This book will surely be a delight to readers on every level; Shakespeare buffs, lovers of literature, but perhaps most of all those who simply enjoy really exciting and well-plotted historical thrillers. It is of course published to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death (also the probable date of his birth) on 23rd April.
It is based on the idea put forward by some Shakespeare scholars that at some stage in his career he may have visited Italy, because so many of his plays are set there, and some are based on Italian plays that had not been translated into English, which suggests he may have spoken Italian. He had also made a thorough study of the classics at school in Stratford, and there are many allusions to Virgil and Ovid in the text. Potential readers do not assume that this indicates a boring read. There is not a dull moment in this book.
Brandreth has timed Shakespeare's Venetian adventure to coincide with his being accused by Sir Thomas Lucy, the Stratford local landowner, of poaching a deer. Shakespeare, then aged 20 and already a husband and father, needs to disappear. Brandreth presents a more entertaining reason for this necessity. He leaves Stratford with a small group of players whose company he has enjoyed during their short season in the town.
In London, Shakespeare becomes a bosom companion of the two leading players, Oldcastle and Hemminges. When they are given an engagement to play in Venice by the Ambassador to the Serene Republic, Sir Henry Carr, they persuade Shakespeare to accompany them, pointing out that it would be to his advantage to be out of the country for a while. Sir Henry reveals that he is employed as a spy by Queen Elizabeth, and the main object of his mission is to deliver a package of letters directly into the hands of the Venetian Doge.
Shakespeare, highly gifted and intelligent though he is, is a complete innocent when it comes to affairs of state, and it is a horrifying shock to him when their party, nearing their destination, are ambushed and attacked, leaving Shakespeare and Oldcastle as the only survivors. Sir Henry, who is cared for in his dying moments by Shakespeare, entrusts the letters to him. Oldcastle and Shakespeare decide their only way forward is to impersonate the Ambassador and his steward and deliver the letters themselves. They meet up with Prospero, the Count of Genoa, who offers to escort them into Venice. So they are thrown into a web of intrigue and danger that it would have been impossible for them to imagine previously. They are regarded with intense suspicion by everyone they meet and have great difficulty in maintaining their roles.
The twists and turns of the plot demonstrate that nothing and nobody are what they appears to be, not even Isabella, the beautiful courtesan Shakespeare immediately falls in love with. I really didn't want to finish it and am very glad Benet Brandreth has left himself an opportunity to continue Shakespeare's Venetian adventures a while longer.