In Benet Brandreth’s historical thriller The Assassin of Verona, William Shakespeare is disguised as a steward to the English ambassador in 1586 Venice.
He and his actor friends Oldcastle and Hemminges possess a deadly secret: the names of Catholic spies in England who seek to destroy Queen Elizabeth.
This excerpt finds the fictional Shakespeare weighing his options: return to England (and to his family in Stratford), or remain in Venice near the woman he loves, but with the pope’s agents closing in?
William sprang from his seat and plucked the wine glass from a protesting Oldcastle’s hands and held it out to Hemminges.
‘Wine, Hemminges, food beyond measure.’ He gestured at the window beyond which could be seen the Canal Grande. ‘A city of golden wonders beyond these walls. Leave this for England? We were a ragged crew there, Hemminges, or have you forgot? You’d have us fly from paradise to purgatory. That is not the normal order of things.’
‘This is not paradise, William.’ Hemminges shook his head. ‘This is Eden and that business with the Tiepolo brothers is the eviction notice already posted on the gate. Our time here cannot last. The only way to stay here forever is to be buried here.’
‘Better dead in Venice than half-life in England.’
‘Boastful words. Have we not received word from England that we must return and explanation make? Do we not owe a duty? Does our pardon not lie in safely bringing back our intelligence? Have you forgot that we must take back to England the names of the papal spies?’
‘I have not.’
‘Those names were bought at a high price, William.’
‘You think I have forgot it?’
‘I do wonder at it.’
Oldcastle reached up and took his wine glass back. He took a long swallow in the silence that followed while William and Hemminges glowered at each other. Oldcastle tapped the back of William’s hand to signal that he should pass the wine jug.
‘It surprises me that you should be so reluctant to return home, to wife, to family,’ Oldcastle said.
William sat back down. He did not look at either Oldcastle or Hemminges but out of the window at the city. ‘I cannot leave.’
‘She will understand,’ said Oldcastle. His voice was soft. He filled another glass and pushed it over to William. ‘In her occupation, the passing of men is as inevitable as the passing of years.’
William looked up, lightning in his eyes, thunder in his tightening jaw.
‘This is not business, Oldcastle.’
‘I did not say it was, Will. I remind you only that the lady thrived before your coming and will survive after your going.’
‘It is not for her sake that I cannot leave. Though, God above, I would not be just another patron to take my pleasure and then cast her aside.’
William drew breath to say more, then halted. Hemminges and Oldcastle waited.
William was thinking of Stratford. Its small concerns and shopworn worries seemed remote from him now. If he thought of Stratford at all, then it was to wonder how his children were. How they would marvel at the stories he would tell them of France, of Savoy, of Venice, of walking to the sound of boats knocking at their mooring outside his window, of August heat so strong it lifted the gossamer curtains of his room on air made visible. He might speak of the smell of fish, spices and wine rising through the air and of the sounds of the Venetian dialect wafting up with them. A city so different from Stratford and the damp of Warwickshire, the stink of mud and goats, of petty gossips and mundane business, as to seem not just a different country as a different world. He could see his daughter, Susanna’s, face, little mouth in an O of awe, as he spoke of gondolas, of St Mark’s Square as the clock struck eleven and the merchants gathered from across the world, Slovenians, Poles, Greeks, Jews, Turks, Germans and all in their traditional show, buying and selling, shouting and talking in as many languages as there were men.
Such thoughts turned to guilt in a moment for he knew that he would not be able to speak to Susanna of the greatest wonder that he had found in Venice, Isabella Lisarro. Oh, but he would wish to do so. To tell Susanna how she might master her own destiny even compelled to obedience to the lives of others. How the life of the mind might roam as freely as a bachelor did, tasting as it willed, where it willed. When he spoke to others of Isabella they smiled and nodded at him, knowing she was beautiful, and he longed to blast their knowing looks down and tell them that it was the poet in her that he loved. That men were not such simple creatures after all and they did themselves disservice to pretend all his interest was swinish and base.
If such country matters had been all his care, then he’d enough in Anne, his wife. Yet it had not been. He and Anne should never have married. He had been too young and stupid to give her her just dessert. He could not tell if he had trapped Anne in a prison of domesticity or given her the keys to her own kingdom. Marriage had seemed to take her to a different place, but not one to which he wished to go with her.
Guilt to stay, guilt to leave, marriage was a bond and a shackle. How then could he say to Hemminges and Oldcastle, leave, when all his living was here, in Venice?
William turned to look at his friends. ‘I cannot leave her, for my own sake. I cannot leave this wonder of experience.’
Excerpted from The Assassin of Verona by Benet Bandreth. Published by Pegasus Books. © Benet Bandreth. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
The Assassin of Verona was published May 7, 2019.