The Elizabethan/Jacobean period is one that is regularly mined for historical mysteries. The conflict that arose between newly-Protestant England and the powerful Catholic nations of mainland Europe is one rich in derring-do, swashbuckling, and cloak and dagger. Predictably, there is a tendency with the authors of these fictions to include Shakespeare, and for many of them to mimic, or at least claim inspiration, from the plays he wrote. Alan Gordon’s ‘Fools Guild’ series, for example, makes the fool from Twelfth Night an agent provocateur of the Church and follows him through adventures featuring other Shakespearean characters. Rory Clements uses a fictitious brother, John Shakespeare, as his protagonist, a spy and investigator for the crown. A number of authors, past and present have even featured William as their protagonist. Simon Hawke has written a series in which a fledgling Bard finds himself and his ostler/actor companion Symington Smythe as travelling players who find themselves embroiled in various misadventures.
Of course, the other notable figure of the Elizabethan stage, Christopher Marlowe, has a role in much of this himself. Clements Prince for example, starts with Marlowe already dead, and John Shakespeare on the scene. Louise Welsh’s prize-winning Tamburlaine Must Die puts Marlowe on the clock to find the man responsible for the pamphlets that bear his villains name, in order the clear his own.
Marlowe is typically portrayed in these fictions as the intelligencer that he was rumoured to be, acting in service of the Queen. The Marlowe Papers, which Ros Barber wrote in verse, puts Marlowe in exile, but still writing plays on behalf of a dull William Shakespeare. Others portray them in partnership, or as mentor and student.
This winter, we have had two new novels that work with Marlowe as Queen’s agent. The first, in trade paper, is an action packed spy thriller with Shakespeare acting as Marlowe’s successor in England while Marlowe, presumed dead, is in Italy climbing buildings and spying for England. With Guy Fawkes as the villain, Macbeth being written, gadgets, intrigue and more, License to Quill by Jacopo Della Querica, is a light-hearted, although well-researched, romp through the Gunpowder Plot.
The other, Phillip DePoy’s A Prisoner in Malta, is the first that I have come across that looks at Marlowe before he entered the public eye. Tabbed while still a student at Cambridge, Marlowe is recruited to act on behalf of the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, in order to save England from a Papal plot. While not featuring the same amount of swash, or buckle as Della Quercia, DePoy does provide lots of intrigue, and a different look at the mysterious Marlowe.