Starting in Marlowe's youth, Burgess paints a detailed picture of Elizabethan England. Marlowe's life as a homosexual may have had difficult consequences, but these were perhaps not as great as those of being a classical playwright and spy for Queen Elizabeth. Early in his spying career, Marlowe is instrumental in the discovery of the Babington Plot, but is sickened by the execution of the conspirators.
Marlowe is portrayed as a secretive, solitary and eventually isolated person. Burgess explores his sexual addiction and passion for the theatre.