This vast two-part historical drama established blank verse -- what Ben Jonson called "Marlowe's mighty line" -- as a medium for drama, and related its hero's whirlwind career with subtlety and feeling. Tamburlaine may rant, but he can also express himself in exquisite poetry, as when the dread warrior rejects a last-minute plea for mercy:
I will not spare these proud Egyptians,
Nor change my martial observations
For all the wealth of Gihon's golden waves,
Or for the love of Venus, would she leave
The angry god of arms and lie with me.
They have refused the offer of their lives,
And know my customs are as peremptory
As wrathful planets, death, or destiny.
Discoveries about Kit Marlowe have produced some of the most exciting works of 20th-century literary scholarship: Leslie Hotson's ground-breaking The Death of Christopher Marlowe; John Bakeless's capacious two-volume Tragical History of Christopher Marlowe (chockablock with documentation); and, not least, Charles Nicholl's award-winning recreation of the shadow-realm of Elizabethan espionage, The Reckoning. To this company we must now add David Riggs's The World of Christopher Marlowe, the best one-volume introduction to its subject's life and times. As his title suggests, Riggs supplements our paltry factual knowledge about Marlowe by describing his various milieux: Canterbury and Cambridge, the London theater scene, the world of religious and intellectual iconoclasm and, finally, the dark realm of terrorist plots and political assassination. It is a good and reliable book.
But it lacks the sheer excitement of the earlier works just mentioned, as it does the pleasure of two fine novels based on Marlowe's life: George Garrett's Entered by the Sun and Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford. Still, Christopher Marlowe is one of those figures about whom one wants to read everything written, and Riggs's book is now the best starting place -- if we exclude the dramas and poems of Marlowe himself, "infinite riches in a little room." Now, if only some scholar would discover the texts of Marlowe's two lost and suggestively titled plays, "The Maiden's Holiday" and "Lust's Dominion."
Michael Dirda's online discussion of books takes place on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.