he admits, to substitute a new truth. All he can hope for is a ‘faint preserved outline where the truth once lay’. In Elizabeth’s England, men lied to their reflection; and Marlowe belonged to a shadow world of espionage, where every straight action is mirrored by treachery, where the agent provocateur is king.

Charles Nicholl has previously written on alchemy in the Elizabethan age. ‘As above, so below’: this was the maxim of alchemists. It works in the real world too. The factious giants of Elizabeth’s court are supported by a vast root-system of con-men, of prison informers, of spies, ‘projectors’ and ‘ambodexters’. Marlowe was part of this underground world: this is not in contention. But his reputation is surrounded by rumour, misinformation, disinformation. Shady and unpleasant he may have been, Nicholl says, but we owe him something – not simply because he was a great dramatist and poet, but because his death was murder, and the crime is unsolved. Nicholl is an investigator with a compelling sense of duty to the past and the people who inhabit it. To accept an untruth, to assent to a lazy version of history, is not just negligent but immoral.

Charles Nicholl writes vividly, without the academic’s compulsion to cover his back; but where he is speculating he says so clearly. Part of the success of his book comes from the fact that he has focused sharply on his central incident. He begins with an account of Marlowe’s death; he leads us away from it, into the thickets of European politics and the literary and political underworld; then he leads us back, by ways digressive but sure, to the Widow Bull’s victualling house in Deptford, where in spring 1593 four young men spent a day drinking wine in the garden.

Mrs Bull’s house was not a tavern, nor was she a sort of Mistress Quickly, half-expecting a fight to break out as the sun declined. She was a bailiff’s widow, with some court connections; her house was a respectable one. Nicholl evokes the Deptford evening: the scent of apple orchards mingling with the reek of fish and sewage. At about six o’clock, the young gentlemen came in for their bespoke supper. A short while later, Ingram Frizer put the point of his dagger into Christopher Marlowe’s right eyesocket. He inserted it to a depth of two inches. Marlowe died quickly, with no great fuss.

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