Your Bard?

In keeping with my new journal header, and to prepare myself for the cultural delights of the summer ahead, I’ve been reading “The Conscience of the King” by Martin Stephen. It’s one of a series of thrillers about a Jacobean gentleman spy, Henry Gresham, and in this one he becomes embroiled in the controversy over whether Shakespeare really did write all the plays attributed to him.

The central conceit of a very convoluted plot is that Marlowe didn’t really die in 1593 but showed up 20 years later with incriminating MSS, bent on revenge. This leads to character comment about “Marlowe’s second incarnation”. But this is my favourite extract:

” ‘And after he appears like a Jack-in-the-Box, and the audience is gasping with wonder and amazement,’ said Gresham, ‘then he makes his second announcement. That while they, his loyal public thought he was dead, he was dead only in name. His writing continued, almost to the present day. Did they really think that such plays could be written by a poor country boy from Stratford with no education? No! He, Christopher Marlowe, in the long, long years of his exile, has used Shakespeare as other noble minds had used Terence thousands of years ago.’

Gresham had risen to his feet now. He stood in the centre of the room and flung his arms wide in the manner of the great Burbage in a tragic lead. ‘I AM MARLOWE AND I AM ALIVE! I AM SHAKESPEARE AND HAVE LIVED ALONGSIDE YOU IN THIS THEATRE AS HIM FOR TWENTY YEARS PAST! MY ENEMIES ARE DEAD! THE MASTER HAS RETURNED! ‘”

My mind is now filling with images of a glorious follow-up to TSC, starring John Simm, of course. We didn’t see nearly enough of him in Jacobi’s frilly shirt, did we? And thank you to

for the perfect audience reaction shot.

Seriously (and the reviews on the Amazon listing are worth a read), it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to find that Martin Stephen was raised on classic Who. I saw many parallels between his portrayal of his hero, Henry Gresham, and the Doctor – so many, in fact, that I think Tennant would do well in the part if they ever filmed it. We’re told, repeatedly, that the ruthlessly cunning Gresham’s only weakness is his love for his wife, Jane, who is of humble birth, but intelligent, compassionate, feisty and devoted to him, an invaluable asset in all his many adventures. Frequently, he’s conflicted that by loving her, he’s made himself vulnerable. He can relate to anybody, had a fabulously wealthy but emotionally cold boyhood, and has made up for it by inspiring great loyalty in his servants and companions, who would willingly die for him and occasionally do. His instinct for getting into trouble is equalled only by his uncanny ability to ferret out the most tortuous plots – and when he fails to make the all-important deductive leap, Jane invariably does it for him, because despite her lack of formal education she is perceptive and highly intelligent.

Gresham also has a way of inciting others around him to the acts of violence that ensure the success of his Machiavellian schemes and his own survival, but remaining morally untouchable. Admittedly, he’s more violent than the Doctor (Stephen loves his gore and isn’t limited by the demands of a family audience), but  we rarely see Gresham  actually kill anyone, though we’re told frequently that he’s done it in the past and is more than capable of doing so. About the only time he’s induced to violence is if his beloved Jane is threatened; then you’d better get out of his way. Finally, his character has been deeply formed by a passionate homoerotic attachment in his youth to the heroic Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh doesn’t appear in the novel, for the very good reason that he’s been locked up in the Tower of London for decades.

Or maybe there are no parallels at all, and I need to get out more. Or at least watch less Who. There are, after all, a fixed number of plots in the world, as Shakespeare must have known all too well.


6 thoughts on “Your Bard?

  1. My mind is now filling with images of a glorious follow-up to TSC, starring John Simm, of course. We didn’t see nearly enough of him in Jacobi’s frilly shirt, did we?
    No, no we did not. And thanks to that lovely review I know what I’m picking up at the bookstore on Friday! Thank you for sharing!

  2. I’ll be interested to know what you think. Although if you’d rather start with the first book, “The Desperate Remedy” you’ll find out more background on the Gresham/Jane relationship. I think it’s better written too.
    Martin Stephen was until fairly recently the High Master (trans. Principal) of Manchester Grammar School, where my son goes. His outspoken views on education have made him fairly high-profile over here. He was a trememdous presence at MGS but I actually think the current High Master does a better job. Rather like the Doctor, MS could never resist getting involved in far too many projects, and seemed to spend more time hanging around Manchester Uni getting in the academics’ way than doing the school job.

  3. You’re welcome to my copy when you come over to stay. It’s sort of James Bond in Jacobean England with a fantastic fight up in the fan vaulting of Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, would you believe! But he has this habit of changing POV without warning in key scenes and I’d love to see you beta him. Apparently he writes between 11.00pm and 5.00am, and it sometimes shows.

  4. LOL! *and blush*
    I’d love to be able to write at those hours; unfortunately, it’s not long after 5 a.m. that I have to be up–at least on days when I don’t have the flu.
    *stabs flu*
    Speaking of coming to stay, I’m planning to go to London from Stratford to stay with for a few days, so I’ll be coming back to Manchester August 9 or 10 and probably flying back a day later or so. Will that be all right?

  5. Thanks for the rec. I was sorely disappointed to find out that the local stores don’t carry any of his titles, but luckily for me amazon uk loves my business 🙂
    I can’t say the reviews are all that great on the books, but then everyone is entitled to their opinion and rarely do I find that I agree with most reviewers. Your rec is good enough motivation for me, so guess I’ll just have to put a little order together…
    /snicker, any excuse to get another region 2 DVD one can’t find here.

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