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Alternate Englands
Christopher Marlowe writes Hamlet; Joan Aiken rewrites history

"The undiscovered country" remains for many the green and pleasant England in which someone other than the Bore of Avon wrote Hamlet and King Lear and the rest. A favorite alternative of the past few decades has been Edward the 17th Earl Oxford, notwithstanding his uncongruent lifespan (1550–1604), rummy character, and mediocre output. But in the 21st century, Christopher Marlowe is re-emerging. He’s been the subject of the Michael Rubbo Frontline documentary Much Ado About Something, in which various scholars and theater people profess their Marlovian faith (the successor to a Frontline documentary in which various scholars and theater people professed their Oxfordian faith), and now there’s a 400th-anniversary edition of Hamlet, by Alex Jack of Becket, whose authors are identified as "Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare." Marlowe would seem even less plausible than Oxford, since as everyone who’s seen Shakespeare in Love knows, he died in a Deptford tavern brawl in 1593, when Shakespeare’s career had hardly started. But not if, as the Marlovians contend, Kit faked his death and went underground.

That death has in fact been a hot potato over the past 15 years, spurring new biographies (Constance Kuriyama’s Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life and David Riggs’s The World of Christopher Marlowe), investigations (Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, Roy Kendall’s Christopher Marlowe and Richard Baines, M.J. Trow’s Who Killed Kit Marlowe), even novels (George P. Garrett’s Entered from the Sun and Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford). The near-unanimous verdict is that Marlowe was murdered. He himself was a hot potato, a reputed atheist, homosexual, and government (double) agent. Thomas Walsingham might have wanted him dead; so might the Earl of Essex, Lord Burghley, even Elizabeth herself.

But might someone also have wanted to save him?

Marlowe was arrested on May 20, after fellow playwright (and former roommate) Thomas Kyd, under torture, accused him of spreading atheism. He was ordered to report daily to the Privy Council; on May 30, however, he was at Deptford, where he spent the day at Elizabeth Bull’s house with Ingram Frizer, Robert Poley, and Nicholas Skerres, men of similar character and state employment. They dined, they talked, they supped, and then, the survivors said, they quarreled over the bill and Frizer’s dagger found its way into Marlowe’s skull. The queen’s coroner, William Danby, took charge of the inquest; Frizer pleaded self-defense and after a (remarkably) short confinement was pardoned.

It would appear that Frizer had his orders and carried them out. And if Marlowe had to go, could he not go as easily to the continent as to his grave? Poley disappears for a week after the fateful day; perhaps he was Marlowe’s chaperon. A body must, of course, have been presented at the inquest; the proposed candidate is Puritan John Penry, who was hanged four miles from Deptford on May 29. In which case, his corpse was not quartered (as Trow argues it would have been), and Danby’s jury managed to overlook the rope bruises on the neck. One might also ask why, if Marlowe’s fate was already decided, he had to spend eight hours at Elizabeth Bull’s, and why, with all that time at their disposal, his murderers/rescuers couldn’t frame a better story. And in the last decade of Elizabethan England, when life was particularly cheap, who would have thought Marlowe’s worth saving?

Alex Jack in his new two-volume edition of Hamlet (Amber Waves, 160 and 480 pages, $15.95 and $24.95 softcover; www.amberwaves.org) has one explanation: Marlowe "was the principal molder of opinion on the London stage. Edward III, The Massacre at Paris, and other patriotic plays had helped rally the masses behind the Crown and helped prevent religious strife between Protestants and Catholics." Leaving aside the claim that Marlowe wrote Edward III (Shakespeare may have had a hand), one would be hard pressed to say what’s patriotic about The Massacre at Paris (the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 in all its sadistic brutality) or Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II. With its apparent endorsement of the Tudor succession, the Henry VI/Richard III quartet, most of which Shakespeare wrote, is a better fit.

Jack makes an earnest, handsome presentation in his two volumes (one an edited second-quarto version of the play, the other an extended commentary), but you could wait till Turpentine Sunday for any of it to make sense. He cites Brian Vickers’s redoubtable Shakespeare, Co-Author as evidence that the Bard collaborated without mentioning that Vickers nowhere has him collaborating with Marlowe, and in place of Vickers’s rigorous recourse to stylometry (which reveals that Shakespeare’s use of feminine endings was far greater than Marlowe’s), we get the claim that Shakespeare and Marlowe used the same percentage of four-letter words (news flash: Elizabethan spelling was uniform!) and a list of 101 instances in which the author(s) of Hamlet repeated words and phrases from Marlowe’s credited work. If you believe that "The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveller returns" is an echo of Edward II’s "Weep not for Mortimer,/That scorns the world, and as a traveller/Goes to discover countries yet unknown," then Jack’s your man. And you’ll still turn blue before he explains how Marlowe and Shakespeare together created Hamlet, or the rest of Shakespeare’s credited work.

What’s at stake here, as elsewhere in the Shakespeare-authorship "controversy," is the fantasy insistence that our hero can’t be as prudent, impecunious, pedestrian, and just plain unlettered as the man from Stratford. We’re holding out for the real thing: precocious, flamboyant, an establishment baiter, a man who’d sell his soul to the Devil for the truth. And though the establishment has tried to keep his identity from us, we have the truth: its name is Oxford, Marlowe, and whatever else will rescue us from the mundane reality of William Shakespeare.

The cover of Jack’s Volume One sports the putative Cambridge University portrait of Marlowe; Volume Two has the putative John Taylor portrait of Shakespeare. Marlowe is leagues handsomer and more forthright; Shakespeare is guarded, opaque. You can see why Marlowe is Jack’s man. The Cambridge portrait is dated 1585, and its subject’s age is given as 21, which would fit Marlowe (and also Shakespeare, who however did not attend Cambridge). Easing into "many scholars believe" mode, Jack asserts, without documentation, that "most biographers and historians" accept the Cambridge portrait as Marlowe’s. It could be Kit. And it’s conceivable that Marlowe survived May 30, 1593, and made contact with Shakespeare. But could he have done so without our hearing about it from blabbermouth Ben Jonson? More likely, as Dido Twite would say, Marlowe-as-Shakespeare is just a lot of Habbakuk.

MISS TWITE, the focal point of Joan Aiken’s "Wolves Chronicles," shares her name with the heroine of Marlowe’s first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage. She grows up in Rose Alley, right next to the Rose Theatre, where Marlowe reigned. In Dido and Pa, she narrowly escapes getting snuffed in Deptford. And in Midwinter Nightingale, her conversation with Archbishop Whitgift is followed by his murder; the historical John Whitgift was archbishop of Canterbury in Marlowe’s time, and it’s he, Jack contends, who was trying to have the allegedly atheistic playwright eliminated. (Jack even argues there’s a pun in Hamlet’s second quarto: "With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts./O wicked wit, and gifts that have the power/So to seduce . . . ") It’s enough to make you wonder whether Joan Aiken, the English-born daughter of American poet Conrad Aiken, wasn’t a closet Marlovian.

Aiken, who died last year at age 80, initiated her Wolves Chronicles in 1962 with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and ended the series, 11 volumes later, with this year’s The Witch of Clatteringshaws. These children’s books that adults can enjoy start up in an 1830s England (they finish 10 or 12 years later) that’s a little different. The Stuarts won the battle of Culloden Moor back in 1746, and so James III is on the throne, but there are Hanoverian conspiracies afoot everywhere on behalf of Bonnie Prince George. There are also wolves afoot everywhere, and not just the four-footed kind. Still, in Willoughby Chase, cousins Bonnie and Sylvia Green escape their evil governess (an impostor) and make their way to London, where the authorities put things right. And in Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), their friend Simon goes to London to attend art school and with the help of fellow orphan Sophie and unlikely urchin Dido foils a Hanoverian plot to kill King James and the Duke of Battersea. This volume ends with "the mysterious peace of Christmas night" descending "once again on Battersea Park."

But for all their whimsies — the Duke of Battersea’s air balloon; a pink whale named Rosie; a mile-long cannon that aims to hit St. James’s Palace from across the Pond on Nantucket; a plot to put St. Paul’s Cathedral on rollers and slide it into the Thames; a 33-gun frigate that’s blown into the branches of a chestnut tree miles inland; the freedom-fighting, levitating United Real Saxon Army — that’s the last night of peace, mysterious or otherwise, the Wolves Chronicles will enjoy. A shipwrecked Dido winds up on a whaler bound for America (Nightbirds on Nantucket, 1966); the way home goes through South America (The Stolen Lake, 1981) and the South Seas (Limbo Lodge, 1999). The London she returns to (Dido and Pa, 1986), after further Hanoverian misadventures in the Sussex village of Petworth (The Cuckoo Tree, 1971), where Aiken lived out the last part of her life, has lost its child’s-fantasy innocence: the authorities are slowtops (the Dean of St. Paul’s, Lord Forecastle, and Sir Percy Tipstaff stick their spoons in the wall in one fell Hanoverian swoop) and there are 10,000 orphan children in the city, not counting those who, like Dido and her sister Penelope and half-sister Is, are abused or ignored. There won’t even always be an England: the North secedes after a football-association dispute, and when Is goes to Blastburn (Is, 1991) to look for the missing son of the newly crowned King Richard IV, she confronts dark Satanic mills and worse, enslaved coal-mining five-year-olds who’d make William Blake blanch. No warm welcome back home, either: thugs smuggle and murder with impunity at the Folkestone end of the Channel Tunnel (Cold Shoulder Road, 1995) while the Puritan-like members of the Silent Sect remain silent and England itself, emptier and emptier of authority and even people, seems one big cold shoulder. Before the end of Richard’s short reign (Midwinter Nightingale, 2003), Shakespeare’s sceptered isle will have been drawn and quartered like an Elizabethan traitor, devolving into the four kingdoms of Ælfred’s time, complete with border customs inspections.

The divided Twite family — from Dido’s Hanoverian father, Abednego, to his brothers Hosiah and Roy and the mysterious continental Dominic de la Twite — are Aiken’s metaphor for this divided England, and it’s the women and children who have to make everything whole. (No accident that Dido and Penelope are named after women whose men deserted them.) "Mums and kids better stick together" goes one song, and they do, Dido finding substitute brothers and sisters on her travels, Is reuniting her cousin Arun with her Aunt Ruth, the London lollpoops singing prescient nursery rhymes in the courtyard of Simon and Sophie’s Bakerloo House. And in response to the incomprehensible evil at Blastburn, Is nurtures her gift for thought-speech, which links the child victims and enables them to escape. Communication is stronger than conspiracy: when united Folkestone sings "Hold in a chain around the earth/Life to death and death to birth," scurvy Admiral Fishkin and Merlwyn Twite crash into the sea. The irony is that the music that starts to bring everyone together in song is written by Abednego Twite, a man who’d let his own daughter burn to death. He runs with the wolves and is eaten by them, but his music marches on.

That seems to free Aiken in The Witch of Clatteringshaws, the Chronicles’ short (131 pages), Scottish-set, Tempest-like coda, in which the golf-club-riding social-worker title Witch grumps about recycling, the newly crowned King Simon is threatened with marriage to an eight-foot Finnish troll, the invasion of the cheese-making Wends is brought up short by a "toads cross here" sign (they eventually settle in Wensleydale), and Simon parodies the St. Crispin’s Day speech that Shakespeare wrote for Henry V. Like Shakespeare’s plays, the Chronicles arc from exuberant comedy through tragedy and into a kind of mystical romance. There’s no going back to the days when Dr. Furneaux’s art students brewed acorn coffee in Chelsea and Simon, Sophie, and Dido rode the flying boat at Clapham Fair; and Aiken is to the end circumspect about letting Simon and Dido go forward into marriage. But she keeps making connections — between real Dido’s estranged sister Penelope and her Nantucket "sister" Dutiful Penitence, both called Pen; between the rescued-from-underground Blastburn city renamed for Is and the Breton rising-from-the-sea city of Ys — and her language runs riot enough to fill England. "I reign, you reign, he reigns, they reign when the skies are gray," goes another of Abednego’s songs, this one shriveling into husks the man-eating Hobyahs of our imagination. Or, as Shakespeare might have written, "The reign it reigneth every day."

Issue Date: June 17 - 23, 2005
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