Marlowe in Modern Fiction

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 Originally posted to my blog, Riba Rambles on January 14, 2004;
 Last major modification on November 9, 2007


Definitions and Criteria:

This is a list of modern fictionalized portrayals of Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan playwright.

I've limited my list to English language works first published after 1975. For better organization, I've subdivided the list into multiple categories. Within each table, works are organized chronologically, but you can click on a column header to re-sort by that field.

Fictionalized accounts of Shakespeare's life often include Marlowe as a character. I have listed those where Marlowe's appearance seems significant (based upon reviews and promotional materials). Such works amy be listed inconsistently. Please comment if you know of other such works which should be listed.

The Lists:

Prose and Poetry (professionally-published)

TOTAL:54Have read 61%
To be a king Robert DeMaria 1976 novel Yes
Will Shakespeare: the untold story John Clifford Mortimer 1977 novel British miniseries The Life of Shakespeare based upon this book No
Enter a spy: the double life of Christopher Marlowe Herbert Lom 1978 novel No
Winter's tale Connie Willis 1987 short story not immediately apparent it's Marlovian; collected in author's anthology Impossible Things; originally published December 1987 Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine Yes
Mignon Chris Hunt 1987 novel gay a former lover of the French king flees to England, where he becomes an actor and Marlowe's bedpartner Yes
The Shadow of the earth: an historical novel based on the life of Christopher Marlowe Lee Wichelns 1987 novel No
The Armor of light Melissa Scott & Lisa A. Barnett 1988 novel fantasy; alternate history both Philip Sidney and Marlowe survived in a world where magic works. One of my favorite novels Yes
The Scholars of night John M. Ford 1988 novel modern espionage plot involves possible Marlowe manuscript: flashback/hypothesis to Marlowe's life and death Yes
Sandman #13 "Men of good fortune" Neil Gaiman 1989 comic book fantasy Just a brief scene between Shakespeare and Marlowe. Collected in The Doll's house and Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1.
Issue 19, "Midsummer night's dream," from 1990 (collected in Dream country) also makes reference to Marlowe's death in conversation.
Entered from the sun George Garrett 1990 novel No
Time and chance Alan Brennert 1990 novel modern; road-not-taken AU near end, main character stars in a Marlowe biopic, with speculations about his life & death Yes
Death of a noverint William Bankier 1992 short story historical mystery purports to solve Marlowe's murder; collected in Once upon a crime: historical mysteries from Ellery Queen's mystery magazine; originally published in April 1992 EQMM Yes
Black swan Farukh Dhondy 1992 novel No
The Night Marlowe Died Patricia Beer 1993 poem 24-line poem, published in Friend of Heraclitus Yes
Christoferus or Tom Kyd's Revenge Robin Chapman 1993 novel Kyd tries to unravel Marlowe's murder No
Icarus flying: the tragical story of Christopher Marlowe Liam Maguire 1993 novel No
Nicholas Cooke: actor, soldier, physician, priest Stephanie Cowell 1993 novel No
Strange devices of the sun and moon Lisa Goldstein 1993 novel fantasy Yes
The Slicing edge of death: who killed Christopher Marlowe? Judith Cook 1993 novel mystery Yes
Left to his own devices Mary Gentle 1994 novel cyberpunk No
A Dead man in Deptford Anthony Burgess 1995 novel No
Vanitas: escape from vampire junction S.P. Somtow 1995 novel modern; vampire; sequel 3rd in a series about immortal musician Timmy Valentine. Summary mentions flashbacks to encounters with Marlowe and other "historical personalities." No
The Empire of Glass Andy Lane 1996 novel sf (Doctor Who) part of the Doctor Who - The Missing Adventures series; features the First Doctor. Also available online at No
Heart of Whitenesse Howard Waldrop 1997 novelette alternate history Marlowe investigates Johan Faustus Yes
Slow chocolate autopsy Iain Sinclair & Dave McKean 1997 novel time traveller witnesses Marlowe's death in Deptford, among other events No
The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare Stephanie Cowell 1997 novel No
A Plague of angels P.F. Chisholm 1998 novel mystery; sequel 4th in a series featuring Sir Robert Carey Yes
Blood on the Borders Judith Cook 1999 novel mystery; sequel part of a series starring historical astrologer Simon Forman; published in UK 1999, first American printing in 2004 No
The late Mr. Shakespeare Robert Nye 1999 novel No
The Onely Shake-Scene in a Countrey Dave Hoing 2000 short story AU imagines a world without Shakespeare, where Marlowe survives and becomes the greatest playwright in the English language; published in Century #5, Winter 2000. No
A Mystery of errors Simon Hawke 2000 novel mystery; sequel 1st in the Shakespeare & Smythe series; Marlowe appears near the beginning, many references to him Yes
Walk in moonlight Rosemary Laurey 2000 novel vampire; romance After Deptford, Marlowe was turned into a vampire; to be reprinted in 2004 under a new title, Kiss me forever Yes
Ill met by moonlight Sarah A. Hoyt 2001 novel fantasy Marlowe is primarily in indirect reference, but necessary reading for the sequel Yes
All night awake Sarah A. Hoyt 2002 novel fantasy; sequel Marlowe's final days and the circumstances of his death play major role Yes
Rapture in moonlight Rosemary Laurey 2002 novel vampire; romance; sequel 2nd in series; to be reprinted in 2004 under a new title, Love me forever No
Ruled Britannia Harry Turtledove 2002 novel alternate history Spanish-occupied London nine years after the English lost to the Armada Yes
The School of night Alan Wall 2002 novel modern man obsessed with authorship question; speculation on events surrounding Marlowe's death Yes
Apocrypha Bipedium Ian Potter 2003 short story sf (Doctor Who) part of the Short Trips: Companions collection of Doctor Who short stories; features the Eighth Doctor No
Merchant of vengeance Simon Hawke 2003 novel mystery; sequel 4th in the Shakespeare & Smythe series; Marlowe appears mostly in reference and as competition, with only minor appearances Yes
All Done With Mirrors Christopher Bav 2004 short story sf (Doctor Who) part of the Short Trips: Past Tense collection of Doctor Who short stories; features the Fourth Doctor with Sarah Jane Smith. No
This Tragic glass Elizabeth Bear 2004 short story SF collected in The Chains that you refuse Yes
Any man so daring Sarah A. Hoyt 2004 novel fantasy; sequel 3rd in series; Shakespeare is haunted by Marlowe's ghost Yes
History play: the lives and afterlife of Christopher Marlowe Rodney Bolt 2004 biography pastiche written as a faux academic biography, imagines that Marlowe faked his death and wrote the works of Shakespeare Yes
Tamburlaine must die Louise Welsh 2004 novella Marlowe recounts his final days as he tries to identify who wrote the Dutch Church libel. Yes
The Intelligencer Leslie Silbert 2004 novel modern espionage plot involves documents which may describe Marlowe's final mission and his death Yes
Will Tiffany Grace 2004 novel fictionalized biography of Shakespeare Yes
Young Will: the confessions of William Shakespeare Bruce Cook 2004 novel fictionalized memoir of Shakespeare; reviews say Marlowe seduces him in an Elizabethan-era gay bar No
An Eye of death George Rees 2005 novel mystery set in 1590s London starring Thomas Dekker as lead Yes
L'esprit d'escalier: not a play in one act Elizabeth Bear 2006 short story collected in The Chains that you refuse Yes
The Secret of the Rose Sarah L. Thomson 2006 YA novel In 1592, a fourteen-year-old girl disguises herself as a boy, and finds work as Marlowe's servant. Yes
Whiskey & water Elizabeth Bear 2007 novel fantasy modern fantasy in the Promethean Age setting, sequel to Blood and iron Yes
Ink & steel Elizabeth Bear 2008 novel fantasy historic fantasy in the Promethean Age setting Yes
Hell & earth Elizabeth Bear 2008 novel fantasy historic fantasy in the Promethean Age setting; sequel to Ink & steel Yes
The Cobbler's boy Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette future / not yet published YA novel adventure story starring 15-year-old Kit in Canterbury Yes

Stage and Screen

TOTAL:10Have read/seen 40%
The Life of Shakespeare 1977 TV miniseries British miniseries based upon the Mortimer book; starring Tim Curry as Shakespeare and Ian McShane as Marlowe. Listed online under various titles, including William Shakespeare: his life and times and The Life and times of William Shakespeare No
The School of night Peter Whelan 1992 play dramatizing Marlowe's final days Yes
Marlowe's eye Naomi Iizuka 1995 play dramatizing Marlowe's final days; exact date uncertain No
Shakespeare in love Tom Stoppard & Marc Norman 1998 film Rupert Everett plays Marlowe Yes
Kit Marlowe David Grimm 2000 play dramatizing Marlowe's life from college through death Yes
Murdering Marlowe Charles Marowitz 2002 play No
The Opposite of showbusiness Jim Grover 2004 play As yet unperformed. Subplot involves fanciful description of Marlowe's death No
Marlowe Harlan Didrickson 2005 play biographical play premiering June 2005 at Chicago's Bailiwick Repertory Theatre No
It was kit: the 'true' story of Christopher Marlowe Allsion McWood 2006 play performed at the Fringe of Toronto Theatre Festival No
The English channel Robert Brustein 2007 play Shakespeare and Marlowe in the spring of 1593; a four-person cast in a single set Yes


TOTAL:8Have read 13%
Marlowe: being in the life of the mind Anne Weir 1996 novel I also see references to a 1996 book by Anne Weir titled Christopher's journey. Not sure whether these are different titles for the same book or something separate. No
The Golden Cockerel Bob Archman 2000 online fiction gay porn X-rated romps involving several notable Elizabethans: Read at your own risk No
Back to the days of Christopher Marlowe Lis Riba 2005 filk filk song to "Return to Pooh Corner" by Kenny Loggins Yes
Marlowe: Gay Atheist Spy collaboration 2005 virtual series Difficult to explain; read the community profile Kinda
Vrolok Nolene-Patricia Dougan 2005 novel vampire Summary mentions encounters with Marlowe and other historical figures No
Was I really that boy? the pilgrimage of Christopher Marlowe Kenneth Rhienhart 2005 novel no details beyond title No
Water lane: the pilgrimage of Christopher Marlowe John Passfield 2005 novel no details beyond title No
Letters to The King of Spain Part I: Shakespeariana Cathos Maledon 2006 novel No

If you know of any works missing from these lists, please comment with any information you have.

Recommended Non-Fiction:

A little knowledge goes a long way in providing context for these works.

In the last several years, a number of excellent quality biographies have become available.

Here are my favorites:

  • The Reckoning: the murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl (1993)
    This is probably the most influential book on Marlowe's death, and it dominates all subsequent portrayals. Don't worry so much about the conclusions Nicholl draws, as those are disputed, but the facts and research into the people and milieu are invaluable.
    The author released an updated edition in 2002, which allegedly comes to a different theory of who was behind the murder. I haven't read the new version yet, so don't know how much of the modified material is new research as opposed to new conclusions.
  • Christopher Marlowe: a Renaissance life by Constance Brown Kuriyama (2002)
  • The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs (2006)
  • Christopher Marlowe: poet & spy by Park Honan (2007)

For those who prefer to find something online:

Aside: It seems to be a standard practice in Marlowe biographies for each new book to dispute the conclusions of the author who came before, like a great chain. Read enough biographies and a Rashomon-like portrait emerges from the fog. Eventually, some new evidence will emerge, or we'll run out of theories, or we'll all get bored and victory will go to the last one standing...

On Marlowe's modern appeal:

For a while now, I've been noodling with the question of what makes Christopher Marlowe so appealing a character for modern writers and readers.

Christopher Marlowe was an Elizabethan James Dean, who died young and left not just a good-looking corpse, but also an air of intrigue and mystery. He was a poor boy made good: poet, playwright, and spy. His enemies accused him of atheism, and he was also possibly homosexual or bisexual -- negative traits until the last half-century, which now give him an even more modern appeal.

Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote "If Shakespeare is the dazzling sun of this mighty period, Marlowe is certainly the morning star." [I wonder how intentional the Lucifer allusion was.]

Marlowe as a character gives writers access to a wide swath of Elizabethan settings and notables: the theaters, espionage, nobility (his patrons), the court (the previous two, plus his rumored association with Sir Walter Ralegh)... From the dregs of the sewers to the upper echelons, there are enough holes in his biography that you can read any of those into his circle.

For mystery writers, the uncertainties surrounding Marlowe's death (let's face it, the official story in the coroner's report does not add up -- see Peter Farey for details, even if you disagree with his conclusions) provide a marvelous unsolved crime. Fantasy writers seem to have noted that Doctor Faustus is fantasy fiction, and springboard from that. And for alternate history buffs, he certainly left behind a lot of unfulfilled potential.

Or, as Jeffrey Meyers wrote in his essay Marlowe's Lives (Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2003):

Marlowe has the irresistible appeal of a genius killed in his prime, his promise unfulfilled.
There are four mysterious areas of Marlowe's life: 1)his homosexuality, 2)his atheism, 3)his involvement in espionage, and 4)the circumstances of his death. The evidence about them is suggestive but inconclusive, which helps explain the endless fascination of his life, character, and connections.

Given how often prose fiction uses authors as protagonists, writing about another writer clearly holds a certain appeal. It gives the author an angle into the character -- provides a certain amount of familiarity, understanding, and identification. After all, the character is struggling with the same issues that the author goes through -- writer's block, deadlines, editors/censors, unappreciative audiences, trying to pay the bills... Particularly when writing an unfamiliar setting (such as the Elizabethan age), the situations will be similar enough, even if the tools are different.

And, let's face it. One reason why Marlowe is so attractive to writers is simply that he was so... attractive. The portrait to the left is popularly accepted as Marlowe age 21, though the evidence is purely circumstantial. Still, it compares favorably with modern movie star looks:

Christopher Marlowe(?)Johnny Depp
Corpus Christi portrait reputed to be Christopher Marlowe  photograph of Johnny Depp
See also this illustration I made.

But portrayals do vary. I've read of the expert swordsman not to be trifled with (at least as far as sidewalk duels are concerned) and the lover, who definitely isn't a fighter.

And fantasy ranges all over the map for how Kit interacts with whatever magical creatures inhabit his England:

  • Ill met by moonlight paints a picture of a "timid divinity student" turned reckless thrill-seeker by the love of an elven shapeshifter.
  • In Strange devices of the sun and moon, Marlowe is a Doubting Thomas, refusing to acknowledge faeries existence until confronted with undeniable evidence -- and even then he's hard-pressed to believe his eyes.
  • Armor of light deals with demons, rather than faerie, and Marlowe not only actively practices magic, but summons demons.

And all of these can be supported by emphasizing different things Marlowe said and wrote (taking material from both his plays and the accusations against him).

Anyway, I could go on, and would probably enjoy doing so, though not without the books fresher in my memory (and preferably, on hand as reference).

Related pages by the author:


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