Book Review: The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

Synopsis: On May 30th, 1593, a celebrated young playwright was killed in a tavern brawl in London.
That, at least, was the official version. Now let Christopher Marlowe tell you the truth: that his 'death' was an elaborate ruse to avoid his being hanged for heresy; that he was spirited across the channel to live on in lonely exile, longing for his true love and pining for the damp streets of London; that he continued to write plays and poetry, hiding behind the name of a colourless man from Stratford — one William Shakespeare.

Pages: 407

Rating: 6/10

Overall: The Marlowe Papers is challenging but ultimately rewarding read that makes you questions the official history of Shakespeare. It has a shaky start (no pun intended) but finds its feet eventually. Compelling and suspenseful, if slightly confusing to begin with.
The Marlowe Papers

First things first. The Marlowe Papers is entirely written in verse. As in poetry. I picked this up as a bit of challenge to myself and initially I found it very much a challenge to read this book. I found it difficult to keep track of the story for the first 100 or so pages. I think part of my problem was flicking between this book and the other books I have on the go at the moment, but also the story flips around the timeline, with little explanation as to how everything fit together. I think this is probably the weakest part of the book.

Another reason for the difficult start is getting used to this poetic style of story-telling. But, eventually, as I got used to the style I started to follow it more and more. And I ended up enjoying it. The story is absorbing and, as a theory, convincing. In fact (and probably unsurprisingly) I found the use of verse to fit the era it is set in perfectly.
Two pages of your hand can bring such bliss; / and, yet, without your love, I don't exist.
The Marlowe Papers is based on the speculation that Christopher Marlowe was actually the playwright, already famous in his own right before his 'death', behind William Shakespeare. The book puts forth the theory that William Shakespeare was a pseudonym for Marlowe after he faked his own death in 1593. In fact, it was written as part of the author's Ph.D, and includes extensive footnotes to give context. This flicking back and forth to footnotes is rather frustrating on a e-reader, but really helps with the whole story.

The Marlowe Papers is written, not only in verse, but as a memoir of Marlowe's life. He writes in the first person, and also seems to write to someone in particular. I have to say it took me a long time into the book to know who that person was. This also opens up about the conjecture that Marlowe was gay, or bisexual. Some might consider this anachronistic, but adds an interesting aspect to the story from a purely fiction point of view. 

The sexuality themes aren't the only anachronisms used, but Barber explains in the author notes, that modern words and terms are used to help comprehension.

I particularly like the hints to Shakespeare's plays, in this story actually written by Marlowe, that are peppered through the test. I spotted references to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth, As You Like It and more. Some are more obvious than others, but it is a fun little aside to try and spot them.
To be? To not?
There is also a bit of tragic irony to the whole story. There is one part of the story where Marlowe is reassured by another character that there are plenty of clues to tell people in the future that Shakespeare is actually Marlowe.

I think I will try to read The Marlowe Papers again, to try and follow the first part better, because the rest is a great read. It was definitely a challenge, but so rewarding because of it. The premise is fascinating, especially as I am personally very interested in that era. I would certainly recommend this for anyone who is up for a challenge and/or interested in that time period.

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