Review: The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Ted Bacino

TWO QUESTIONS HAVE ALWAYS PLAGUED HISTORIANS:

HOW COULD Christopher Marlowe, a known spy and England’s foremost playwright, be suspiciously murdered and quickly buried in an unmarked grave — just days before he was to be tried for treason?

HOW COULD William Shakespeare replace Marlowe as England’s greatest playwright virtually overnight — when Shakespeare had never written anything before and was merely an unknown actor?  Historians have noted that the Bard of Stratford was better known at that time “for holding horses for the gentry while they watched plays.”

The Shakespeare Conspiracy is a historical novel that intertwines the two mysteries and then puts the pieces together to offer the only possible resolution.

Review by Erastes

This is a very well researched and meticulously thought out book. I was in awe at just how much work Bacino has put into this, with foreword, and massive appendices.

It’s obviously massively researched and he’s clearly looked up every single point that he’s writing about, from plague to theatres to politics. I have to give Bacino a standing ovation simply for the work he’s done here with a foreword and a huge appendix But..

The trouble is — it’s not really a novel. This book is really going only to appeal to historians, because those wanting an immersive novel are going to find the style jarring–as I did.

It’s more like a docu-drama. I haven’t read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote but I would imagine that this is the style he used–an omniscient narrator taking the place of any of the characters’ points of view.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pure omniscient narration–it’s a style I much admire but while it works for Thackeray and for Dickens and the like, it really doesn’t work here. In the same way as Thackeray does in Vanity Fair, Bacino takes the place of a rather confiding narrator who behaves rather like a history teacher interrupting a video his class is watching. You are never allowed to relax into the storyline because every paragraph or so “history teacher” butts in and starts telling us a load of back information such as religious or political aspects—from the birth of Protestantism to the destruction of the Armada, to spy rings and exact wordings of many laws.

So, you’d think that those with a love of history would lap this kind of thing up, but I tend to feel that the facts we are presented with are already so well known from myriad incarnations of the Tudors on stage, screen, and book, historians are already going to know most of this. I certainly did.

Considering that the appendix (which takes up a good 20% of the size of the book) goes through every single historical point in every chapter with “FACT:[…]” or “FICTION:[…]” We could easily have had a novel-style book rather than a semi-text book and if one was interested one could look in the appendix for the facts, but because we are told once in the book that this was so and then once again in the appendix it really felt like we are being preached at. The way the facts or fictions are presented are rather patronising, to be honest. If anyone has watched “Horrible Histories” will know that after every sketch, the narrator, a rat, comes on and says “It’s TRUE- the Romans really did wash their clothes in pee.” Or some such validation, and this book has the same tone. Trouble is Horrible Histories is actually for kids. So I did feel a little talked down to at times while reading this. As regards to the FACT or FICTION issue, he could easily have just kept it down to the things he invented, and taken it as read that we’d assume everything else was fact related.

Here’s an example:

From the book itself:

Sir Francis Walsingham was known for his booming, threatening voice that seemed even more frightening when he lowered it to a softer tone. He had headed the Royal Intelligence Service (a euphemism for the spy network in England) for almost twenty years. He was quickly becoming the architect of modern espionage. As a fitting reward for his “unswerving” service”, Queen Elizabeth had named him England’s first Secretary of State in 1573—a position not quite structured yet – giving Francis the opportunity to do pretty much as he wanted with the position. He had the reputation of being the archetype of Machiavellian political cunning with tentacles to fathom out the smallest detail in the country. He knew he was courted and needed by everyone.

He was also hated by everyone.

(He was the inspiration for the line that would someday be written into the play Measure for Measure: “it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice.”)

Now – from the appendix:

FACT: Queen Elizabeth did name Sir Francis Walsingham to be England’s first Secretary of State in 1573. Sir Francis was the head of the English spy network. Historians frequently name him as the architect of modern espionage.

FACT: Shakespearean quote: ““it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice” “Measure for Measure” Act III, scene 2

As I said, the appendix takes up 20% of the total of the book (according to my Kindle) and all it does is mostly repeat what’s already been said. There are no citations, either, which I sort of expected with this level of “this is actually true.” We are just expected to take the author’s word for it.

The reason an omnisceint narrator worked so well for Thackeray and Dickens and the like was that they were presenting the narration from a closer perspective than this. From their time, or a few years after the events they were writing about. And anyone doing an omniscient narrator today would also use this device, narrating the book as a person who knew the characters or was involved in the events portrayed. But Bacino’s narrator – who is more than likely Bacino himself – is narrating this from a perspective of 21st century man, so the terminology is jarring: Marlow has “mesmerizing ways” Marlowe is “cute.” Comparisons to money—such as Wriothley’s payment of £5,000 to sever his engagement are compared to million pounds it would be in “today’s” money, which again, instantly reminds us we are reading a history book, rather than living a story with the characters. Lord Wriothley is referred to as “the poster boy for the homosexual movement” which is from the narrator’s pov so it’s not quite so bad—but then that same lord actually says later: “Her [Queen Elizabeth I’s] new Commission makes it really just a police state, doesn’t it?” which is gah-wrongness on so many levels.

But I can’t discommend this book, because of the sheer volume of work that has gone into it. I complain daily about authors who can’t be arsed even to open Wikipedia for the most basic of facts that can be found in seconds, so I’d be a hypocrite indeed to moan about someone who has done this level of research.

It’s just that—just because you do the research you don’t have to tell the reader about every single aspect of it. (Are you listening Dan Brown?) I prefer to be shown, not told.

Without all the infodumping, the story is amusing and enjoyable, Shakespeare’s portrayal being particularly funny as a real thicko. I can’t say that the conspiracy theory convinced me, though.

There are a few historical oopsies too–one being people drinking tea(!) a good hundred years before this was possible. This surprised me seeing as how much research had gone into the rest of the book.

If you can take the history professor on every page, and you like this approach then you’ll enjoy this. It’s well-written, fantastically well researched (even though I don’t agree with some of the “FACTS”) and I hope that Bacino goes on to write more. The story hangs together well, the conspiracy is well done and probably adds to the canon of Who Wrote Shakespeare. It’s just that I prefer a novel, with history blended in rather than a documentary with the presenter stopping the action every few minutes to tell you stuff.

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