For someone who dislikes the use of real people as characters in fiction, I do seem to keep reading it. I admit it: I see the name "Shakespeare" associated with something, it's going to attract my attention, and it's probably going to be something I'm going to take a shot on. It's also going to be something I'm going to be very hard on – not because I have Shakespeare up on a pedestal, so much, but because I know just about enough of the period and about him, and I take it seriously enough, for warning bells to go off all over the place when it's screwed up.
To me, messing with the history is screwing up. I'm looking at you, Roland Emmerich.
That being said, there are certainly exceptions that are the reason I keep trying despite all the miserable failures. I'm happy to excuse any number of liberties if the writing and characterization makes it worthwhile. If that Oxfordian movie which appropriately shall remain nameless had been well done, I would have forgiven some (not all) of the liberties it took. (Shakespeare killing Marlowe, though? Unforgivable.)
Her Majesty's Will is very much one of the exceptions. It takes liberties – and the writing and characterization and spirit behind the book make it utterly worthwhile. The writing was a delight – Shakespearian allusions and phrasing and inside jokes scattered all throughout -
"The rest, as they say, is a mystery."
- and all dealt with such skill and dexterity that I loved just about every moment of the romp. (In my mind the Dark Lady will never be the same again.)
And romp it was. There's no agenda. There's no attempt to put this forward as anything more than a fond and playful and knowledgeable tale which fills in some of the blanks in Shakespeare's biography. The author himself unapologetically – well, sort of apologetically – states fore and aft that that's what this is: a "what-if" pursued for pure fun. And fun it was.
We first meet a young Will… er, Falstaff trying to drill a group of his students through a performance of a play he's written, and right there is a sign that this will work: if Falstaff wasn't a play on "Shakespeare", now it feels like it should have been. Which is kind of how I came to see all of it: if it's not factual, it possibly could have been, and maybe should have been. A commotion outside Will's classroom brings him to the rescue of a woman of such beauty he is instantly, utterly smitten. This lady of the raven-dark hair and eyes (yes, this Dark Lady) is not, shall we say, what she seems, and before he can catch his breath Will is off on unforeseen adventure, on a quest to safeguard the Queen at the side of the mercurial Kit Marlowe.
That's how the whole book runs. Rather than something like Doctor Who's "The Shakespeare Code", in which the Doctor keeps tossing out quotes which Shakespeare catches and files away for future use verbatim, here the seeds for many a scene, many a line, many a character and plot device are planted. (I don't think anyone's ever put forward that idea for the identity of the Dark Lady. Ever.) Even the birth of Will's determination to write is here, and it's plausible, both for the character and the historical figure. And, dammit, it makes a hash out of the basis for the Oxfordian theory, which is pure cake.
The relationship between Will and Kit is a tangled and complicated and, for me, absolutely enjoyable one which takes in Marlowe's historic infamy and Shakespeare's possible infamy. Kit is brilliant, funny, competitive, self-centered, and not to be trusted very far in much of any circumstance. He is a boon companion and dazzling conversationalist, unquestioningly confident in his own abilities and attractions, aware that there are people who hate him with as great a passion as he loves himself and apparently amused by it. He's Puck; he's Feste; he's Mercutio. He's exactly as he exists in my imagination.
And Will? He's young, and bitter; he's brilliant and underemployed; he's eager and filled with dreams of London and – necessarily – quick to get his feet under him in any situation. He's well aware of Marlowe's interest in him, and while he shies away from it, he can't shake that initial impression Kit had on him. His life is changing, in ways he never dreamed of. I have to say, this is possibly my favorite fictional version of any person, taking into account every scant aspect of the historical Shakespeare I could think of and a few more, and fabricating a character who … works. He lives and breathes and laughs and loves, and he is utterly believable.
Is this a serious attempt at filling in the blanks of the historical record? I don't think so. The author is self-deprecating in his notes, and strikes me as someone who would not presume (or bother) to put forward yet another "biography". What it is is a knowledgeable, confident, obviously loving tapestry woven out of shreds and patches and actual history into a fantasy, a what-if. Did Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe really foil the Babington Plot? No, almost certainly not. But history is written by the victors, and in this case one of the victors was also one of the most devious men who ever lived, who had every resource to shape the writing exactly as he wanted it. And he would not want those two upstart inconvenient young men to receive any particle of credit. It's lovely to imagine Walsingham thinking "Darn those meddling kids!" and ensuring that neither of them was ever mentioned in the historical record.
It's fun. It's accurate in spirit if nothing else. I loved it. I'd love more. Does Kit actually face the reckoning in the small room? Or is that all a tissue of lies to cover his continued espionage (and debauchery)? *waits hopefully*