Cornwell (The Flame Bearer, 2016, etc.) turns from conspiracies of crowned heads to mysteries in the world of Elizabethan theater.
William Shakespeare’s obscure real-life brother, Richard, an actor in William’s company, is a decade younger, quite handsome, and yet resentful, angry, and petulant. His brother’s cold welcome to London might be the cause, or perhaps it’s William’s condescending and cantankerous attitude. Cornwell is superb with mood and setting, whether ugly—London’s “reek of sewage and smoke”—or elegant: “city churches mangled the air by striking eleven.” There are descriptions of theaters, the great open-air structures built outside the city’s walls because the “Puritan fathers of London...detest the playhouses and had banned them." The plot is a mystery within a play. Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, has hired Shakespeare’s company to perform an original play for his granddaughter’s wedding. The Bard is imagining A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the new script will be one of his company’s “most precious possessions.” There was no copyright in those days, and plagiarism was rampant. A company that possessed a script, original or purloined, could perform it without adverse legal consequence. Richard is suborned by agents of the Earl of Lechlade to steal the script to be performed in a newer, larger theater, the Swan. He refuses. The script is stolen. William suspects ambitious, restless Richard. Richard offers to find the script and steal it back, his reward being a promotion to playing male roles. There are details about everything from the mostly Puritan, black-dressed thought police to theater makeup, in which eyes are shadowed with “soot mixed with pork fat.” There are a plethora of characters, everyone distinctively sketched, and there's much ado about Shakespeare’s creative process.
A master craftsman at work: imaginative, intelligent, and just plain fun.