Sometimes an author can take a new look at something we know and love and bring a whole new perspective to the characters and plot, or fill in the back story of a more famous story, and not only do you get to see the original work in a new and brilliant light, but the new work itself can be fun to read on its own. There’s practically a cottage industry reworking and filling in the background of the Sherlock Holmes canon (most recent example of that is Mycroft Holmes, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but there are also some excellent books by Anthony Horowitz), and Jane Austen’s work has attracted a lot of this kind of fiction as well (even P.D. James, the late great mystery writer, tried her hand at a post Pride and Prejudice world in Death Comes to Pemberly). This month, it’s Shakespeare’s turn, and in some ways this is more fitting than it would be for other authors, because so many of Shakespeare’s greatest works were derived from previous works by others.
Anyone who’s seen a version of Much Ado About Nothing, whether it’s the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s recent production, the older movie starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, or the more recent movie directed by Joss Whedon, will remember the witty pair of battling enemies-turned-lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, whose courtship runs through the play. However, it’s clear from the play that these two have a history which is only hinted at, a history in which they were much closer than they are at the start of Much Ado About Nothing. Those of us who have wondered what happened the first time around can now enjoy an entertaining imagining of the characters’ past, in the aptly named Beatrice and Benedick, by Marina Fiorato. Placing the characters in the real history of Elizabethan society, Benedick finds himself on the ill-fated Spanish Armada in the service of a Spanish prince, and Beatrice is engaged to a man she doesn’t want to marry, and each must fight against his or her fate. Their break up is due (of course) to a misunderstanding, and we get to see the characters a little younger and not quite so cynical, with all the knowledge of what lies ahead for both of them. If you’re a fan of Much Ado About Nothing (and it is a fun play with wonderful snark centuries before the term was invented), or even if you’re just curious about the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote, give Beatrice and Benedick a try.
Or, if you’re more adventurous, why not take a look at Will Shakespeare himself? So little is known about his private life that it’s easy (and fun) to imagine what might have been going on around his writing of and performing in those famous plays. Some years ago, the movie Shakespeare in Love swept the Academy Awards with just such an imagining. Now, in a slightly different key, we have the new book, License to Quill, by Jacopo Della Quercia, which starts with the premise that Shakespeare was acting as a spy for the Crown (so the James Bond reference in the title is entirely intentional) during the heady days of the Gunpowder Plot and the post-Reformation cold war. The concept isn’t that far fetched, considering that Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, was working as a spy as well as a playwright, and in this book, Marlowe is one of Shakespeare’s fellow spies. If you enjoy intrigue and plots and counter plots, and if you’re interested in the possible origins of Macbeth, this is a book to enjoy.