The Spy of Venice
by Benet Brandreth
Pegasus Books, 2018
Benet Brandreth's exuberant debut novel, The Spy of Venice, the first in a very high-spirited series of novels starring William Shakespeare, has appeared in the US, and it's an unabashed, even gluttonous feast for lovers of classic Shakespearean historical fiction. It stars a young Shakespeare hot-footing it out of Stratford and away from his wife and children, bent on the bustling metropolis of London and eventually the fractious company of the King's Men acting company and the other two stars of the book, King's Men stalwarts, charismatic John Hemminges and fat old Nicholas Oldcastle. Soon enough the plot's many broiling elements send our hero to Venice and even more back-alley dangers than he faced in London.
It's well over 400 pages of very pleasing froth, every Bardish character-detail culled faithfully from Nicholas Rowe's little pamphlet of folklore, nonsense, and very obvious lies: a deer-related incident back home in Stratford, a strangely amorphous theatrical quasi-apprenticeship, a neophyte country bumpkin who absorbs every single word said anywhere near him like some kind of codpieced sponge. In novels of this kind – and this is the most energetic and enjoyable example since Robert Nye's The Late Mr. Shakespeare 20 years ago.
Readers of this kind of fiction (and those readers won't be Shakespeare scholars, or at least not tenured ones) will know what to expect. Tavern scenes, street brawls, scheming aristocrats, the Elizabethan underworld, a bit about Marlowe, a nod at the Dark Lady, and – in a move Brandreth makes with positively terrier-level dedication. When a pit bear gets loose during a street brawl between our King's Men and some London ruffians, for example, readers know long before the end of the scene how the scene will end:
The bear had been confused by the noise and clatter of the people fleeing. Now it saw before it Towne and his two companions. It set its wrathful heart upon them and reared up to its full height. Long claws still red from the blood of broken dogs were held high above its head. The tall man held his knife before him, eyes bright with horror. A deep and angry growl, rumbling like barrels rolled over cobbles, issued forth from the bear. Towne squealed with fear and turned and fled into the crowd. His equally terrified companions followed. The bear dropped to all fours and loped after them.
The carter was oblivious to the man-made nature of the bear's escape, intent solely on its recapture. William dropped to the ground and worked his way round to where Hemmings stood, breathing hard. Perched on a windowsill above him was Oldcastle.
'An undignified exit. Pursued by a bear,' Oldcastle called out as William approached.
This is good solid fun, but there are two problems with it, one small and one large. The small problem is in the details: baited bears most often had pulled or blunted claws (and standing bears don't wave their paws high over their heads like drunken fans at a Megadeath concert). This kind of small problem crops up with slightly depressing regularity in the book – little details just slightly off in minor, only minimally distracting ways. “There are not many gardens in Venice,” readers are told. “A city plucked perilously up out of the waters of a lagoon does not spare land lightly” – which is very true for 21st century Venice but much less so in Shakespeare's day (a 16th-century Venetian would have been baffled by “There are not many gardens in Venice”). With luck, this is the kind of tic that owes more to debut fiction than to distracted research – the second book in the series, The Assassin of Verona, is published in the US in 2019 and will tell the tale.
The larger of the two problems is widespread in historical fiction starring Shakespeare and is the very breath of life in The Spy of Venice: this device by which every single thing that happens or is said anywhere near Shakespeare is immediately subsumed into the fruity loam of his long-term unconscious memory, to be disgorged virtually unchanged somewhere down the line when he gets around to the boring old business of writing plays. This is a fun spot-'em game for Shakespeare aficionados (Brandreth gives such readers treats like this in every chapter, virtually on every page), but it's end result is a Shakespeare who remembers everything but actually creates nothing; it removes the Bard as genius and puts in his place the Bard as spy-cam. It's a gimmick Shakespeare fictionists should discard as soon as humanly possible.
But as denuding as this tendency is, it won't very much blunt the enjoyment of The Spy of Venice. Brandreth has crafted a predictable but intensely fun re-animation of Shakespeare and his day, and he very wisely recognizes that the chemistry of his King's Men is a big key to the book's likability. It wouldn't do to let hearty Oldcastle and compelling Hemminges steal the show, but it's undeniably wise to let them come this close.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.