David Riggs's The World of Christopher Marlowe and Park Honan's Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy both concern themselves centrally with Marlowe's secret life as a spy. Neither has very much new documentary evidence to add to the tangled web of fact and speculation that Charles Nicholl expertly wove in The Reckoning. For sheer narrative pleasure, Nicholl's book remains unrivaled, but its focus is sharply on Marlowe's murder. Nicholl has very little to say about the plays and poems that make this murder seem a catastrophe for literature comparable to the killing of Pushkin. Both Riggs and Honan, by contrast, have a specific interest in literary lives—Riggs has written a fine biography of Ben Jonson; Honan of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and others —and both are determined, as Nicholl is not, to tease out the relation between Marlowe's espionage and his art. "Marlowe's work as a spy," Honan writes, "has to be seen in the light of his devotion to his art."
But what does this actually mean? At moments it is simply a reminder that Marlowe had more on his mind at Cambridge than betraying his friends. He continued the passionate engagement with literature, and particularly with classical literature, that he must have begun as a student at the King's School in Canterbury. Shakespeare characteristically makes fun of the years in which he was himself a "whining schoolboy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school." But Marlowe's encounter with the classics, though it must have included its share of mind-numbing tedium and routine beatings, was life-transforming: "It may be that no discovery he made," Honan remarks, "and no love he ever felt, affected his mind and feelings so terribly, so unsettlingly, as the writers of ancient Rome."
Riggs is particularly acute on the syllabus that an ordinary Elizabethan schoolboy would have slogged his way through: Lyly's introductory Latin Grammar, Susenbrotus's Epitome of Schemes and Tropes, with its practical instruction in paraphrase, contrast, comparison, example, and vivid description, Aphthonius's Progymnasmata, with its guide to organizing thoughts into a continuous argument. Out of such dry bones, and out of an astonishingly intense reading of Terence and Lucretius, Virgil and Ovid, the young Marlowe fashioned his own poetic voice, a voice that had never before been heard in English. "For his peers," Riggs writes, "Marlowe's great achievements were an English blank verse line that stood up to Virgil's stately measures, and a rhymed English couplet that reproduced the elegance and wit of Ovid's love poetry."