Nicholl: The Reckoning (review)

Our victim was brash, talented, and stabbed just above the eye before his 30th birthday …

BH the reckoning

Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (Vintage:  London, 2002)

– – –

‘I am not trying to argue that Marlowe’s death has to have a meaning.  My reading tends only to a more complex kind of meaninglessness than that of a ‘tavern brawl’.

David Riggs‘ marvellous ‘The World of Christopher Marlowe‘ (Faber & Faber:  London, 2004) led me to this work.

Whilst the focus is very much on the early – perhaps tragic – death of the charismatic trailblazer of modern drama, Nicholl also gives us a systemic overview of the incestuous and claustrophobic world of Elizabethan intelligence services.


Frequently described by Nicholls as a ‘poet-spy’, Marlowe (and others, like Thomas Kyd) occupied the common ground where the worlds of poetry and espionage collided and overlapped.  Nicholls provides a compelling case for the similarities between these two groups, and the exigencies which might lead an impoverished poet to try his hand at what John Le Carré is quoted by Nicholl as calling ‘secret theatre of our society‘.

We meet an almost overwhelming cast of ruthless, minor-league Machiavells:  Nicholls paints a bleak picture of a society riddled with ambitious, untustworthy young men, each quite prepared to fabricate evidence or ‘project’ snares to entrap the unwitting.    An interesting section focuses on The Babington Plot which resulted in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – partly because it exposes the methods of Walsingham and his agents, but also because various names crop up who are later important in Marlowe’s death.

This is no elegy or lionisation of Marlowe. At best, he echoes Thomas Nashe‘s tribute that:

‘His life he contemned in comparison of the liberty of speech’

but Nicholls also reaches the regretful conclusion that:

‘Marlowe enters this devious, predatory company because he was himself a devious, predatory young man.’

In Richard II, Sir Pierce of Exton claims to have inferred a deadly instruction from Bolingbroke:

he wistly look’d on me,
And who should say, ‘I would thou wert the man’
That would divorce this terror from my heart;’
Meaning the king at Pomfret. Come, let’s go:
I am the king’s friend, and will rid his foe. [a]

and this tends to Nicholls’ conclusion – not that Marlowe was murdered on specific orders from above, but more, perhaps, that Frazier Ingram and his accomplices believed that killing him would gain them friends in high places.  Marlowe lived by the sword, and eventually died by it.

The book is well written, plausible and detailed.  It’s almost a police procedural of a 400-year-old cold case.  If there’s one complaint to be made it is that the cast of characters he surveys is sometimes hard to keep track of – the book is almost too complete in its scholarly scope.

Otherwise, an excellent read.  ****/*

You can find other – short – reviews/recommendations of over 80 Shakespeare / Early Modern books here.

Alternatively, for longer reviews of fewer books, visit this page.

[a]   William Shakespeare, Richard II (V.iv) at


Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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