In hindsight, I guess it was inevitable. You don’t invite someone like Christopher Marlowe into your book without paying the price. Like his Doctor Faustus who sold his soul to the devil, I sold mine to Kit, and from that moment on I didn’t have one iota of control over my own story.
But hey, I was happy to hand over the reins. Kit charmed me as surely as he charmed Will. He had an irresistible combination of confidence and vulnerability that intrigued me. He said what he thought without fear, and yet he could keep a secret for decades. He was open about his orientation, allegedly saying things like “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools”, even though at the time, this could get him hanged.
In Rival Poet, when Will is drawn in by Kit’s charisma, he thinks it’s just ordinary friendship. He thinks it’s just nervousness about meeting a famous playwright, even after half a year of getting to know the man. And when Kit tries to seduce him, he has no idea how to handle it. There’s no positive name for what he’s feeling – sodomite is the go-to term – and no clear-cut identity to wear.
And yet with time, Will does accept it. In some of his plays and poems, he even refers to same sex attraction. When old enemies Coriolanus and Marcius meet under more auspicious circumstances, Marcius bursts out, “Know thou first, I loved the maid I married: never man sigh’d truer breath. But that I see thee here, thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart than when I first saw her bestride my threshold.”
That doesn’t sound entirely straight to me. Of course, we should be wary of reading authors into their characters, but in this case it’s just too darn tempting.
Take this sonnet:
A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
Now, literature analysis is a many-splendoured thing, and no one person has the definite answer. But I think we can agree that the narrator compares the subject of the poem to a woman – he has a feminine face, gentle manners, and glittery eyes (aww…). Everyone adores him, regardless of gender. To begin with, he was even meant to be a woman, but when Nature fell in love with her own creation, she decided to make him a man.
And this is where it gets interesting. The narrator laments, “And by addition me of thee defeated, by adding one thing to my purpose nothing.” In other words, Nature added a cock to the mix, thus making the guy off limits.
Oh, but wait! “Nothing” was also slang for female genitalia at the time, so there could be a double meaning in there: namely, that said cock could serve the same purpose for the narrator as a woman’s bits.
Finally, in case the reader hasn’t yet caught the drift, the next to last line makes a pun, saying that Nature “prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure”. Need any help translating that? Filthy-minded bastard, that Will guy.
Now, I’m not saying this poem is about Kit or anything, not at all. What I am saying is that Shakespeare could identify with men who were attracted to men. Personally, I’m convinced that he was bisexual, but that’s just speculation. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, since we don’t really know anything about the man.
But the fact is, when I researched this book, I read a lot of Marlowe (Shakespeare I was already familiar with), and I was amazed at all the little echoes in their texts. Some people would argue that it was really Marlowe who wrote Shakespeare’s works (which I think is nonsense for reasons too numerous to list here). You could also argue that those echoes are just evidence of two professionals paying homage to and/or stealing from each other.
But how much more romantic is the idea that they were entwined soul to soul, their innermost thoughts reflected in each other, and that they wrote their plays in bed as an extension of their love-making?
Which is exactly what you get in Rival Poet. 😉
Even a genius can be a fool in love.
When young Will Shaksper arrives in London to peddle his poems, he has no idea what he’s in for. Meaning to stay for just a few days, he’s thrown completely off course when he meets Kit Marlowe. Charismatic and dangerous, this wunderkind of verse takes an eager interest in the newcomer. Before Will knows it, their shared passion for poetry has transformed into an attraction as irresistible as it is forbidden.
Because this is the sixteenth century. Love between men isn’t just frowned on, it can lead to the gallows. When Kit is called away on a state mission, Will does his best to suppress the feelings he doesn’t even have a name for.
But how can he write when his muse is gone? Why does Kit keep disappearing? And what’s the awful secret that makes his eyes echo with a lifetime of pain?
A fresh look at two of England’s brightest literary stars, this romance blends the authentic mood of Elizabethan London with contemporary dialogue to paint a love story that’s as alive today as it was four hundred years ago.
“Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” His eyes searched Will’s face curiously, and for a moment Will was hit by the ridiculous thought that his poems had somehow preceded him, that rumour of his rejected writings had reached this man, this shooting star, this paragon of writers. But almost at once he realised that the question wasn’t to be taken literally. It was a pick-up line – a parody of a pick-up line, and therefore impossible to respond to without making an ass of himself.
He stared at the smirking man. “I-I know you,” he stammered stupidly, snippets of Amores and Dido clouding his brain.
Beside him Richard shifted, embarrassed. “Burbage.” He clasped Master Marlowe’s hand, or rather the two fingers not currently employed in elegantly balancing the pipe.
Marlowe smiled briefly. “I know.”
Richard looked stricken for a moment. “Oh, er… I’m, well I’m honoured, Sir – I mean…” His customary cool seemed to have been completely sucked out of him. “Ah… please meet my very good friend William Shakespeare.” He gestured towards Will, apparently eager to deflect the attention.
“Charmed, I’m sure.” Their new acquaintance laid his pipe on the table and enveloped Will’s hand with both of his. They were seething hot and Will almost yanked his hand back. “And please, call me Kit. All my little friends do.” He glanced at the confused trio still waiting for him in the corner.
“I’m such a fan,” Will blurted.
Obviously delighted at the praise, Kit pulled up a chair and sat down. Only when his hand dragged Will down with him did Will realise that he was still holding it. “So… you’re an aspiring dramatist, then?”
“Oh, I… no… well, that is…”
“Never mind.” Kit finally let go of Will’s hand and grabbed Richard’s mug. Realising that it was empty, he set it down again in vague disappointment. “Where are you from? You’re obviously not a Londoner.”
“Never heard of it. Hah! So much for a university degree.” Kit lit his pipe again, seemingly in need of something to do with his hands. “Well, nothing of value was ever taught in such a ridiculous place. Come to think of it, maybe they did mention domestic geography at some point, but education and alcohol really is a detrimental combination! You can’t have one without the other, and yet one innocent drink takes away the whole performance. So, Stratford… a shit-hole, no doubt?”
“On the contrary,” Will protested. “It’s a beautiful place. I was reluctant to leave.”
Kit grinned broadly and slapped Will’s back. “Spoken like a true gentleman! Never let on how much in love you are with the big city, you might come across as a simpleton. Wax lyrical about the unpolluted countryside instead, and you’re automatically in, eh Robert?” He winked at one of his abandoned friends. The one presumably named Robert, a thin man with a straggly red beard, muttered something inaudible in reply. Kit immediately lost interest and turned to Will again. “You should work on that accent, though.”
“Wh… what’s wrong with it?”
“It’s bloody incomprehensible, that’s what’s wrong with it! You don’t think I got to where I am by speaking like a Canterbury ale taster, do you?”
Despite himself, Will chuckled. It was difficult not to be contaminated by Kit’s exuberant manner.
“Hey, you written anything I might know?”
Will hesitated. Was he being ironic again? “Well… not really… I’ve put together some poems, but…”
Kit snorted. “Poems! Stop right there, darling. Your shoes are growing too small for your feet by the minute, and you know it. Poetry and la-di-dah is all very well, but the theatre, now that is the future.”
Will smiled tentatively. “I can see why you’d say that.”
“Setting aside my own glorious self for a minute, think about it: not everyone can read. But even the most down and out hooker has ears, and they flock to the play-houses like simpering lords to Rhenish wine. As a playwright, you have the ear of the entire city – fuck it, you have the ear of the Queen herself! And a soliloquy is poetry in its own right. Only, getting your poetry read aloud by an artiste like Edward Alleyne… not to demean you, sir,” he looked briefly in the direction of Richard, “… that just makes it so much… grander! It’s almost better than sex.”
Will nodded slowly, his mind awash with images of said Alleyne tearing the stage apart in his bloodied shirt. But he didn’t dare compliment Master Marlowe – Kit – on his intimidating talents, for fear of being taunted. Instead he mumbled, “I don’t have the imagination.”
Kit shook his head impatiently. “Don’t be stupid. Stories are ten a penny. It’s what you do with them that counts. It’s all the same crap anyway, life and love and death, blah blah blah. Use whatever’s around, that’s what we all do.”
“Look, when people just buy and read your stuff, you never get to see how your words seduce them. Wouldn’t you like to hear the sea-surge of applause?”
Will felt the dangerous tug of Kit’s imagery and protected himself with feigned annoyance. “I’m sure it’s all very exhilarating, but I’m quite serious when I say that I can only write poetry.”
Kit hesitated, and then shrugged. “So what? We’re the makers of manners, puppy. And verse makes for excellent crutches. That’s why you begin by writing speeches.”
What’s it to you? Will wanted to ask. Instead he said, “I just don’t know how to translate the stories that I love into dialogue. I read something and I’m inspired, you know, but when I try to write, it comes out poetry. I can’t bridge the gap. I can make poetry out of stories, but I can’t make stories out of poetry.”
Kit smiled. “That’s just the kind of phrase that makes me wish you could. You have the art of rhetoric down pat – God knows how you’ve managed to pick that up from your provincial education! All you have to do is push the boat out, and I’m here to help you with that.”
Will frowned at his assailant. Just a few minutes ago, he had been wilting like a dead man in his lonely corner, for all the world like someone who had just lost his whole fortune, and now he was a veritable river of words. “Why do you care anyway?”
Kit looked stricken, but just for a moment. “Well… why did you want to meet me, if not to further your career?”
“I didn’t! I was leaving, it was you who… Ask Richard!”
Kit glanced without interest at Will’s silenced companion. Then he knocked the ashes out of his pipe, put it in his belt and blew the last cloud of smoke into Will’s face. “Tell you what. Why don’t you write a speech about…” He turned to his morose-looking friends who must have given up hope of his company by now. “Robert! You said you needed some kind of soliloquy, didn’t you?”
“What?” The red-bearded man flung up defensive hands. “No, I don’t need any help.”
“Yes you do, shut up. It was Constance, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was, don’t lie to me.” Kit turned to Will again. “He needs this pompous speech, you know, anguished ramblings of the tragic heroine and all that… and he has trouble connecting with his feminine side. His women come off as wooden statues. Don’t they, Robert? Now you, on the other hand,” Kit grabbed a lock of Will’s hair and twisted it between his fingers. “You are surely very good at identifying with girls, am I right?”
Will stared at Kit’s face, suddenly so close to his. This man had no personal space. “Oh, I don’t know… I mean, of course I took on roles at school, but…”
Kit laughed. “And I would have loved to see them! So you’ll submit something?”
“I…” Will looked over Kit’s shoulder at the fuming writer in the corner. “I don’t know, he doesn’t seem to…”
Kit scoffed. “Don’t pay any attention to Robert! He expects me to help him out – he doesn’t see the difference, poor sod, doesn’t realise how glaringly obvious the shift is, from his language to mine, I mean, honestly! But maybe if you wrote it instead, as a fellow amateur your text wouldn’t jar so much against his.”
“We don’t know him,” Robert complained. “He could be worthless.”
“Don’t be so inconsiderate, Robert! We won’t know his worth until we let him try. Besides, we need some new blood. If his text is good enough, you two could even collaborate on something. Or at least he gets to show that no-good printer of his what he missed, and that’s as noble a mission as anything, right?”
Will made a face. So he had been listening in.
“Hey Will, wouldn’t that be great?” Kit implored. “When you’re a famous playwright he’ll come crawling back, begging you to grace his worthless printing house with your immortal poetry!”
Will looked down at the table, striving to hide his smile. “Okay…”
Kit cocked his head. “Okay?”
“Yes, okay. Just to shut you up, mind you.”
Kit grinned broadly. “You’re in good company, my friend. Many a thing has been done just to shut me up.”
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