It was two weeks later that Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain and our patron, came to the Theatre himself. He did not come to watch a performance, indeed he had never seen a play in the Theatre, but instead arrived unexpectedly during a morning rehearsal. The first we knew of it was when four of his retainers, all wearing dark grey livery with the Carey badge of the white rose bright on their shoulders, strode into the yard…
[They] were followed by an older man, limping slightly, with a harsh, life-battered face, and a cropped grey beard. He was stocky, with a broad chest, and wore simple clothes, undecorated, but dyed a deep black, betraying their expense. He had a gold chain about his neck and a golden badge on his black velvet cap.
Our costumes were motley: some were beautiful, most were threadbare, and all were much used… but it seemed that Lady Anne Hunsdon had decreed that the [new] costumes… were to be flamboyant and distinctive. Jean [the seamstress] unrolled a bolt of shimmering silver silk. ‘Lord alone knows what it costs. And this!’ She pulled a roll of dark blue velvet from beneath the pile. ‘And this! Oh my sweet lord!’ She ran a hand across a bolt of pale yellow satin, then tugged another bolt. ‘And velvet! Thirty shillings a yard in Cheapside. And sarsenet! God only knows what you pay for sarsenet. Lace! Lawn! Taffeta!’
commentary: If you look up Bernard Cornwell you find a fascinating story and an astonishing number of books written over the past 40 years: according to Wikipedia he moved to the USA to be with his wife, but had no Green Card, so began writing novels because he could do it without a permit and needed to make some money. Well that sounds easy.
But he was obviously born to the trade, writing adventure historical novels – famously his Sharpe novels (which became a very successful TV series) following the fate of the eponymous soldier during the years of the Napoleonic wars.
I’d never read any of his books: this new one was set in Elizabethan England, with William Shakespeare as a main character (place, era and people that I love to read about), so when I was offered a copy I thought it was time to try him out. And I loved this book – fantastic historical research, wonderful characters, and an exciting plot.
The story revolves round Richard Shakespeare, brother of the more famous Will, a junior member of the Lord Chamberlain’s acting company: he’s fed up with playing women, he’s unsure about his future, his brother is mean to him. And so is nearly everyone else.
Richard wanders round London: rehearsing plays, visiting their rich patron, courting a young woman, getting involved in politics, religion and a rival theatre company. There are missing scripts and heretical books, hidden priests, jealous rivals and dastardly villains. You could never predict where the next bit of jeopardy and excitement was coming from, and which were the main plotlines – and I thought that was excellent.
The historical research is first-class: very detailed and convincing, covering areas that maybe don’t feature so much in most historical novels – but at no point did it feel shoehorned in, or as if the author (or his researcher) was showing off.
The main performance featured in the book is Shakespeare’s Midsummers Night Dream, and this is beautifully done with great descriptions.
There is a lot about the theatre costumes, which was also very fascinating to me.
The book is full of violence and jeopardy, and some rather horrible details of Tudor life – but it is also full of warmth and humour (it is very funny) and something of the essential goodness of people – and the violence and blood never go too far. I knew Cornwell would be a good story-teller, but I thought his style might not be for me. But I was very impressed, really enjoyed the book, and hope that this might be the start of another series – the man surely can squeeze out another couple of Shakespeare books amongst his endless other output?
The top picture is Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, from his Wikipedia entry.
The costumes are from A procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s plays, a picture by an unknown artist. It is held at the Yale Center for British Art and is used with their permission.
I have said before that searching for Midsummer Night Dream fairies on Google Images conjures up a wonderful picture of the world, and of the fairies of the past 400 years... the third picture is a tiny corner of such a search.
There is more on Shakespeare all over the blog – click on the label below – and quite a lot just on Midsummer’s Night Dream.