Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An Interview with Ros Barber, author of The Marlowe Papers

***** Recently, I received a note from Anya Lichtenstein of the St. Martin's Press in NYC. She wondered if I wanted to conduct an interview with a Marlowe scholar, Ros Barber, the author of the critically acclaimed book The Marlowe Papers. I thought it would be a good idea for one of our gifted English majors at Endicott College to take a crack at it. Professor Sam Alexander sent Colby Pastre my way, and I think he has done a fine job!


An Interview with Ros Barber, author of The Marlowe Papers

by Colby Pastre

According to most historians, playwright Christopher Marlowe was murdered on May 30, 1593 by Ingram Frizer who, in self-defense, sent a knife through Marlowe’s right eye and into his brain. According to most historians, Christopher Marlowe was a blaspheming, brawling, sometimes-playwriting, hell-raiser with a taste for violence and booze that could have only brought him to the end it did.

 But what if most historians are wrong? What if Marlowe was not just the brute history makes of him, but a more complex figure; one mature enough to be held in esteem with his contemporaries and even talented enough to be considered their inspiration? What if Marlowe was not murdered on May 30, 1593, but instead faked his death and escaped into exile, where he continued his career as a playwright? What would the exiled Christopher Marlowe have written? Some think Hamlet.

Ros Barber, author of the verse novel The Marlowe Papers and a PhD in Marlowe studies, is one of the many literary and historical critics who question the authorship of the Shakespeare canon and assert that Christopher Marlowe was its more likely author.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barber about The Marlowe Papers. As she explained to me, the novel is an experiment in history writing aimed at providing a narrative that is at once factually complete and emotionally compelling. The Stratfordian authorship paradigm is a tough theory to attack. Too much tradition and scholarship stands in the way for there to be an open discourse. Thanks to Barber, The Marlowe Papers provides a less daunting entrance into Marlovian theory, laying the emotional, political, and religious groundwork necessary for one to consider the “impossible” − that William Shakespeare was not who history claims, that Christopher Marlowe was not murdered in 1593, that, in fact, both were the same man, just of a different name.

Colby Pastre: Ros, in your acknowledgements you mention the “light-bulb moment” that inspired you to write The Marlowe Papers. Which came first, your Marlovian turn, or your realization that “the ‘crazy’ idea that Marlowe faked his death and escaped into exile” could be the spark for a “really good novel?”

Ros Barber: The latter.  I’d never questioned the authorship of the Shakespeare canon until I saw Mike Rubbo’s documentary “Much Ado About Something”. From that came the idea for the novel, and from the research for the novel came the realization that it wasn’t the ‘crazy’ idea it might at first seem.

CP: Why did you choose to write in verse and how did you maintain a balance between authenticity and readability?

RB: Iambic pentameter was, for me, the best way of balancing those two things. I needed to create an authentic-sounding voice for Marlowe, but I wanted to use fairly contemporary English, not cod-Elizabethan.  The rhythm reminds us of Marlowe and Shakespeare’s blank verse plays, without having to get all ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ about it. In any case, Anthony Burgess had already written the ultimate Marlowe fiction in prose.

CP: Do you think that either the novel in verse or the play in verse will ever come back in vogue?

RB: Unlikely. People are too terrified of poetry for a verse novel or verse play to be more than a curiosity.

CP: Is the main purpose of The Marlowe Papers scholarly or for entertainment? How did you try to balance scholarship with fiction?

RB: The primary purpose was to tell a good story.  I found the story fascinating and wanted to do it justice.  As a secondary aim I wanted to research it deeply and discover whether it was possible to weave a plausible alternative narrative out of all the evidence, without leaving anything out, as an experiment in writing a (fictional) history.  But if it didn’t entertain and engage I would have considered it a failure.   On the scholarship side I set myself the rule that I would stick entirely to any facts I could discover, and that all evidence must be accounted for in the narrative. Only then would I allow myself to fill in the gaps with fiction.  Sometimes the fiction was extremely helpful in creating a way of accounting for the facts; but of course that doesn’t make it ‘true’.

CP: What was your research process throughout the project and, in general, how did you form your opinions on the Shakespeare authorship question? Did you rely mainly on primary sources, existing scholarship, text analysis, all of the above?

RB: First I got to know the entire canons of Marlowe and Shakespeare and the work of some of their contemporaries (Greene, Watson, Harvey, Nashe).  These - and certain letters and other documents were the primary sources.  I read a lot of texts on Early English Books Online and original documents in the British Library and the Bodleian, got a good 16th century street map of London and books of Elizabethan letters and period recipes. In terms of secondary sources I read a lot of books about the political and religious conflicts of the era, as well as numerous biographies (all of Marlowe’s, several of Shakespeare’s, one each for Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Walsingham), plus a range of scholarship about Marlowe’s life and works, about Shakespeare’s plays and poems, early theatre, sword fighting, executions, masculine values, government intelligence networks etc.   I read a great deal of non-Stratfordian scholarship - Oxfordian and Baconian as well as Marlovian. From the various Marlovian theories I picked out a storyline that felt reasonably well-supported by evidence and made (from my perspective) the most satisfying story arc. The choice of dark lady was the hardest aspect, and I still rather regret that I couldn’t make room for Amelia Bassano Lanier.

CP: Marlowe claims early in the novel that “[a]ll histories are fictions.” Does this mean that scholars have free reign to interpret history as they see it, or something else?

RB: This came out of my reading postmodern historians such as Alun Munslow, Beverley Southgate and others publishing in the journal Rethinking History.  History is not the past; it is ‘Hi[gh]-STORY’ - a story about the past.  It is easy to demonstrate that you can join the dots of historical evidence in numerous ways, many of them potentially valid; but as soon as you introduce narrative (and history is always narrative), elements of fiction begin to intrude. In some ways a fiction like The Marlowe Papers is more honest than those books like Shapiro’s 1599, that are labeled non-fiction; both employ imagination to fill the gaps in the evidence.  When you read an accepted history, it is worth questioning how this version of events evolved as ‘The Truth’ - who first began to lay it down, of what were they ignorant, and what perspective or agenda might have shaped their version of events.  

CP: What advantage is there in fictionalizing Marlovian theory? Do you see any danger in drawing the discourse away from evidence-based history and toward fiction?

RB: The advantage is in enabling the reader to suspend their (dis)belief long enough that they might open their mind to the possibility that not everything they’ve been told (about Shakespeare, or about Marlowe, or indeed about anything else) is necessarily true. A fiction can create a viable world in which such a thing as Marlowe faking his death and writing the works of Shakespeare could have happened.  Coming cold to such a theory, it is tempting to dismiss it outright, but when the emotional, political and religious background has been well-established by a coherent fiction, you can demonstrate there is a degree of plausibility here; it is no longer ‘impossible’. One of the big difficulties people have in believing Marlowe could have written the works of Shakespeare is that our myths about both men have created the dichotomy ‘violent Marlowe’/‘gentle Shakespeare’.   These are simplifications, and very likely untrue.  I used fiction to break down the myths and create (on the bare bones of fact) a version of Marlowe who could believably mature to write Hamlet. 

    The dangers in historical fiction are obvious; people can mistake it for fact. But I try very hard to discourage that.   Evidence-based history is my passion, and I hope that reading this fictional exploration might encourage some readers to look into the evidence for themselves. My take is that evidence is *always* open to interpretation and that anyone involved in Shakespeare scholarship (no matter which candidate they favor, including the traditional one) is fooling themselves if they believe that what they are peddling is the only plausible version of events, or - the most ludicrous idea of all - some kind of certainty.

CP: Why do you think that there are so many theories that debunk Shakespeare’s authenticity? What role does Shakespeare’s lower-class upbringing play in making it unlikely that he was a great author?

RB: None at all. Marlowe had a lower-class upbringing; he came from a near-identical background to Shakespeare, both families being leather-workers: Marlowe’s father making shoes while Shakespeare’s made gloves.  Shakespeare skepticism does not, as is commonly assumed, arise out of some kind of snobbery. Skeptics are well aware that Ben Jonson began life as a brick-layer; that he and other successful writers of the period never went to university. What makes it unlikely that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him is not his upbringing but the stark lack of personal contemporaneous evidence connecting him to writing, other writers, a literary life, and the content of the plays and poems.  This is why the authorship question arose in the first place, and this is why it won’t go away. Pure and simple, it is lack of corroborating evidence.  That the man from Stratford wrote the plays is a claim not substantiated by primary source evidence; a claim that begins with a tenuous link seven years after his death.  If it were any other personage we were discussing, no historian worth their salt would consider this kind of evidence sufficient to establish the theory as some kind of fact.   No other successful writer of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period has such a deficient evidence profile, as Diana Price has demonstrated.  But Shakespeare skepticism is not fuelled purely by the absence of evidence.  There is a whole body of fascinating evidence pointing in the direction of his being a broker, or middle-man, who represented the work of one or more writers - and that this was suspected or even known by certain other writers of the period. There are also peculiar pieces of evidence - such as the inscription on the burial monument in Stratford Church - that even Professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, agrees are ‘cryptic’. There are too many anomalies in the data, and the orthodox story simply cannot account for them.

CP: “What does it matter?” How would a Marlovian theory change the way we interpret “Shakespeare’s” works?

RB: The plays and poems read differently when we assume a different author; and some of those differences are enlightening. I demonstrated in an article published in Rethinking History that looking at Shakespeare’s sonnets through a Marlovian lens clears up problems that have plagued Shakespeare scholars for the last couple of centuries; including apparent inconsistencies of tone, and the identity of the Rival Poet. In terms of the plays, a Marlovian reading explains the author’s obsession with the canon’s most prevalent themes: exile, mistaken and double identities, usurpation, and above all, faked death and resurrection. It allows one to see Prospero and Dr Faustus (the pair of magicians whose names, incidentally, both mean ‘Fortunate’) as bookends of a single career.  It explains why Marlowe’s ‘influence’ has been perceived by orthodox scholars as running through the entire Shakespeare canon. 

CP: You focus a lot on the multiple identities that Marlowe assumes throughout his career. Often he is forced to “lie within a lie.” How do you think this affected his writing?

RB: Now you’re talking as if the theory is true, and I try to discourage that!  Let’s say, instead, ‘what if?’   That’s the question a novel can answer.  Let’s say a writer who spoke too freely was arrested on a very serious charge and realized that the only way to continue living was to fake his death and live the rest of his life in hiding under a series of assumed identities.  I imagine he would gain some considerable perspective on human foibles (starting with his own), and increase in wisdom as a result of his very unusual circumstances. I imagine he would find it hard to stop dropping in odd references to his early body of work as an attempt to try and keep the works he wrote under his real name ‘alive’ in the imagination of theatre audiences.  I imagine he would try to tell himself that if people love the work of William Shakespeare, they do indeed love him, because that is his pen-name: “for my name is Will.”  I imagine he would get very clever at expressing his truths with enormous subtlety, so that they would get through the censor unnoticed. I imagine he would write rather a lot about people disguising themselves, exploring the comedy and tragedy of living under other identities, that he would entertain resurrection fantasies, that he would be drawn to source stories that echoed the themes of his existence, and add in his own characters, sub-plots and soliloquies that might in some way speak to his peculiar position.  Stephen Greenblatt, one of the most perceptive readers of the Shakespeare canon says:

“Again and again in his plays, an unforeseen catastrophe … suddenly turns what had seemed like happy progress, prosperity, smooth sailing into disaster, terror, and loss. The loss is obviously and immediately material, but it is also, and more crushingly, a loss of identity. To wind up on an unknown shore, without one’s friends, habitual associates, and familiar network—this catastrophe is often epitomized by the deliberate alteration or disappearance of the name and, with it, the alteration or disappearance of social status.”

That’s a fair description of how Marlowe would write if he had indeed suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that Marlovian theory suggests.

CP: Do you think that Marlowe will ever be recognized as the author of Shakespeare’s plays? If so, what will it take to shift the paradigm?

RB: It could happen.  Shakespeare skepticism is growing, and orthodox Stratfordianism is backing itself into a corner with logical fallacies (chiefly ad hominems), unscholarly behavior (e.g. insisting that the term ‘anti-Stratfordian’ be replaced with ‘anti-Shakespearian’) and unscholarly claims (like claiming there is no distinction between personal and impersonal testimony). These are the actions of a beleaguered position that isn’t long for this world.  Oxfordians make up the largest number of non-Stratfordians (or as I have heard it recently, post-Stratfordians), so the question might lie open for a while.  To reach the state of affairs where that is possible will simply take those with fixed positions to be replaced with a more flexible generation. Max Planck said ‘science advances one funeral at a time’.  The humanities are much the same.  But I look forward to a more open-minded and collegial future where the authorship question is recognized as a serious (and seriously interesting) area of academic research.  There are plenty of promising archives, particularly in Italy, that have barely been cataloged, let alone researched.  Only properly funded university research projects are likely to turn up the kind of hard evidence one would need to shift the authorship paradigm into a new orthodoxy, so the question has to be accepted as valid first.  If The Marlowe Papers contributes to a move in this direction - as well as being a successful piece of entertainment - then I am doubly happy.


***********Colby Pastre is a recent graduate of Endicott College with a B.A. in English Literature.

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