Pursued by a bear…
😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
A new playhouse is opening in London and the owners are determined to make it a huge success. Actors are easy to get hold of but new plays are the magic that bring in the playgoers. Over at the Theatre, Richard Shakespeare is struggling to survive on the measly wages he receives. He’s getting too old to play women’s roles and his older brother Will won’t promise him roles playing men. He seems like the perfect target for the new playhouse – offer him regular well-paid work and perhaps he’d be willing to steal the two new scripts Will is working on – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet – and if he won’t, maybe another member of Shakespeare’s company will…
This is a fairly light-hearted novel set in the world of Shakespeare’s London. Cornwell has undoubtedly taken some fictional liberties with the characters of Will and Richard Shakespeare, so it may not be one for purists, but otherwise it feels well researched to me, though I’m certainly no expert. Richard is a likeable character and it’s his voice that tells us the tale. Will is not likeable and seems to really resent his younger brother, for reasons that I felt were never made totally clear, though I think we are probably supposed to assume that he feels Richard is trying to cash in on his success. Whatever the reason, the story is as much about these two men learning to respect each other as it is about the actual plot. And in the course of the book, Richard falls in love, so there’s a romantic sub-plot too.
The company are rehearsing Will’s new comedy which has been commissioned by their patron Lord Hunsdon to be performed as part of his daughter’s wedding celebrations. Cornwell gives an interesting and often amusing account of how a play would have been developed back in those days, with parts designed around the talents of the regular cast and due attention paid to flattering patrons while ensuring that no reason could be found to ban it. He shows how the powerful Puritan lobby were against theatre in principle, but that Queen Elizabeth’s love of it meant they were frustrated in their desire to have it prohibited. Shakespeare’s company were in the privileged position of having the Lord Chamberlain as patron, but they still had to be careful not to cross the line. Cornwell takes us not only behind the scenes in the playhouse but also into the houses of the rich who could afford private performances, and even into the presence of Elizabeth herself. I found the details of how the plays were staged fascinating, from the creation of costumes to the need for regular intervals to trim the wicks of the candles that were used to provide lighting.
Cornwell also goes into detail on the story of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This is quite fun at first. It’s a play I’ve never liked or revisited since being forced to study it while way too young to properly appreciate either the language or the comedy, so I was surprised when Cornwell sparked in me a desire to give it another try. However, unfortunately, after a while the detail becomes too much and somewhat repetitive, and it begins to feel more like a tutorial on the subject than a novel. It also slows the thing down too much – the fairly lengthy book is well over halfway before the main plot of the baddies’ attempt to steal Will’s plays really kicks off. Once it does though, it becomes a fine action romp. There is some violence but on the whole it remains light in tone – not nearly as graphic and gory as the only other Cornwell I’ve read, his Viking-world The Last Kingdom.
We also get to see the religious persecution of the time – at this period, of the Catholics by the Protestants – but again Cornwell keeps it light though hinting at the darker aspects of it off-stage, so to speak. And the ever present threat of plague is there too – a threat not just to life but to the actors’ livelihoods too, since any upsurge in the plague would lead to a closure of the theatres to prevent its further spread. Cornwell lets us glimpse the crueller aspects of Elizabethan entertainment too – bear-baiting, etc. All of this together adds up to what feels like a realistic picture of life in London at that period. Cornwell opts not to attempt some kind of faux Tudor language – Richard talks in standard English but has what felt to me like reasonably authentic 16th century attitudes for the most part.
After a fairly slow start, then, I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining venture into Shakespeare’s world. I don’t know whether this is a one-off or the start of a new series from the prolific Cornwell, but I’d certainly be happy to read another.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.
*OK, OK, it’s actually James Cagney as Bottom…