Judith Flanders

The play’s the thing | 21 August 2004

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History Play: The Lives and Afterlives of Christopher Marlowe

Rodney Bolt

HarperCollins, pp. 416, £

‘His name is protean. He begets doubles at every corner … On the wet morning of 27 November 1582, he is Shaxpere and [his prospective wife] is a Wately of Temple Grafton. A couple of days later he is Shagsper and she is a Hathaway of Stratford-on-Avon. Who is he? William X, cunningly composed of two left arms and a mask. Who else? The person who said (not for the first time) that the glory of God is to hide a thing, and the glory of man is to find it.’ Thus Nabokov on the mystery of Shakespeare.

The mystery is not that we don’t know much about the man from Stratford, although the facts are barely enough to fill two or three typed pages. The mystery is that, from mediaeval times onwards, there is not any other author about whom such doubts of attribution cling. Yet with Shakespeare there are more than 80 candidates for ‘Shakespeare’ the playwright, of whom about four or five can be taken moderately seriously.

Happily for us, Rodney Bolt takes nothing seriously, except what it is that history means. His starting point is Mark Twain’s essay on Shakespeare. Writing a biography of Shakespeare, Twain thought, was similar to reconstructing a brontosaurus. The avid palaeontologist has ‘nine bones and 600 barrels of plaster of Paris’. Rather than adding yet another bucket of muck to this misbegotten animal, Bolt skips the might-have-beens, the perhapses, and the almost certainlys. Taking them all for granted, he starts with the premise that Marlowe was not killed in a brawl at a Deptford tavern, but instead fled to the Continent and wrote the body of plays we know as ‘Shakespeare’.

‘What if’ history is very popular at the moment, but most of it is written to support an already held thesis. Instead History Play does precisely what its title posits: it plays with the idea of history, looking at how we create our theses, what it is that history and biography actually set out to do. A kaleidoscope of facts shows us a picture; give it a quarter-turn and it shows an entirely different, no less credible, picture. Rather than try to disguise this awkward mutability, Bolt sees it as a way of introducing us to a whole new world, of spies, of Cambridge, of travelling players and of royal patronage.

I must confess that when I heard about this book my heart sank. Not for nothing is one of the early entrants into the Shakespeare-was-too-low-class-to-have-written-Shakespeare field a man named Looney. Yet History Play is a triumph not because I now believe Marlowe wrote Shakespeare (indeed, I am not sure Bolt believes it), but because its passion is with the search, with the idea of how our concepts of history and biography are created. In Arcadia, Tom Stoppard fantasised a biographer hot on the trail of a previously undiscovered Byron amour, while we, the omniscient audience, watched as he misread every clue. Stoppard knew that being right or wrong about the past ‘misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter’.

History Play is, by turns, a jeu d’ésprit, an examination of the idea of historical study and a play-filled novel. It has both a serious remit and enough puns and anagrams to make Shakespeare (or possibly Marlowe) blush. It made me laugh out loud. And, most of all, it made me want to go back to the plays. This was a book that needed to be done perfectly or not at all. It is perfect.