Review of History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe by Rodney Bolt
History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe
by Rodney Bolt
Few books have managed to disappoint me as much as this one has. The captivating premise of History Play—that Marlowe faked his death and wrote all the plays attributed to Shakespeare—belies its overly-pedantic treatment of Marlovian theory (an actual literary theory supported by several leading Elizabethan scholars).
The most interesting part of the book is its foreword, which wasn't even written by Bolt, but instead by Mark Twain! It lists the facts we know definitively about the life of William Shakespeare, emphasizing how little we actually know about one considered the greatest playwright of English literature. Academics who favour the mainstream view say this is to be expected; Shakespeare was a commoner, after all, so his life isn’t documented as well as the nobility of Elizabethan England. Others take this as a sign that the William Shakespeare of Stratford couldn’t have written all those plays we know as his—and that's where Bolt takes up the narrative and presents a fictitious biography of Christopher Marlowe.
I have to admit I was skimming by the time I reached the halfway point of History Play. Its stultifying writing made me want to put it down, but the rational part of me wanted to see how it ended. It probably wasn't worth it, in retrospect. Bolt spends too much time mentioning how he acquired this information (“this was in a letter...”) and uses far too many quotations from Marlowe's plays (both those indisputably attributed to him and those we attribute to Shakespeare). His tone is dry, academic, and bored.
If this were a paper in a scholarly journal, I can see how that might work. However, biographies need to be somewhat exciting. I’m not asking Bolt to fictionalize his scenes (any more than they already are...), but as it is History Play is lifeless, limp prose. I was hoping to recommend this book to a couple of other people I know who would enjoy seeing this premise explored, but now I shall forbear—I don’t want to inflict this on them!
It's my own fault for having such high hopes, of course, so I won’t blame History Play for disappointing me. Unfortunately, I cannot really give it praise.