Book review: The Spy of Venice by Benet Brandreth

The Spy of Venice byBenet Brandreth
The Spy of Venice byBenet Brandreth
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Theories over Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Years’ – including claims that he was a tutor at Hoghton Tower near Preston – have exercised academic brains for years.

No one, of course, can ever truly solve the mystery of the seven-year gap in the records of Shakespeare’s life but maybe, just maybe, England’s greatest playwright was… a swashbuckling spy!

In a gloriously escapist debut novel, published to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, Shakespeare expert Benet Brandreth stages a thrilling drama that would surely have tickled the ribs of the great man himself.

Rhetoric coach to the Royal Shakespeare Company and a leading barrister, Brandreth’s Venetian adventure is packed with all those essential Shakespearean ingredients – romance, tragedy, history, comedy – as well as a liberal sprinkling of tantalising references to the plays.

Using his gift for authentic dialogue, a fine line in imaginative plotting and a hero who leads his cast tenderly by the nose, Brandreth has conjured up what might well be the start of an exciting and unique new series.

It’s 1585 and 20-year-old William Shakespeare, gifted and intelligent, is already married with three children but bored with his dull life in Stratford. His mother knows he does not lack for ability but she fears his ‘desires’ will get him into trouble.

When William is caught out after the ill-advised seduction of the daughter of Matthew Hunt, steward to the local MP, he and his family decide it would be better if he left for London to seek his fortune.

Cast adrift in the big city, the stage-mad Will falls in with a band of actors he had met in Stratford and becomes a close friend of the two leading players, John Hemminges and Nicholas Oldcastle. And when the players are invited by Sir Henry Carr, Ambassador to the Serene Republic of Venice, to perform in the Italian city, they persuade Will to join them.

But Sir Henry is, in fact, a spy to Queen Elizabeth and his real mission in Venice is to deliver vital letters to the Venetian Doge at a time when the survival of England hangs in the balance.

An innocent abroad, Will’s eyes are soon dazzled by the city’s extravagant masques, and beautiful courtesan Isabella Lisarro, but danger lurks everywhere – particularly for those involved in espionage – and Catholic assassins, armed with sharpened knives, will stop at nothing to end the mission.

With the story structured like a play, including a witty cast list, five acts, a prologue, epilogue and several interludes, and imbued throughout with Shakespeare’s trademark joie de vivre, The Spy of Venice is an impressive and entertaining ‘piece of work.’

Brandreth reveals in his Historical Note that the Venetian setting for this exhilarating caper was inspired by the fact that thirteen of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy, and some persuasive theories that the Bard may well have visited Italy and spoken some Italian.

With this in his mind’s eye, the author’s vision of the young playwright as a restless, discontented husband seeking an escape from the confines of domesticity and duty, and his metamorphosis into a daring European adventurer, cannot help but seduce.

There is love here, intrigue, the fascinating, turbulent history of a continent beset by religious and political upheaval and at its heart a brilliant and inventive young man on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s literary giants.

Stirring adventure with both brains and brawn…

(twenty7, hardback, £16.99)