This is the first non-fantasy book I’ve reviewed on this blog so far, which is slightly shocking. I’ll have to make an effort to review fewer fantasy novels.
Though fiction, this historical novel deals with a handful of historical personages, including Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Robert Devereux, Robert Cecil, etc. However, its protagonist is a man called John Lawley, who choreographs fights for plays at the Globe, uses the same skills to get himself out of trouble, and spends far too much of his time too drunk to remember anything.
It’s unsurprising that I was interested in this book, especially reading the Author’s Note at the end: Humphreys’ enthusiasm for Hamlet matches or even surpasses my own, something I didn’t actually think was possible, and his original concept for the book was simply, “Hamlet and swords.” Anyone who knows me will assure you that those are two things I cannot resist.
From the title I was expecting it to revolve more centrally around Shakespeare, but in fact his appearances are relatively few until the last 100 pages of the book. That doesn’t mean the idea of Shakespeare’s Rebel doesn’t fit. One of the primary themes of the novel seems to be how Shakespeare used the mood on the streets and the political intrigue of the day to create plays, often treading on dangerous ground to do so. The events of Elizabethan society are mirrored in his plays.
Humphreys’ love of Shakespeare is evident throughout the text, and he uses the plays throughout, with many scenes taking place against a backdrop of the theatre. John Lawley is an ex-player himself, and through his fight choreography is still a part of the theatre. His son, Ned, wants nothing more than to be a player, and is apprenticed in the company at the Globe. Being an actor isn’t just a quirk for John — or indeed for Ned. It contributes to their survival and to the choices they make, allowing them to deceive and convince as necessary.
Humphreys cleverly makes realistically Elizabethan language easily understandable, blending slang words and idiolect with modern English to create a semi-formal tone that is believable of the period while not hindering the modern reader. It doesn’t sound exactly ‘Shakespearean’, but nor does it seem anachronistic or out of place. At times, this can slow one’s reading, or at least mine — I’m a fast reader when things are in modern language, but have to take it a bit slower when it’s unfamiliar. However, as it’s not a long book (around 400 pages), that wasn’t a problem.
The length of the book was well judged. While there was potential for some sections to have been expanded, doing so would have caused it to drag. Instead, Humphreys struck a balance between detailed and concise, meaning that I didn’t get bored, but didn’t feel rushed either. Not only do sections have headers telling you the year, it’s made clear within the narrative how much time has passed, helping the reader to ground themselves.
It’s well-written, yes, but what about the plot? Well, it’s intriguing: full of double-crossing, with betrayal, loyalty and self-preservation vying for the primary motivation for characters. It alternates between fast-paced political drama, rooted firmly in the historical period, and the more personal dramas of John Lawley. And it doesn’t hold back from punches, giving it a strong sense of realism.
As for John himself, he’s a strong character. Incredibly flawed, but his attempts to beat his alcoholism make him sympathetic, since despite his failures he’s clearly trying. He’s trying to be a better father to Ned, too, but he’s not brilliant at that. It’s something you can say about John: he tries very hard. And sometimes he succeeds. He’s a smart guy, and his experiences both in the theatre and at war give him the expertise he needs to get out of most situations, even if they seem hopeless at first.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, learning more of Elizabethan society than I knew before. Towards the end of the book there’s a scene depicting the first performance of Hamlet and I had shivers the whole way through. To have seen such a thing would, of course, have been phenomenal, and Humphreys brings it to life in a way that almost convinces you he was there, watching.
In the Author’s Note he talks about his first experience of playing Hamlet and how despite the euphoria of that performance, he might even trade it to see that opening night at the Globe, and I have to say I’m with him on that one, especially if the atmosphere is anything like the one he writes.
It’s an intelligent book, with sophisticated language and a complex plot. But it’s not difficult, like one of those worthy Classics one reads simply to be able to say that one’s read it. Instead, it feels satisfying. On getting to the end I not only felt that I’d read an interesting and exciting book, but that I’d read something worth reading, because it had just enough depth to it to make me feel less guilty about reading books for fun when I’m supposed to be revising for exams.
It’s a great book, and though as a Hamlet obsessive I’m probably biased, I’m certainly giving this the four stars it deserves. Why not five? I don’t know. It wasn’t perfect: very few books are, in my perspective. But it was a damn good read, and I’m certainly going to be recommending it to friends.