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Anthony Burgess: A Dead Man in Deptford

After having done Shakespeare, it was almost inevitable that he would do Marlowe. And, frankly, this one is much more enjoyable than Nothing like the Sun. Christopher Marlowe was an Elizabethan playwright, a contemporary of Shakespeare but, as well as his plays, he is known for three things. Firstly, it seems highly likely that he was a counterfeiter or, at least, involved in some way in counterfeiting. Burgess hints at this but does not make a big deal out of it. Secondly, he worked for Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and the spiritual forefather of MI5 (and, indeed, of the CIA and FBI), engaged in a variety of shady activities, generally but not always aimed at keeping the Catholics out of England. Thirdly, as the title shows, he was brutally murdered at Deptford for reasons that are unclear, though Burgess indicates that it was for political reasons.

Burgess traces Marlowe’s adult life from his time at Cambridge University up to his death, mixing in his playwriting activities and his spying activities, all done against a rich background of Elizabethan life and politics. As it is Burgess, there are lots of jokes – including quite a few that depend on the reader having a good knowledge of Elizabethan history and literature. There is a detailed discussion of a range of topics but, in particular, religion. There is buggery galore. And, of course, Burgess plummets the squalid depths of Elizabethan London with all its foibles and nastiness and very nasty it is. But it is all highly enjoyable. If you want to know more about Marlowe, I would recommend William Urry’s Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury and Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning and for Walsingham, though long since out of print and out of date, Conyers Read’s three volume Mr. Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Hutchinson