Reading a good book, Charles’ Nicholl’s The Reckoning. The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992, 2nd expanded ed. 2002), about the 16th century playwright. It’s a bit overloaded with asides and covers far more characters and factions than anyone can keep track of without extensive note-taking. But quite intriguing withal. I find it fascinating how rich and detailed the written sources for this era are.
“Christopher Marlowe … is remembered as a poet, ‘the Muse’s darling’, and as a wild young blasphemer in an age of enforced devotion, but he was also a spy …
It is not a pretty view of the Golden Age of Elizabeth, and it is not a pretty view of Christopher Marlowe either. In these fragments which record his involvement in the secret world … there is a common thread of falsehood. … The keynote of this kind of work is precisely non-commitment: to belong to both sides and neither. It is a world of gestures, of alterable meanings: the ‘secret theatre’.
So we return to the circumstances of Marlowe’s death armed with this perception of [plots] and pretences, these forms of political gamesmanship which are such a feature of this world he belongs to. Marlowe’s political career is not – as in the conventional literary biography – a separate and rather puzzling side-issue. …
… We find Marlowe in the company of spies and swindlers because, regrettably, he was one himself. Our regret has no real claim on him. Posterity prefers poets to spies, but this young man could not be so choosy. He lived on his wits or else went hungry, and he was probably rather better rewarded for spying than he was for the poetry we remember him by.” (2002, pp. 317–318)
3 thoughts on “Poet and Spy”
how rich and detailed the written sources for this era are
I think it’s the ramifying consequences of the printing press and humanism in sixteenth century England: more and more people were writing to be read, and reading what others wrote, and scribbling on paper for record-keeping or even just to remind themselves. I’d be interested to know what the mass production of paper looked like from 1500 to 1600.
Then again the relative stability of the English state from Tudor times onward probably helps the preservation of records, although the coroner’s report on Marlowe’s death was only found in 1925!
“Posterity prefers poets to spies” – You can tell that by the number of Hollywood movies made about poets.
England was so tied up in the politics of the Low Countries, and Spain, which overlapped, that being engaged with espionage was fairly widespread. Even internal law enforcement depended on system of professional and amateur informers. Poets might reasonably be expected to better suited for this than many. Indeed Marlow’s reputation as a dangerous atheist depends largely on accusations aimed at him by another author.