The Corisco Conspiracy

    Raphael Sóne's The Corisco Conspiracy is a historical novel based on the life of Shakespeare. Bold and inventive far beyond any other version of Shakespeare's life, it speculates that he was a Catholic secret agent who enlisted in the Armada invasion army and later took an active rôle in the Gunpowder Plot.

    This Shakespeare travels widely from his teenage years onwards, not only to Italy, Spain and Portugal but as far as the island of Corisco off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, an idyllic place which might have inspired Prospero's Isle in The Tempest. He works alongside Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Father John Gerard, S.J., Dr Roderigo Lopez and double agent Christopher Marlowe. He carries secret messages and visits Catholic prisoners in their cells in the Tower of London. He takes part in schemes to abduct and even assassinate Queen Elizabeth. He's hauled before the Privy Council on sedition charges and he also finds time to act in the theatre now and again.

    In this novel, Elizabethan London is a very cosmopolitan place, and the Dark Lady is of mixed Portuguese and African descent. Shakespeare marries her and has a son. The book is a colourful fantasy full of plots, subterfuge and espionage.

    Sóne, who writes a blog under the pseudonym of Musketman Shakespeare, clearly knows an immense amount about Elizabethan England, and is well up in Shakespearean scholarship (apart from the latest stuff on the dedication of the sonnets). He has woven a dense, complex and fairly consistent fiction around the facts we have, creating a Shakespeare who is vastly different from all other versions. 

    The result is an adventure story you can simply read for fun. The Corisco Conspiracy deserves to be made into a film. It's far more entertaining than the ridiculous, sentimental nonsense of Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love or other overpraised recent fictions. The account of the events of November 1605 and the siege of Holbeche House where the Gunpowder Plot conspirators took refuge is genuinely exciting and vividly written. "Holbeche House had been reduced to a few smouldering pillars, which stood like oversize pieces on a demonic chessboard."

    That the historical Shakespeare was a Catholic recusant and that his theatrical activities often provoked the authorities, there is little room to doubt. We know he came from a family of recusants. He wrote a poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, about Catholic martyrs. He took a notably Catholic stance in plays such as King John and Henry IV part 1. Falstaff was originally called Sir John Oldcastle, the name of a man the Protestants regarded as a martyr. The name was changed to Falstaff only after the Oldcastle family complained to a magistrate. It was reported after Shakespeare's death in 1616 that "he died a papist". A Catholic testament was found concealed in the rafters of his family home.

   So if Guy Fawkes had arrived on Shakespeare's doorstep I don't suppose he would have been turned away or betrayed to the authorities. And maybe Will did crawl out of the smouldering embers of Holbeche House, the only one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators to escape.

   But he's a pretty strange sort of Catholic, who becomes a Muslim as well as a Catholic. Yep. Sóne's Will adopts his African wife's religion while never ceasing to cross himself and go to Mass. I don't find this very plausible even as fiction. It's just getting silly.

   It's also a pity that the book chooses to perpetuate the idea that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare.

   Sóne has bought into the theory, not a new one, that the real author of Shakespeare's plays was the cultivated, well-travelled Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who had dangerous Catholic leanings. In this novel the earl is aided by Emmanuel Jenkins, a scholar from Cambridge, with a high-pitched voice and a flair for acting women's rôles on the stage. It turns out Jenkins has a secret advantage in this respect. 

   I think Shakespeare may have known Lord Oxford, been influenced by him and even borrowed books from him but why go further than that? Most people agree that the mature plays show a close knowledge of stagecraft and audience psychology. They are written by a professional man of the theatre. 

   If Oxford thought it was beneath him, as a nobleman, to write plays, why would his collaborator Jenkins have failed to take any credit? And how is this imaginary learned cross-dressing female dramatist supposed to have sent all the later plays to London from Equatorial Guinea, after escaping as a fugitive in 1605? Awkward. Especially as we know that all Shakespeare's later plays use sources published in England. 

   Would Heminge and Condell have dedicated the Folio to Will from Stratford in complete ignorance of the imposture? Would Ben Jonson have been taken in?

    Shakespeare in Sóne's novel is not a classical scholar but is fluent in Italian and Spanish; he is a good enough poet to write Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the Sonnets -- yet, we are told, he didn't write the plays, apart from The Merry Wives of Windsor, a not-very-good comedy in prose that he cobbles together using an old plot. This is odd. Rustic yokel Will was capable of writing some of the greatest Elizabethan poetry but not of writing one whole serious drama himself? Hmm. Even fiction should hold together better than that.
   Of course such objections won't bother someone reading the book as a historical adventure story.

   In this novel, the Earl of Essex is presented as a Catholic sympathiser who is quite happy to work with papists so long as they help him seize the throne. It's surprising, but it explains why Shakespeare's company is willing to help Essex by putting on Richard II the day before his attempted rebellion. Essex's execution is one more factor driving Will and his friends to drastic remedies. 
The trouble with presenting William Shakespeare as a Catholic insurgent first and an author second is that it makes him into a failure. And we know that it isn't true because he wrote enough of himself into Hamlet to tell us that it isn't true. 
     When I was an undergraduate and I read T.S.Eliot's opinion that Hamlet's anguish and distress lack "an objective correlative" I was not convinced. After all, Hamlet suffers the sudden death of his beloved father, his uncle's presumptuous usurpation of the throne, the appearance of his father's ghost telling him he was murdered, and an existence in a court where he is being spied on. If his father was murdered, he knows he is not safe. Isn't that enough to make anyone depressed, disturbed, possibly suicidal?
    However, I now think that T.S. Eliot's antenna had picked something up. When Shakespeare - who did write the bloody plays - took the old story about a Prince of Denmark, he wove a lot of himself into the character of the Prince - among other things, his fascination with the theatre, his predicament as a member of a persecuted religious minority and his agonizing religious doubts. (To say nothing of his somewhat neurotic feelings about women.) These extra dimensions, these hidden layers of meaning, are what T.S.Eliot was picking up.
    It's nothing new to recognize that the ghost tells Hamlet he has come from Purgatory - a place or state that existed only according to a Catholic doctrine that the Church of England had by Shakespeare's time abolished. That was in the notes to every study edition of Hamlet when I was at school. Hamlet is being urged by the ghost to take up arms against tyranny, to use violent means and bloodshed to oppose usurpation...and the ghost is Catholic. This is the situation that English Catholics were in after the Papal decree that it would be meritorious to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.
    Hamlet, like Shakespeare, is a wary, insecure outsider existing on the perilous perimeter of society and the court. When others celebrate, he does not conform.
    But Hamlet feels he is not fitted for the rôle of assassin. He feels doubts about the justice of violent means. He feels religious doubts and humane horror about bloodshed...on either side. And Hamlet surely embodies Shakespeare's own dilemma, his misgivings, fears and possibly some degree of remorse and guilt that he had not taken a more active rôle in Catholic plots. But he would have felt remorse and guilt in either case. 
   Curiously, tradition has it that Shakespeare himself acted the Ghost. Not Hamlet. Because you should never act yourself.
   If you can avoid getting confused in this novel about who's disguised as whom, or lost in the web of subterfuge, you will enjoy it. I'm giving it five stars for an original, inventive tale with some nice touches (such as Marlowe's surprise visit to Father John Gerard). Nevertheless SHAKESPEARE DID WRITE THE PLAYS.

One reference to "Elizabeth the First" on page 131 really does need to be edited out in a corrected edition. Shakespeare didn't know there would ever be an Elizabeth the Second. And the date 2013 on page 201 is surely a misprint.