Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.  421pp.  ISBN 0 19 818695 9.

Andrew Duxfield
Sheffield Hallam University

Duxfield, Andrew. "Review of Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 12.1-4 <URL:>.


  1. While documentary evidence regarding the facts of Christopher Marlowe’s life is fairly thin on the ground, there is no such paucity of substantial works dedicated to making sense of what evidence there is. Park Honan’s new book is the latest addition to a long and steady stream of Marlowe biography; the last four years alone have seen notable works on the life of the Canterbury dramatist and poet in the shape of Constance Brown Kuriyama’s Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life (2002) and David Riggs’s The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004).

  2. “My aim,” Honan writes in his introduction, “has been to try to offer the facts of Marlowe’s life reliably, and to bring our sense of him up to date.” (p. 2) So what does this book do differently than its predecessors? The structure of Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy follows a similar pattern to Riggs’s work, dedicating chapters to discrete periods of the subject’s life. As in The World of Christopher Marlowe, by the time we reach the end of Marlowe’s university career, the book is divided into chronologically sequential chapters offering biographically charged critiques of his major plays, alongside accounts of the playwright’s life and surroundings at the time of their composition. Despite the structural similarity, however, certain elements of the book do indeed have a freshness about them; there is, for instance, interesting discussion of a schoolboy play that, it is suggested, could be attributable to a young Marlowe. Also, Marlowe’s time at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is examined in great detail, with plentiful information, both written and visual, pertaining to the physical surroundings in which the playwright found himself during those years (indeed, the ample supply of illustrations help the reader to build a strong mental image of the world Marlowe inhabited throughout). Of particular interest here is a revealing section dedicated to the discussion of the putative portrait that invariably adorns the cover of any publication dedicated to Marlowe or his work (including this one).

  3. Beyond these slight differences in emphasis, however, it is questionable to what extent this work succeeds in its aim of bringing “our sense of Marlowe up to date”. A particular area in which Honan claims to have done this is in his treatment of Marlowe’s homosexuality, which takes into account recent developments in our understanding of how Elizabethans conceived of sexuality. This is doubtless an area in which accounts of Marlowe’s life have needed to catch up with modern scholarship, but I do not feel that Riggs is any less current than Honan on this point. Furthermore, the introduction suggests that the book breaks new ground in its reconstructing of Marlowe’s relationships with his counterparts, and in particular with William Shakespeare. Honan, also a biographer of Shakespeare, is able to provide some illuminating discussion on the dramatic interplay between the two playwrights, but his account of their supposed social acquaintance is indicative of a problematic trend that runs throughout this work. On the subject, he says
    Did they meet often? Or become intimate? Plainly no record of their talk together survives. No obscure diary tells us of their meetings, though shreds of the truth can be discovered if we are willing to be patient, indirect, or somewhat roundabout in assessing Marlowe’s friendship with his prime contemporary…This matter is extremely delicate, since it leaves us always at the edge of the unknown. (187-8)
    In the same paragraph there is an acknowledgement that absolutely no evidence of so much as a chance meeting between Marlowe and Shakespeare exists, and an assertion that a friendship existed between the two men, a ‘roundabout’ assessment of which can reveal ‘shreds of the truth’. Indeed, despite the delicacy of the matter, Honan feels able, a few pages later, to refer to Shakespeare as Marlowe’s “Stratford friend” (p. 237). Here, it seems, (and this isn’t an isolated incident) that the book’s stated aim of stringent adherence to fact has been sacrificed in favour of an exercise in wish fulfilment. Honan admits in his introduction to drawing ‘modest inferences about personal relationships’, but the narrative seems too often to dispense with caution in favour of readability; throughout the work, minor statements that are purely speculative are unnecessarily offered as if they represent absolute fact. For instance, Marlowe, we are told, “acted the gentleman with a few friends, and the cynical infidel with others, partly to show how far he had left behind Canterbury” (p. 223, my italics).  I struggle to think how one could prove an assertion such as this of a person living today. This is, admittedly, a modest inference, but the frequency with which such inferences occur serves to undermine the authority of the work.

  4. It would be unfair, however, to overlook the strengths of this book. It is a lively and readable account, which is particularly strong in providing a feel for the historical moment in which Marlowe existed and his works were produced, and Honan’s critical readings of the plays and poems themselves can be original and illuminating. While I don’t feel that Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy represents a significant advancement on the work of Riggs and Kuriyama, it nevertheless increases our choice of useful exhaustive accounts of the life of Christopher Marlowe.

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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).