I recently read an entertaining book. It was entitled “History Play”, written by Rodney Bolt. It had an interesting argument. Christopher Marlowe did not die in the tavern brawl in Deptford. In fact he staged his own death so that he could “disappear” and in the following years travelled extensively around the Continent and to the New World. And how do we know this? There are two sources of evidence. The plays attributed to an ambitious but talentless playwright by the name of William Shakespeare which were in fact written by Marlowe, and from a number of “recently discovered” documentary sources that give us possible links to Marlowe’s activities both before and after the “Deptford Incident”. I should say at the outset that the book should not be taken seriously, at least for the argument it advances. But there are other issues that arise that underlie Bolt’s very entertaining and, at times, erudite piece.
The plays, according to Bolt, contain all sorts of minor clues that nestle in the detail of speeches or actions that could only have come from an intimate acquaintance with the subject matter possessed by Marlowe but not by Shakespeare. For example, Marlowe visited his grandparents in Dover and would have been familiar with the view from the cliffs described in King Lear IV vi 11 – 23. In addition there are phrasing similarities that appear in Marlowe’s plays that are duplicated in “Shakespeare”. Marlowe, according to Bolt, travelled widely on the Continent during and after his time as a student at Cambridge. The observations of those he met appear in his plays . The detail of military fortifications described in 2 Tamburlaine are almost verbatim from a military manual written by one Paul Ives, but which was not printed until 1589, thus precluding the possibility of plagiarism. The detail of Danish drinking habits could have been acquired by Marlowe on a visit to Elsinore and are recorded in Hamlet V ii 267-70.
But perhaps most interesting of the sources which provide the evidence are the written and printed materials that have been located in archives or recently discovered collections that connect Marlowe with others after his “death” or which provide background or context for what he wrote either as Marlowe or Shakespeare. It is not for me to question these “sources” although I should note that they do not appear in the bibliography and some of the manuscript sources come only from “private collections” and therefore are incapable of independent verification. What is important is that printed, written or transcribed sources provide valuable and,at times, critical evidence for the historian.
And this leads me to the point of this post. How will the historians of tomorrow fare when most, if not all, of the “documentary” evidence is in digital form, dispersed across cloud servers or retained in locally located hard drives. Will there be a digital equivalent of the Harley, Cotton or Sloane collections of manuscripts held by the British Library that have provided a vital resource for historians. In passing I should note that the British Library is digitising some of its manuscript collection and in my own researches into the early history of legal printing I was aided by Chadwyck-Healey’s invaluable Early English Books Online.
But will there be a modern equivalent of Robert and Edward Harley or Robert Cotton or Hans Sloane, gathering together the digital documents and manuscripts and retaining them for posterity? Are there individuals, even now, salvaging the discarded hard drives and other storage devices against the day when they will provide invaluable evidence for historians? And if so, how and where will these be located. Will the historian, with access to a private library of hard drives serendipitously uncover the trove on information that he or she need to complete the picture?
Of course, the future historian, once the digital archive has been located, should have little difficulty locating the information needed. The use of what lawyers recognise as e-discovery tools will assist in processing and locating the relevant information. The only problem of course is that the future historian will have to have some skill in the use of such tools – unless he or she wishes to pay a highly skilled “e-discovery” analyst.
It may well be that such digital treasure troves will be seen as highly authentic sources. What of the “archived web” do I hear you say? This assumes that the capacity of web archives in the various libraries and on-line archives contain a comprehensive dataset. And the next question is whether that dataset is sufficiently complete. The rise of the so-called “right to be forgotten” will compromise web archives significantly and may well relegate them the the status of secondary authority for digital historians.
“May you live in interesting times” is, I understand, a form of curse. The question is whether, with an absence of stable source material, historians of the future will be able to ascertain if the twenty-first century was an interesting time at all.