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The Folger Spotlight

'A Tip for the Hangman' by Allison Epstein

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words continues on Thursday, March 2 with a discussion of A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this journey through Elizabethan London and espionage.

What is A Tip for the Hangman about?

An Elizabethan espionage thriller in which playwright Christopher Marlowe spies on Mary, Queen of Scots while navigating the perils of politics, theater, romance—and murder.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe’s last year at Cambridge, he is approached by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster offering an unorthodox career opportunity: going undercover to intercept a Catholic plot to put Mary, Queen of Scots on Elizabeth’s throne. Spying on Queen Mary turns out to be more than Kit bargained for, but his salary allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years he becomes the toast of London’s raucous theater scene. But when Kit finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the world of espionage and treason, he realizes everything he’s worked so hard to attain—including the trust of the man he loves—could vanish in an instant.

Pairing modern language with period detail, Allison Epstein brings Elizabeth’s lavish court, Marlowe’s colorful theater troupe, and the squalor of sixteenth-century London to vivid, teeming life. At the center of the action is Kit himself—an irrepressible, irreverent force of nature.

Critical Reception

“The suspense is palpable, as is the sense of doom, as Marlowe finds himself in thrall to a devil’s bargain and his own inner demons. Epstein breathes life into a celebrated figure, which makes his demise all the more abrupt and horrific.” —The New York Times

“Epstein’s diverting debut gallivants through Elizabethan England. . . . A fun escapade.” —Publishers Weekly

“Marlowe’s story as the playwright may have told it himself: full of adventure, fun … and murder.” —BookRiot

Why did we choose this book?

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection explores not only Shakespeare’s life and works, but also the plays’ historical context, source material, critical and performance histories, and the ways in which they inspire and are adapted by contemporary novelists.

Shakespeare was a member of a thriving theatrical community which included Christopher “Kit” Marlowe. They were thought to have collaborated on the Henry VI trilogy and Shakespeare referenced Marlowe’s death in As You Like It. It’s long been speculated that Marlowe engaged in espionage for the crown, and Epstein explores this idea while simultaneously exploring the religious conflict that characterized England in the 16th century.

Shakespeare and Marlowe: Attributing 'Henry VI' Authorship
Shakespeare Unlimited

Shakespeare and Marlowe: Attributing 'Henry VI' Authorship


Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 67 Oxford University Press drew attention last year for deciding that, in the New Oxford Shakespeare, the plays Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 would no longer be listed as having been written by Shakespeare alone.…

About the author: Allison Epstein

From her website

Allison Epstein earned her M.F.A. in fiction from Northwestern University and a B.A. in creative writing and Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan. A Michigan native, she now lives in Chicago, where she works as an editor. When not writing, she enjoys good theater, bad puns, and fancy jackets. She is the author of A Tip for the Hangman and the forthcoming Let the Dead Bury the Dead.

A white woman with shoulder length dark hair leans against a colorful wall and turns to the right to look at the camera

March’s Bookstore Partner

For this session, we are excited to once again partner with Old Town Books, a general interest local bookshop in the heart of historic Old Town Alexandria. They are passionate about building bookish community through virtual book clubs and author events. Learn more at

Orders can be placed in store or online. Their location on S. Royal Street in Alexandria is open seven days a week from 10AM-7PM.

You can also download the audiobook version of this title from

Purchase your copy of A Tip for the Hangman 

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program

Capitol Hill Community Foundation
Junior League of Washington

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