London 1595 and Richard, younger brother of William Shakespeare is a player in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men where William is both playwright and a sharer (a senior member of the company who shared both its expenses and its profits). Richard’s arrival in London a few years earlier was not welcomed by William. He packed Richard off to St Benet’s Choir School run by the predatory minister, Sir Godfrey Cullen. After three years there Richard was permitted to take a place within the Lord Chamberlain’s Men but because of his youth has only been given women’s roles. Richard, now maturing, dreams of playing a man’s role. He is barely surviving on his income from the theatre—he is behind in his rent and not above petty theft to make ends meet. His relationship with his brother is cool. Richard, handsome and taller with a full head of hair, is resentful and William condescending and callous.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men have been commissioned to perform an original play at the wedding of the granddaughter of Lord Hundson, the Lord Chamberlain himself. Apart from this play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William is writing another set in Verona. He is guarding both plays closely. But a new theatre, The Swan, is being built on the Bankside by the Earl of Lechlade and Francis Langley. Although Langley has players for the new theatre, he has no new plays and proposes that if Richard steals William’s plays he will give him the male roles he wants. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s problems increase when their playhouse, The Theatre, is raided by Pursivants in search of treasonous literature, hidden priests and Catholic religious objects. Richard is under suspicion too as one of his fellow lodgers is an old Catholic priest, Father Lawrence, a gentle man who helps Richard see the beauty of his brother’s poetry. I found the novel hard to get into at first but it is worth perservering with. Once all these elements come together, it is action packed with moments of almost farce to nail biting terror, as well as bawdy humour, and tenderness.
Bernard Cornwell brings London of the 1590s to life: the smells, the filth, the dangers, the precariousness of life. He re-creates the life of the theatre— the actors’ rivalries and competition for parts and numbers of lines, as well as the minutiae of behind the scenes activities involved in staging a play, from make-up and costuming to the sheer terror in the minutes leading up to stepping on the stage. The rehearsals and performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are woven into the latter part of the novel with immediacy and vividness.
The story is told in the first person by Richard Shakespeare who comes across as likeable but not altogether reliable. William is cold, arrogant and quite unbrotherly. Overall the tone of this book is much lighter than Cornwell’s other novels but there is still the undercurrent of danger and an awareness of less savoury aspects of Elizabethan life from the mistreatment of children to the persecution of Catholics.
A more detailed review can be found here.