Book Review: The Shakespeare Conspiracy

The Shakespeare Consipracy, by Sandra Hochman

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Edelweiss/Ingram Publisher Services.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

When one is a bardophile to the extent that I am [1], one reads a lot of crazy books about Shakespeare.  This book at least has the good sense to consider its plausible tale as a novel, rather than writing implausible tales of mistaken or falsified identities as nonfictional, as is the case with writing by Oxfordians and Baconians.  The author here is a Stratfordian, and one who writes a novel in the vein of revisionist history.  I feel somewhat ambivalent about this work, but when it comes to the author’s view of Shakespeare I find much to agree with.  The author has some sound arguments in defense of Shakespeare’s marriage as well as his crypto-Catholicism and has a sound look at his relationships with other playwrights in the intensely competitive London world of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  If the book suffers from some flaws and is at times unpleasant and uncomfortable to read, it is at least a book that as a characterization of Shakespeare that I can get behind, by and large.

In almost 300 pages the author writes a frame story of considerable interest.  The frame is that the narrator comes into the possession of a supposed diary of Shakespeare’s wife that shows her to have been a full partner in his creative excellence, not least through her voracious reading of sources and her own gift of poetry as well as her perspective as an independent woman who faced the fate of spinsterhood before being rescued by Shakespeare when he was a youth.  Much of the novel is spent showing how Shakespeare’s wife disguises herself as his male cousin in a pants role designed to allow her greater access to the world of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in the court and in the theaters.  The book also goes on at some length about a supposed conspiracy against Shakespeare that is founded in envy and jealousy and lust, something that is believable, at least.  This is a book that takes advantage of what little is known about Shakespeare’s life and character and turns that into an advantage by working within the bounds of plausibility because a great deal is plausible when one looks at Shakespeare’s life.  The fact that this book makes a strong anti-snobbish statement about the ability of people to educate themselves through voracious reading is certainly a statement this reader can support wholeheartedly.  The book’s ending is pure wish fulfillment about how the imaginary diary would permanently explode the claims of those who think that a grammar school educated provincial like Shakespeare could not have written his deep and profound dramas, and that is a wish I certainly share with the author.

Even so, this is not a perfect work.  There are some minor issues here with the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays that seem a bit dodgy and a bit too conveniently written.  The suspense about whether or not Shakespeare will retire from the London scene and the doubt of authorship over Henry VIII also detract a bit from enjoyment of the plot.  In many ways, though, this book’s greatest strengths are also its weaknesses.  The book is self-evidently the work of a contemporary writer who is deeply concerned with questions of class, identity, sexuality, and gender roles.  To be sure, these were all issues at the time of Shakespeare, but they are not explored as someone in that time would have viewed them, but are rather viewed from the light of a cosmopolitan and not particularly morally upright contemporary perspective that I found offensive and sometimes off-putting.  It did not feel that we were fully getting into the perspective of Shakespeare’s wife, but rather that we were seeing a contemporary feminist perspective that was using her as an empty vessel to fill with all kinds of contemporary notions about the role and place of women, something which I obviously found less pleasant to read than a more honest and less anachronistic portrayal would have been.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: The Shakespeare Conspiracy

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