am 28. Oktober 2012
This is, hands down, one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. I had a silly grin on my face much of the time, I laughed, I whooped, I cheered. And I think I'd have done that even without a passionate interest in all things Shakespeare. Though of course that was an extra bonus. Because, fellow citizens of the virtual world, this is a swashbuckling romp starring young Will Shakespeare and Christopher "Kit" Marlowe.
The author uses one of the theories about what Shakespeare did between the time he got married and the time he starts writing plays and acting in London, for which we have no documentation whatsover, to wit: he's being bored and frustrated as a schoolmaster (under the nome de plume of Will Falstaff because of that run in with Sir Thomas Lucy and the law back in Warwickshire) in Lancastershire when what appears to be a gorgeous dark haired woman is getting molested by a couple of ruffians. Before you can say Dark Lady Will intervenes. Except the Dark Lady is actually not a woman at all but Christopher Marlowe in spying disguise, the ruffians aren't after "her" virtue but after a conspiracy-incriminating letter Kit Marlowe has stolen, and before you know it Will and Kit are on the run together, having managed to stumble across the Babington plot which means not only are Catholic spies after them but so is Sir Francis Walsingham, lest they uncover his double agent. Cue lots of witty dialogue, bawdy puns, hair-raising escapes, and lots and lots of flirting between our two heroes, and I don't mean in an annoying nudge-nudge, wink-wink subtextual way, I mean textual, with Will surprising Kit by being an excellent kisser.
It's the ideal book to have a good and glorious time with in an intelligent way, and there's even a bonus Oxfordian put-down for those of us who are Shakespeareans. Actually, there are two; when our lads have arrived in London someone brings up the Earl of Oxford and Will says "who?", and the other comes when Will and Kit have enlisted some other of the Elizabethan wits and playwrights to help decypher them the Very Very Secret Encrypted Code. Earlier, Will and Kit saw a performance of Kyd's Spanish Tragedy which Will loved but Kit did not, and now the other gents, all of whom, except for Will, attended university, are gleefully tearing Kyd and his play apart. Our hero listens and finds himself getting increasingly pissed off at the lot of them, for:
For ten minutes the three University men heaped coals upon the head of the absent Kyd and his play. It was hard to say which offended them more, the fact that Kyd had attempted the feat, or that he had pulled it off. Unable to fault the end result, they took turns abhorring and lamenting his audacity for daring to write one in the first place. (...) Will had never before dreamed of being a playwright. Actor? Yes, that profession had fascinated him since his first taste of the stage in his tender years. But never had he thought to set quill to paper and become a joiner of words. (...) Yet, hearing the litany of abuses hurled at a humble man of no formal education just because he had attempted to write a play, the force of Will's temper fashioned a new weapon. This time his anger was not hot, but cooly calm as he found himself with a new, all consuming desire. When this was all finished, when their lives were safe and the threat passed, he would spite these pompous, self-indulgent, self-congratulating men of high birth and low morals by bending his mind to do the very thing they were ridiculing. Will would write plays.
Oh yeah. But mainly the book is, as mentioned, a romp, with Kit M. being the charming, loyalties-not-quite-certain flamboyant trickster character and Will his straight man (err, bi man?) who, however, is the more intelligent of the two, especially when it comes to puzzle-solving. They make a fantastic Elizabethan duo, and I hope for more of their adventures, but if this remains their only foray, it's a glorious one. The only complaint I could make is that the author does something which I consider cheating, though your mileage may differ. No matter how much you fictionalize his life, there's no getting around the fact Shakespeare was an often absent, cheating and probably not that stellar husband. In the past, male biographers often went the "blame the wife" route (she's older! She trapped him by getting pregnant! She probably was a Puritan and didn't understand his plays!). Brixt comes up with a new version: They did marry because Anne was pregnant, but not by Will, by her father's groom whom her family wouldn't let her marry, and the Shakespeareas needed the money from her dowry because John Shakespeare had drunken so much of their own away, so basically the marriage is a beard-type marriage and the children are the groom's. Now Brixt is firm on the subject of Anne not being a slut, just in love with a man she can't marry, and I suppose it's nicer to imagine her happy in Will's absence, but somehow I suspect the main purpose for this bit of backstory which comes to light half way through is so Will can hit on women and flirt with Kit without the reader having to wonder, um, what about the wife and children back at home? And I don't think that was necessary; he'd still have been likeable as someone who simply wasn't cut out to be husband material and wanted more of life than Stratford.
But that is really the only nitpick I have, and it's a minor one, in the face of all the other good qualities the book has. It made me happy, it'll make you happy if you read it, and I badly want a sequel. Not just for more adventures of these particular versions of Will and Kit, but also for the many other colourful characters, from the Elizabethan underworld via actors, playwrights and fools (err, the professional type) to ruthless Walsingham and Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting Helena of Snakenborg, Marchionness of Southampton, who in my mind is played by Cate Blanchett as a 40 something no nonsense Elizabethan lady. And now excuse me while I must read it again!