Sunday, June 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

 It seems whenever I’ve read anything about Shakespeare, fiction or nonfiction, there has been a tantalizing glimpse of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe somewhere in the background. Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, also a playwright and poet, a witty, aggressively misbehaving genius, who died too young. It’s also pretty well established, though difficult to prove, that he was a spy for Queen Elizabeth.

A Tip for the Hangman
by Allison Epstein is a superb newly released historical novel that takes what is known about Kit Marlowe and runs with it. Beginning with his impoverished student days at Cambridge, the novel guides Marlowe (and the reader) through the twists and turns of Elizabethan political intrigue and the Protestant-Catholic struggles. By focusing on Marlowe, the story avoids getting bogged down in the historical complexities, but nevertheless presents a richly detailed picture of the problem as well as a fascinating look at the man.

Kit Marlowe is a complicated protagonist. Admired by most, loved by few, and hated by many, Marlowe had a difficult life made more difficult by his obvious, multifaceted genius. His wit could be cruel. He could be crude. He was a blasphemous atheist. His loyalties were to his friends and to the man he loved, not to any greater cause. But it was the “greater cause” that ruled his life and that ended it, though he would have preferred to live long, love well, and write plays.

The pace of the story builds throughout. Marlowe is a conflicted man who sees that each choice he makes has disturbing consequences, and much of the time he is forced merely to choose the lesser of two evils. Choice may not even be the right word, since he is often coerced along the path by events beyond his control, or by mistakes he should have avoided but could not, being the man that he was.

This life of Marlowe’s making is a stew of moral ambiguity. The reader is confronted with the difficult questions and quandaries the artist/spy faced. Epstein’s marvelous writing and careful plotting twine together Marlowe’s art and his reality. The heart-wrenching ending of the book is a masterful culmination of all Marlowe worked for and all he worked to avoid.

Highly recommended.

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