This book has not been an attempt to prove that Christopher Marlowe staged his own death, fled to the Continent and went on to write the works attributed to Shakespeare. It assumes that as its starting point... By assuming the seemingly preposterous I have hoped to shake up our notions of the possible, or at the very least to look a little more sharply at how we construct truth. I have done this in a spirit of fun, and with the intention of a little saucy iconoclasm. (p.314)
Witty, erudite and curiously credible alternate history, if that's the right word for a book that purports to document and analyse the post-1593 career of Christopher Marlowe.
Bolt is open about his sources, real and fictional -- there are extensive end-notes -- and doesn't have to stretch the truth too much to make a narrative as coherent as the thing we call history. Bolt does invent a few supporting characters, the most vivid of whom is Oliver Laurens, an old schoolfriend of Marlowe's, who aids, abets, couriers and comments. And he does give into the temptation to have Marlowe encounter everybody who was anybody (from Monteverdi to Cervantes, Rosencrantz to Rubens), though there's a good case to be made for Renaissance Europe being quite a small network of scholars, poets, artists, and other riff-raff.
(I confess I laughed out loud at Bolt's Kit Marlowe (in disguise as a Fleming) telling Monteverdi to skip the classics and instead have as subject of his new-fangled 'opera' thingie the tale of a mad Moor. Hold your horses, sir: Verdi doesn't get around to Othello for nearly 300 years ... and anyway, someone has to write the play first.)
Bolt's Shakespeare is an overreaching fellow, ambitious without talent, only too happy to pass Marlowe's plays as his own (and make occasional unauthorised amendments, to Marlowe's disgust). Bolt is not very kind to Shakespeare, as is evident from his chosen Foreword, allegedly by 'Sam L. Clements D. Litt.' (it's a slightly-adapted reproduction of chapter three of Mark Twain's Is Shakespeare Dead?). If Shakespeare had owned a dog ... we know he would have mentioned it in his will. If a good dog, Susannah would have got it; if an inferior one his wife would have got a dower interest in it. (p. xvi)
Incidentally, Bolt is rather kinder to Thomas Kyd, who swore under torture that some incriminating papers in his room dated back to Marlowe's presence two years before. We must reserve judgement on a man who had not tidied up in two years. (p. 198)
There's cunning use of anagrams, ciphers, allusion and echo: Bolt traces the hand-to-mouth life of an exile, complete with creative crises, extravagant love affairs, and a dose of the clap, through references to 'Shakespeare's' plays. I spotted one or two minor glitches, which probably means there are others. For instance, Bolt seems (p. 63) to read 'not yet two score' as 'under twenty': it's 'under forty'. On the whole, though, the fiction's well-constructed, and there's no difficulty separating genuine historical fact(oid) from flight of fancy.
I am not a Marlovian (though Bolt raises a couple of good objections to Shakespeare as Onlie Begetter etc: no eulogy for Elizabeth? No ode for her successor James? Not a single book in his possession at his death?). I don't believe in the story set out here -- but I have suspended disbelief, and to an extent engaged my enthusiasm for story, because of the sheer sparkling bravado of History Play. Play's the thing!