Christopher Wild by Kathe Koja

Kit Marlowe, three times over: Christopher Wild by Kathe Koja


Christopher Wild is an imaginative historical novel, a menacing dystopia, and a grimy city tale in one. It tells a raucous life, a claustrophobic life, a poet’s life, three times over: the trajectory of Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe in his historical setting and beyond. The first third is Marlowe as he faces danger from the Service for his role as an intelligencer, his famous plays, and his infamous pronouncements about religion and beyond. The second part is a twentieth-century tale of a gritty poet’s life, tied up in gay bars and covert investigation. The final section is a near-future dystopia of intense surveillance, where the poet known as X04 is fighting for his freedom.

Koja’s book puts an unusual spin on a historical figure who has been the focus of plenty of written works previously, from conspiracy theory novels claiming that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s works  to Burgess’ delightfully playful A Dead Man in Deptford. The first section reads like another in this line, the fan fiction about the outrageous life of an apparent gay atheist spy turned poet and playwright from the late sixteenth-century. The fast-paced prose hurtles forward and the references are piled in, meaning that it can feel like a whistle-stop tour of every mention that needs to be made about Marlowe’s life. For fans of him and novels about him, this feels a bit too obvious, but the references are necessary for less knowledgable readers to be able to appreciate the later two parts.

The remaining two thirds of the novel tell two other stories, other outspoken Christophers who also write poetry, fight the authorities, and sleep with a complicated tangle of men. Koja takes advantage of the looseness of Elizabethan spelling to create new versions and echoes of characters and scenarios in a way that will probably delight some and annoy others. Every version reads Ovid and Lucan (the real Marlowe translated works by both of them), smokes tobacco (as per the infamous ‘all who love not tobacco and boys are fools’ line from Richard Baines’ list of accusations), and writes poetry. The prose style that captures a tumultuous Elizabethan London doesn’t slow down, and whilst it is slightly less effective in the later sections, it allows for a poetic style and an overlaying of words that matches the way the narrative and characters are overtly replicated.

This kind of transformative work is nothing new (and indeed there are plenty of examples in literature and on the internet of people doing similar not only with Marlowe, but with a whole range of historical figures), but Koja’s combination of the settings does feel fresh, particularly the final scenario in which the dark web and digital surveillance give a new meaning to the spy-intelligence-based drama of Marlowe’s probable life. Marlowe fans are likely to enjoy the ride, even if some of the ideas (like that he was forced into writing a new play about the secret service that led to his death) are somewhat out there. As novels, TV shows, and films about Shakespeare continue to proliferate (and often reduce Marlowe to a bit part), it is always good to see more attempts to present elements of Marlowe’s life in new fictional ways.

[And in case you missed it, here’s the drinking game I invented whilst reading this book.]

Fiction about Christopher Marlowe: the drinking game

  • Drink every time they get in an unsubtle use of the ‘tobacco and boys’ comment.
  • In fact, drink whenever a line is clearly using the Baines note as its source.
  • Drink every time he is referred to or refers to himself as one of his characters. Drink again if he quotes his own lines (or paraphrases for no apparent reason).
  • Drink every time ‘Ganymede’ is mentioned (this rule stands for his actual works too).
  • Drink every time one of the Toms is mentioned—Watson, Walsingham, Kyd, Nashe, etc—and finish your drink if this is turned into some kind of tom cat/Kit pun.
  • Drink whenever Shakespeare comes up in some overly casual way. Finish your drink if it is to call him a countryside yokel or an upstart.
  • On the flip side, if the thing is about Shakespeare and Marlowe is a side character, drink whenever Marlowe is in a scene or is implied to be a friendly rival to spur Will on and then die to get out of his way. Consume everything within reach if Kit is solely there to make flirtatious comments and talk about Hell.

‘All they that love not tobacco and boys’: a Christopher Marlowe reading list

February is LGBTQ history month here in the UK and for the first of hopefully a few posts to mark the occasion, I’m going to offer up some reading suggestions for Christopher Marlowe, everyone’s favourite suspiciously murdered, probable gay atheist spy playwright.

The title comes from the infamous ‘Baines note’, a document written by Richard Baines accusing Marlowe of saying ‘That all they that loue not Tobacco & Boies were fooles’ and also, amongst other things, ‘That St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma.’ Whether or not Marlowe did go around shouting such proclamations in late sixteenth century London (see Burgess’ novel A Dead Man in Deptford for the fictional image of him doing exactly that), his works show a fair deal of men loving men.

Marlowe is probably most famous (writing wise, as he’s probably most famous in general for being Shakespeare’s rival who was killed with a stab to the eye) for Doctor Faustus, his play on the Faust myth full of dramatic speeches on predestination, playing pranks on the Pope, and a devil a little too infatuated with Faustus, so I’m going to skip over that and start with the obvious for this list.

  • Edward II – Marlowe’s play on the English monarch overthrown by his barons for not being a very good king and preferring to just give a load of titles to his favourites, particularly Piers Gaveston. Marlowe spends plenty of time emphasising how much Edward loves Gaveston, despite this being not so great for his realm, and comparing them to classical male lovers.  Also famous for Derek Jarman’s incredibly artsy film adaptation which, among other things, adds in the word ‘fuck’.
  • Hero and Leander – A narrative poem about the hardships of two heterosexual lovers doesn’t sound like Marlowe, but he does add in a narrator who gives a very lingering description of Leander’s naked back and claims that ‘in his looks were all that men desire.’ Plus he’s compared to Ganymede, Jupiter’s male love/obsession/cupbearer, and if there was ever a Marlowe drinking game, it would be for how often he references Ganymede.
  • Dido Queen of Carthage – On that note, to see Ganymede and Jupiter in action (not quite like that), the opening scene of Marlowe’s play about Dido features them doing some godly fooling around before the plot begins. For basically no reason. Others of the four plays I’ve not mentioned here also mention Ganymede, unnecessarily.
  • Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy by Park Honan – I’ve finished up with the best Marlowe biography out there, because he’s nothing if not fascinating to read about. Honan’s book is readable and doesn’t require you to have an infinite memory for the names of early modern spies (as Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning does, though it is also worth reading if you like Marlowe).

Marlovian tales: The School of Night by Peter Whelan


Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet, and probable Elizabethan spy, is the perfect kind of historical figure to include in fiction. The information about his life is both striking and mysterious, with unexplained gaps of time and a suspicious death. Peter Whelan’s play The School of Night is one of many fictionalisations of Marlowe and doesn’t do anything particularly notable, but that doesn’t stop it being enjoyable.

First performed in 1992 and thus predating the publication of Anthony Burgess’ fantastic A Dead Man in Deptford, The School of Night features Kit Marlowe at Thomas Walsingham’s home in Scadbury, attempting to influence life with dramatic performance. For Marlowe fans, the characters are familiar: Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Walsingham and his wife Audrey, Walter Raleigh, and the infamous men surrounding Marlowe’s death, Frizer, Poley and Skeres. Questions of religion, scandal, and betrayal haunt the plot, again no surprise to anyone with familiarity of Marlowe’s biography.The interactions between the characters and the play’s dialogue are what particularly help to make it stand out, combining literary and historical references with the kind of sixteenth century intellectual banter that draws you into the world.

 As with many fictional Marlowe works, Whelan inevitably is drawn towards the Shakespeare question, weaving the more famous poet into the narrative and playing around with the claims that Marlowe either wrote Shakespeare’s works or was in deep competition with them whilst he lived. Whilst Whelan’s version manages to keep elements of this enigmatic, the plot requires the big Shakespeare question that Burgess was wise to sidestep in his novel about Marlowe. Luckily, Marlowe is written as a big enough character to keep himself central in his own narrative.

The School of Night is a worthwhile read for Marlowe fans, because unlike some other fictional versions of the playwright (for example, Tamburlaine Must Die) this one is solidly written and gets in all the major details or possible details of his life. For those more familiar with works centred on Shakespeare, the play may illuminate more about Marlowe the bit character in Shakespeare’s real/fictional life (though I’d recommend reading Park Honan’s biography of Marlowe too as the play format does not leave space for historical detail or elaboration).