There’s a new remainder bookshop in Camden (everything £2, including many decent history books) – such a dangerous thing. And how I came to spend the afternoon reading a rather curious text: History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe, by Rodney Bolt.
It’s what might be termed an imaginary history – heavily researched in part, with a lively account of later 16th-century London — then leaping off from a restaged version of Marlowe’s murder (a handy body-double is roped in) and following the not-really-dead playwright around the cities and courts of Europe, while he pens in his spare time the plays that Shakespeare will take credit for in London. (It ends with him sailing off to the New World, with a ship sinking along the way that becomes The Tempest.)
Now I’m unfashionably convinced that Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare — being a dedicatee of Ockham — but it does make for a fun read, although if you are going to go for alternative “authors” for Shakespeare I much prefer Robin P. Williams’ Sweet Swan of Avon, which has Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, holding the pen.
But Bolt does write in a lively style, and has a real ear for an anecdote. I didn’t now that our term euphemism comes from the title of a prose romance, Euphues, by John Lyly, a Marlowe contemporary, which boasts “a peculiar, heightened style”.
Such fastidiousness wasn’t for the stage of the time, however. Bolt notes that “furious fenestraclasm” was a favourite mode of dramatic criticism: “In 1583 Trinity paid ‘for lv foot of newe glasse in the hall after the playes’, and subsequent to that took the precaution of ‘taking downe and setting up the glass wyndowes’ for the duration, while St John’s paid for ‘nettes to hange before the windowes of ye Halle”. (p. 39)
And Bolt is clear on the multiculturalism of this heaving, shifting Europe, in which, he says, strolling English players, crossing borders and language, were a major part: “The English comedians’ spontenaiety and vividness so enthused audiences that it revolutionised northern European theatre, turning what had previously been stuff, formal receitation into drama. … In Frankfurt, according to the 16th-century traveller Fynes Moryson, both men and woman ‘flocked wonderfully to see their gesture and Action, rather than heare them, speaking English which they understood not’, and at Elsinore in 1585, the citizens flocked so ‘wonderfully’ to a performance in the town hall courtyard that they broke down a wall.” (p. 76)