A summer Shakespeare adventure: ‘Her Majesty’s Will’ by David Blixt

Summer is here, that time I most associate with watching outdoor Shakespeare performed under starry skies. But with temperatures rising and performances in danger of being cancelled because of ever-present COVID-19 infections, it might be difficult to actually see a live performance, so let me recommend a novel where the joy of outdoor Shakespeare can be found any time of year on a bookshelf near you.

Her Majesty's Will book coverHer Majesty’s Will by David Blixt depicts the fateful (yet entirely fictional) meeting of two future playwrights: Christopher Marlowe, the Cambridge-educated wit and spy for Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, and William Shakespeare, the young, married father teaching under an assumed name in the north of England and living in fear of prosecution over some youthful indiscretions. In a tale described (accurately) on the back cover as “deadly and hilarious,” our fledgling heroes uncover a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth (based on a very real one), spy on her Majesty’s behalf, and end up being pursued by forces on all sides trying to stop them getting too close to the truth or committing treason. Their efforts to clear their names — oh, and, incidentally, save the realm — are assisted by a few of Elizabethan London’s most notorious individuals (most of them drawn from actual history), who will go on to inspire some of Shakespeare’s most lively and entertaining characters.

What Blixt has imagined here, in the guise of a page-turning romp, is nothing less than Shakespeare’s origin story as a playwright, filling in his so-called “lost years” with intriguing speculation about the circumstances under which he left Stratford, and how he eventually made his way to London. The answers, as depicted in the novel, are both convincing and hugely entertaining, because in addition to the action and adventure, there is mystery, cross-dressing, swashbuckling swordplay, deadly plots, treachery and double-crosses, several varieties of romance, witty and literate banter between its two heroes, and a literally explosive finale that takes place at a performance of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. That’s right, it ends with a play within a play; well…a play within a novel.

Blixt draws his tonal inspiration from the adventure novels of Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche, Captain Blood) and the comic Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “road movies” (Road to Morocco, Road to Bali) from the 1940s, but his plot and characters are grounded in historical research from, among others, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, Robert Hutchinson’s Elizabeth’s Spy Master, and Park Honan’s Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy. Blixt admitted in my interview with him on the Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast that the notion of Shakespeare becoming a spy is “a ridiculous premise,” so because of that, he wanted to “make all the facts…conform” to the story he created. It’s that blend of truth and imagination that makes the story so entertainingly plausible.

The romance of Will’s London adventures is presented in stark contrast to his Stratford family’s increasing penury, his forced marriage to Anne Hathaway, and the fall from grace of his father John Shakespeare, all of which is portrayed persuasively and drawn from the facts as we know them. In his author’s postscript, Blixt offers the notion that “in literature, we see a great deal of kings and lords, queens and ladies, but seldom do we see Tudor culture from, shall we say, street level,” which is why his novel is populated by “real rogues in Shakespeare’s London” with names like Huffing Kate, Black Davie, and Cutting Ball. In Blixt’s hands, these people come alive, not only as allies but, along with real-life working-class wordwrights Robert Greene, and Thomases Watson, Lodge, and Kyd, artistic inspiration.

Blixt protests (too much, methinks) that his book is “entirely silly,” but if it is, it’s the best kind: silliness played straight, grounded in factual backup, played in deadly earnest, with the gaps in the story filled in plausibly and movingly. And while echoes of Shakespeare’s later plays pop up from time to time — such as Will disguising himself as a mad beggar named “poor Tom,” straight out of King Lear — they’re not presented as punchlines, but as part of the rich texture that lends verisimilitude to the world Blixt is creating.