Monday, August 29, 2011
This is the first book I read for my new Master's program in English literature--it is one of the many books on the syllabus for my seminar in "Adapting Shakespeare." The course looks fantastic--focusing on Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Hamlet and the sonnets, it looks at ways different artists have used Shakespeare's life and works to make new works. We will be watching movies (Kiss Me Kate and Shakespeare in Love, for example), listening to Rufus Wainwright's adaptations of the sonnets, and reading reading reading!
Carrell is herself an academic, with a Ph.D. from Harvard in English and American lit, with other degrees from Oxford and Stanford, and this is her first novel. It is stuffed with information and academic trivia, and should be a no-brainer for someone like me: mysterious clues leading on a chase to find a lost Shakespeare play and the identity of "who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" The bad news is--it's not very good. So much so, that I was about 200 pages in before I realized that I had read this before.
Let's start with a plot synopsis. Our Heroine and Narrator, Kate Stanley, is a former graduate student who finished her dissertation on "The Occult Shakespeare" before leaving academia for theater. When the book opens, she is directing Hamlet at the Globe Theater in London. (I suspended my disbelief about this one--sure, it is unlikely that a 23 year old American woman would be handed such a job, especially since as far as we are told, she had only directed a couple of amateur undergraduate departmental plays before in her life. Your willingness to suspend the disbelief may vary.) She has secured a Hollywood Action Star for her Hamlet, and London theater legend Sir Henry Lee has joined the cast as Hamlet's Ghost.
During a lively rehearsal, in walks Kate's former academic advisor, Roz Howard, with a challenge--Roz has found something big, bigger even than Hamlet at the Globe, and she needs Kate's help. Roz hands over a mysterious package and arranges to meet Kate on Parliament Hill at sunset. Roz doesn't show, the Globe goes up in flames, Kate is followed by a mysterious man who seems to want to kill her, and Roz's corpse turns up in the ruins of the Globe. She has been killed by something injected behind her ear--just like Hamlet's father!
Kate opens the package, and we are off on a Da Vinci Code for Shakespeare. The package contains a brooch and an card from an old card catelog. Roz has scribbled some cryptic messages onto it, sending Kate on a "thrilling" tour of libraries across the world: Widener and Houghton libraries at Harvard; a Shakespeare archive in Cedar City, Utah; the Folger in D.C. As a travelog, it's quite boring, actually, and I am saying this as a person who loves libraries. In fact, her descriptions of the Archive in Utah was the part where I remembered having read this before--it was the only truly memorable part of the novel, with an English garden and a Tudor building plunked into the Utah desert.
Along the way she has Sir Henry financing her exploits, and she picks up a body guard in Ben Pearl, Roz's nephew, who Roz hired to keep Kate safe. Not sure why Roz thought this would be necessary, or why she didn't use him to keep herself safe--no reason given for Roz to suspect that people would begin to be murdered, since she was the first victim.
But nevermind! Don't ask questions! Roz is dead, the Globe is in flames, the DCI Sinclair wants to question Kate about what she knows, so of course she has to sneak out of the country and run to Harvard to follow the clue of Roz's card catelog! And within hours Kate has been chased by a sneaky man with a knife, Harvard's copy of the First Folio has been stolen, and Widener is in flames! But there is a clue in the Houghton library involving actual historical figure Francis Child and his correspondence. Kate finds half a letter, misfiled in Child's papers, which is vague in the extreme. Ben steals it, Kate is attacked, they run off to Utah.
In Utah, there is conveniently a connection to somebody who is a Shakespeare collector, who has built a replica of Konigberg castle in the desert--the model for Elsinore. This eccentric old lady is also a billionaire, and she sneaks Kate and Ben into a conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C. There, the head librarian/archivist gets killed like Julius Caesar on the steps of the (U.S. Capitol), and Kate gets another letter, this time from a fictional Ophelia Granville, who has been investigating (actual historical figure) Delia Bacon's claims that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays.
At this point, Carrell starts interweaving so many different plots and research trails in different time eras that the whole thing becomes deeply confusing. Kate keeps almost being killed multiple times, and leaves a trail of dead bodies behind her, as well as stolen papers. The deeper one gets into this book, the better The Da Vinci Code looks as a model of clear prose, exciting pacing, and believable riddles. She visits the ancestral home of the Earls of Pembroke (where the Lead Guide gets snuffed), Trinity Church in Stratford to open up Shakespeare's grave, back to Elsinore in the desert, and finally to a cave somewhere in Arizona. By this point, things have gotten deeply weird, and I will now try to untangle the various plots and time frames.
The Contemporary Mystery Solved
In the present: Kate finds the remains of a 17th Century Spanish conquistador expedition, deep inside a cave in Arizona. They had been sealed in, and the last one to die was a Franciscan priest, who was carrying one of the earliest editions of Don Quixote in English. Inside that volume was a manuscript of the lost Shakespeare play Cardenio. This is appropriate, because Cardenio's plot was taken from a subplot in Quixote. So now, we have this buried treasure (that was "Interred with their Bones,"--get it?) But wait! There's more!
The priest is also carrying a letter that seems to indicate that Shakespeare was not the sole author of his plays. But before Kate (and we) can read this letter, Sir Henry grabs it and throws himself over a ledge into a pit inside the cave. Why? Good question! It seems that Sir Henry has been a master-mind of the entire plot of the book. As a Shakespearean actor, he wanted to find Cardenio so he could leave a theatrical legacy as the actor who stamped himself on the play--Sir Henry Lee's Don Quixote would stand like Olivier's Hamlet in theatrical history. However, he would not allow "Shakespeare" to be anyone or anything other than the Man from Stratford--he was deeply invested in the story of a poor boy from the sticks becoming the greatest writer of all time. It was a foundational myth, like Abraham Lincoln becoming president--you didn't have to be connected, or well-educated, or aristocratic to succeed. Talent could strike anywhere, and Sir Henry was proof of that. So if the "truth" was different, he would not allow it to get out, and he took himself and the letter into the abyss to prevent any other "truth" from being proved.
Self-sacrifice, perhaps, but made less noble by the fact that the police were closing in, and he had murdered five people (more or less) and committed countless other criminal acts in the course of the book. He had conspired with a junior Harvard professor, who had done some of the dirty work for Sir Henry, out of jealousy of Roz Howard's scholarship and her preference of Kate over him. He also died in the cave--I think Sir Henry shot him. It was confusing, and I had long ago stopped caring about this plot.
So--Kate preserves Cardenio, but loses the letter that "proves" who wrote Shakespeare. The book ends with a (not at all believable) incipient romance with Ben Pearl, the staging of her Hamlet in the restored Globe, and the promise of a production of Cardenio to follow.
Who Wrote Shakespeare?
The book follows several different theories about who really wrote the plays. The controversy does exist in actual academic and amateur circles, based on the assumption that the man from Stratford simply did not have the education and life experience to write convincingly about everything that is in the plays. He would not have known how court life is conducted, for example; he wouldn't know about hawking, he had no legal training, etc. There are several candidates who have been offered up as the "real" Shakespeare, but most of them have problems, such as dying before many of the plays were written, or in one case, not being born until well afterwards.
Carrell solves these problems by positing a "chimerical beast:" a consortium of aristocrats who were the actual authors. And all your favorite candidates, plus a few dark horses, turn out to be the "real Shakespeare." They are: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford; Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke; Francis Bacon; and William Stanley, Earl of Derby (and de Vere's son-in-law). She leaves out Christopher Marlowe, and makes Ben Jonson aware of the deception, but not part of it. The proof of this nonsense, such as it is, is a weird picture buried in Shakespeare's grave in Stratford--a creature composed of parts of each of the animals of these people's coats of arms. A swan's head and neck (countess of Pembroke), eagle's wings (earl of Derby), boar's heads (Bacon) and falcon's feet (Oxford) clutching a spear (Shakespeare).
I may have some of these elements wrong, but the gist is close enough. Four aristocrats add up to enough training and education to have written Shakespeare. Plus the man from Stratford. Got it? Then let's analyze it.
First off, part of the reason the four aristocrats are even posited as possible authors of the plays is because they are known to have written plays themselves. So why would they need (or want) to work together to produce more plays? Carrell doesn't bother to explain, particularly--as she is too busy just trying to make the dates work out right. Edward de Vere died in 1604, 12 years before Shakespeare died, so no matter how good of a candidate he is for the author of those plays, mortality takes him out of the running. But if you add in his son-in-law, the Earl of Derby, then Carrell finesses that issue. So, yes, technically it would work, but why? Why would they do this? As far as I can tell (and the book does get very confusing on these points) Carrell doesn't say. Certainly, none of the members of this committee appears as a character in the book, so we never get any insight into how such a group of people would work together, and how they would produce such a body of work that wasn't immediately obvious as being by five different people.
What this does allow Carrell to do is to let just about everybody who cares about this issue be right. Do you think Francis Bacon wrote these plays? You are right! Do you think Hamlet is a fictionalized autobiography of Edward de Vere? You are right too! Do you think the glover's son from Stratford came from the country to the city and became the greatest writer of the English language? Congratulations! You are right too!
How Did Cardenio End Up In America?
Cervantes finished the first part of Don Quixote in 1605, and it was translated into English by Thomas Shelton in 1612. Carrell invents a brother to Thomas Shelton, who she names William and makes into a beautiful blond boy with a spiritual calling. He goes to train for the priesthood in Spain, at an English school for Jesuits, who train and then return to England to minister to the remaining (closeted) Catholics. In Carrell's world, William Shelton is the actual translator of Don Quixote, who puts his brother's name on it, since as a Jesuit he would be persona non grata in England.
For some reason, when the consortium decides to publish the Shakespeare plays in the First Folio in 1623, they send a copy to William Shelton in Spain, along with a copy of Cardenio. I am still confused as to why they felt he needed a copy. It is quite possible that Carrell just needed her characters to find a copy of the First Folio there in order to further the plot. At any rate, it is explained that Cardenio was purposely left out of the First Folio, because it had served to irritate the powerful Howard family when it was first performed, and the Howards had retaliated violently, including causing the Globe to burn to the ground. So the consortium sent the folio, along with a marked up (but not printed) copy of the missing play.
Then, for no good reason whatsoever, Carrell has William Shelton switch disciplines, leaving the Jesuits and becoming a Franciscan, so he can go to New Spain and die in the American Southwest, so Kate can find the play there. Shelton takes Cardenio, he says because it makes him laugh, as well as an ornate volume of Don Quixote, and that's how it ends up there.
Why Was Cardenio Lost In The First Place?
This is perhaps the most confusing part of Carrell's plotting. Actual historical personage Frances Howard was a daughter of Thomas Howard, the 1st Duke of Suffolk, who was himself a son of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. (It is Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk who was instrumental in getting his nieces Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard married to Henry VIII and then beheaded. Not a nice family.) Frances was married to Robert Devereaux, the 3rd Earl of Essex (and descendent of Elizabeth I's own personal Essex, the failed conspirator). The marriage was a political alliance, the bride and groom 14 and 13 respectively, and the marriage may not have ever been consummated. Essex was sent to fight in Europe, and during his absence, Frances fell in love with Robert Carr, eventually the Earl of Somerset.
There is some nonsense--which may or may not be historically accurate--about the Howards setting Frances to capture and seduce the Prince of Wales, Henry Stuart, who was a friend of her husband's. The idea was apparently to make Prince Henry fall in love with Frances, have her marriage to Essex annulled and marry her himself. This is not unlike the plan that got Katherine Howard married to Henry VIII. Somehow, this plan included getting Shakespeare to write a play based on Don Quixote in which a loathsome man was married to a lovely young woman, who was rescued from her terrible husband by the prince. It was PR propaganda move to tarnish Essex's reputation, free Frances from a bad marriage, and raise the family fortunes by getting her to be the next queen.
This plan fell apart, however, because Frances balked, already in love with Robert Carr. Then there is an odd public humiliation where one of Frances's gloves is found on the ground at court, and offered to Prince Henry. The prince refuses to touch it, saying "It has already been stretched by another," thus making the public accusation that Frances had already cuckh\olded her husband with Carr. Soon thereafter, Prince Henry died, so Frances was allowed to marry Carr (after some further scandals involving the annullment from Essex, which play no part in this novel).
By then, the point of staging Cardenio was moot. Furthermore, Cardenio was too close to "Carr," and the play no longer showed Frances in a positive light, but somehow made a mockery of the entire Howard family. So Shakespeare was asked to suppress the play, which he refused to do. It was (historically) performed for James I, and given some public performances at the Globe. In retaliation, the Howards (fictionally) caused the fire that burned down the Globe in 1613. This was apparently enough for Carrell to explain why the play was never again performed and why all copies have been lost.
Who Are The Sonnets About?
Shakespeare's sonnets are famously addressed to a young man (described as "golden") and a Dark Lady. Carrell doesn't identify the lady (as far as I can figure out, at least) but she makes the fictional William Shelton the golden boy. William Shelton is beloved by both the Lady and William Shakespeare (actor, man from Stratford, not the consortium of aristocrats she posits wrote the plays), but he is also a passionate proto-Catholic and is a member of the extended Howard family. The Howards were also rather famously closeted Catholics, and in an elaborate scheme, William Shelton is selected for Jesuit training by the Earl of Northampton (I think), one of the older Howards. There is a chapter in the book where a priest is accused of treason and of being a Catholic, and hanged near St. Paul's Cathedral. Northampton muses that the priest wasn't guilty, but had to be sacrificed or else a Howard would have been discovered. But in a weird bit of karmic balance, Northampton decides that he needs to pay for the priest's death by creating another priest, and he spies William Shelton in the crowd at the hanging and decides he's the one who is going to be sent to Spain.
The Dark Lady and Will Shakespeare are also there, they see the effect the priest's death has on William, and realize they have now lost him to his religious fervor. The Lady turns out to be pregnant, but it is not clear which William is the father--Shelton or Shakespeare. This is supposed to be important, but is not clear in the novel. It appears that there is a girl who is nearly killed in the 1613 fire in the Globe, and she is possibly? probably? William Shakespeare's illegitimate daughter by the Dark Lady, and thus is "balanced" with Suffolk's daughter Frances Howard. Frances Howard's honor has been sullied by Cardenio, and so the injury to Shakespeare's daughter is therefore appropriate revenge?
This part of the plot is scattered throughout the book in chapters called "Interludes" and they are not presented in chronological order, nor are they explored or explained by the contemporary characters of Kate and Ben. Furthermore, they don't tie in with the idea that anybody else wrote Shakespeare's sonnets. So, does that mean that there is no controversy over the authorship of the poems--only the plays? I don't know. and Carrell doesn't say. It does make me wonder--if the man from Stratford wrote the sonnets, doesn't that give make it more likely that he also wrote the plays?
There are other bits of "Occult Shakespeare" scattered in the book--"occult" a word here used in a specific manner, meaning "hidden." So, for example, there is a fair bit of chaff scattered about the book hinting that Shakespeare might have participated the King James Version of the Bible. Kate finds some letters that indicate that committees of clerics did the initial translations, but that poets were asked to "polish" the Psalms. There is a bit of numerology around the 46th Psalm. The 46th word from the beginning of the Psalm is "shake" and the 46th from the end is "spear." Allegedly, Shakespeare was 46 years old that year as well. So were several of the members of the "chimerical beast," so it proves nothing but is probably just a bit of trivia Carrell couldn't resist.
There is also a deep inside joke about people who think that Edward de Vere was Shakespeare. There is a shadowy character who never actually appears, named "Wesley North" who wrote a (fictional) book supporting that theory. North is scheduled to make an appearance at a conference at the Folger, but doesn't show. This is because he is a pseudonym for Roz Howard, who vehemently doesn't believe the Oxford theory, but enjoyed the ruse. The joke is that the name would be cited as "North, Wes T." referring to the line from Hamlet that "I am but mad north- northwest: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." Wes North is also allegedly a teacher at an on-line university, so he can't be traced. Internet troll, anyone?
There are others bits of lore and Shakespeare trivia in the book, none of which adds up to much. In fact, the book itself is eminently forgettable, a book that owes a great deal to The Da Vinci Code and every bit as much to A.S. Byatt's Possession, without achieving the strengths of either of those books. Much of the plot feels forced into shape. The clues are vague in the extreme, requiring a great deal of explication by the characters and a great deal of acceptance by the reader. "Obviously, this refers to the First Folio!" is the kind of dialog that gets the plot from point A to point B, where the reader wouldn't necessarily make that connection.
Nor does the overarching plot make any sense. It is never explained why Kate is never actually killed--everybody else seems to get whacked with a great deal of economy, but for some reason the murderers never seem willing to actually off her. For plot reasons, that's understandable--if Kate gets killed, the book ends because there is no longer anybody to solve the mystery. But that's not emotionally satisfying, and spoils the fictional effect.
Nor is it clear why all those other people had to die, other than to create a (false) sense of threat to Kate. If the murders were actually done by Sir Henry and his professor accomplice, and they were done to keep Shakespeare's identity secret, what did any of those murdered people know that would reveal that identity? Nothing--especially the head of the tour guides at Wilton House in England, or the housekeeper of Elsinore in Arizona. There is no reason why Sir Henry needed them to be dead, and doubly no reason to stage those deaths to look like ones from the Shakespeare plays. So, if he was just a psychopath, then why didn't he kill Kate all the many times she was threatened? No good reason, so no good thrills--just a sense that "well, it's been three chapters, time to throw in another murder."
Some of the clues were ungodly awkward as well, starting with the first one. Roz comes to London to recruit her former protege to hunt for Cardenio. But instead of doing the sort of things an academic would do--calling ahead, saying "I have a lead on Cardenio, and I need your help!" or writing a letter, Roz does things that only make sense in a thriller-novel universe. Why appear mysteriously in the middle of a rehearsal of Hamlet in London when you are a professor at Harvard, and you think the manuscript is in America? Why box up a stolen brooch with a cryptic clue and deliver it during rehearsal, rather than finding time when Kate can listen to the story? Dinner would have been a good time. Why even write out a cryptic clue at all? No reason, other than "It's mysterious!" No reason to think that Roz was the sort of person who would do that at all, actually.
Kate is not an appealing character either. When she isn't just a piece being moved across the board, she is rather obnoxious. She nearly gets killed, but then gets irritated when Ben tells her to do something that will keep her safe, because then she feels like they aren't being equals. Well, no shit, Kate--you just told people your location, you used your cell phone that let the killers track you, you leave death and arson in your wake, and you are grumpy that your security guard wants to keep you from doing those things again?
There is a confusing bit about whether Ben is the killer--he's being bruited about by the actual murderer, who points out that while he claims to be Roz's nephew, Roz was an only child. "I just told you that to make you trust me" he says. So who did hire him? Was it Roz? Was it somebody else? Just how did he get into this book anyway? Not clear and not satisfactorily explained.
So the book is an exercise in proving that you can be really smart, but a good thriller is harder to write than it looks.