It’s 1593 and the Black Plague has closed all the theatres in London.
Christopher Marlowe, London’s newest premier playwright and poet, (young, handsome, and “so wickedly cute,” as he was known at court) has recently moved into Scadbury Manor with powerful Lord Thomas Walsingham, his new patron.
What the world doesn’t know is that Marlowe and Walsingham, who met when both were in the Queen’s Royal Spy Service, are lovers. In sixteenth century London, homosexuality was accepted “just so long as one stayed within one’s own social class.” After all, so many of the kings, including Richard II, James I and others, made no secret of their gay affairs.
But problems arise when Marlowe, London’s enfant terrible, goes too far with his myriad of rantings against the crown’s newly formed Protestant church. (“Jesus was just a magician,” Marlowe spews about town. “His mother was a whore. And furthermore, he loved John the Evangelist and used him as did the sinners of Sodom.”)
This is too much – even for one of the Queen’s spies – and the English Privy Council has Marlowe’s previous home searched and issues an edict for his arrest on charges of treason.
When Sir Thomas tries to intervene, he is told his only option is to arrange to have Marlowe meet with a “fatal accident.” This would allow Sir Thomas to be sure the murder was done humanely and the crown would avoid a contentious trial for a popular literary figure.
Consequently, Sir Thomas and Marlowe plot a “murder” following a brawl in a tavern far from London. The fight ends with London’s most prominent playwright stabbed and immediately buried in an unmarked grave in an isolated country churchyard. As history has shown, there were no ceremonies. No tributes. No knowledge of where the grave was. Nothing.
So it’s no wonder that the Privy Council becomes suspicious and sends Constable Henry Maunder to check out the facts. A clash of wits ensures between ultra-clever Walsingham and the Columbo-type Constable.
But the situation becomes even more precarious when Marlowe, now hiding in Scadbury Manor, becomes impatient to have his latest works staged.
So Sir Walsingham finds an unknown actor, who, as history has shown, was better known at the time for “holding horses for the gentry while they watched plays.” He’s self-centered, inept, a “dull blade in a drawer of daggers,” named William Shakespeare. He agrees to recopy the plays and become another of the many unknown playwrights of London.
But this plan has problems. As the Shakespeare-Marlowe plays become very popular, Constable Maunder, much like present day historians, begins to wonder. “Why are there more than a hundred duplicate lines in the works of Shakespeare and the late poet Marlowe,” but no duplicates with any other writers.
One night Sir Walsingham learns of a planned massive search of his manor the following day to try to unearth Marlowe. Using himself as a decoy, Walsingham is able to allow Marlowe to escape to Italy, where he continues to write.
But it doesn’t take long for the constable Maunder to realize that Marlowe must be in Italy, moving from city to city. Plays by Shakespeare almost plot Marlowe’s path across the country.The Merchant of Venice and Othello are both set in Venice. Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet are about Verona. Taming of the Shrew is set in Padua; and play after play tread from Milan to Messina to Naples to Sicily. Like a map!
The Constable sends spy after spy to Italy to try to apprehend his prey, sometimes resulting in hair-raising traps that Marlowe, the former master-spy, narrowly escapes.
The more Marlowe evades each ambush, the more the Privy Council becomes angry at the way he is making a mockery of the monarch and the entire English judicial system.
So Maunder devises a deadly contest. He send two spies to Italy, each with the same assignment: kill Marlowe and the other spy. Only one spy can return.
The novel contains mystery, suspense, comedy, drama, and a tender, though illicit, love story. It’s wild with Elizabethan characters in an accurate and ornate look at the 16th century underbelly of London.
The book is based on recorded facts and documents. A supplement at the end of the book reveals which details were factual and which, for lack of records, were created. Only one date has been changed for dramatic purposes.
It’s a tale of the greatest literary deception of all time. It’s...
The Shakespeare Conspiracy