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January 25, 2016

Shakespeare, the Playwright with a License to Quill

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Jacopo della Quercia’s recently released novel License to Quill places literary legends William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe in a narrative derived from contemporary spy thrillers such as the James Bond series. When William Shakespeare is approached by Guy Fawkes to help in the infamous Gunpowder Plot, the playwright is forced to work undercover with the group of conspirators, infiltrating their plans until the treasonous act ultimately fails. Christopher Marlowe deals with the foreign implications of the Gunpowder Plot in Italy. The story, outlandish to the novel’s 17th Century setting, serves to provide an interesting glimpse of the two writers’ personalities and eccentricities as understood through historical sources and their own works.

The narrative begins on a stormy night in London around May 30, 1593 — the reported date of Christopher Marlowe’s untimely death. Marlowe, a secret government spy and renowned playwright, was recently apprehended and arrested for supposedly writing seditious material about Protestants living in London. Presently, he is awaiting trial, held captive by three armed guards in a bedroom. A porter delivers ale to the three guards, and as the attendant leaves, he smashes a bottle on the floor, engulfing the room in thick smoke. When the fog clears, the three guards discover that Marlowe has been brutally stabbed to death with one of the guard’s daggers on the bed that, only a few seconds prior, held him in a drunken sleep.

When spymaster Thomas Walsingham arrives at the crime scene, he orders the three guards away to apprehend the assassin. Walsingham approaches Marlowe’s lifeless body and orders the dead poet to rise. It is then revealed that Marlowe’s death was merely staged with the help of young William Shakespeare, who climbs out from under Marlowe’s bed with the guard’s stolen dagger. The trio makes its way to a dockyard, where Marlowe departs on a boat to Venice so that he may live under a secret identity to avoid execution in England. Before Marlowe leaves, he shares a loving embrace with Shakespeare, indicating the apparent brotherly bond between the two playwrights. The young Shakespeare will replace Marlowe’s spy role in exchange for a monetary stipend and a license to write plays free from political censorship.

Many of the novel’s most intriguing elements, besides its thrilling action and revelations, are introduced in this prologue. It is in this initial scene that Quercia establishes his witty tone that depicts later events or exchanges in the novel with an appreciable sense of humor and sentimentality. The shocking excitement of Marlowe’s fake murder is followed by a valuable, personal moment between him and Shakespeare. Such a tone does well in soothing the bleak reality of the novel’s primary setting, a plague-devastated London under the harsh, violent nature of English politics during Elizabeth and James I’s reigns. Both Shakespeare and Marlowe are characterized in this scene, and the duality between the two writers is observed for the first time. Marlowe, a pioneer of blank verse in English playwriting, is portrayed in License to Quill as a clever playboy with a deep but modest love of himself. He is a quirk in the rigidity of proper “official” behavior exhibited by Thomas Walsingham or other important figures with whom he must interact, just as his works break the confines of poetic norms contemporary to his time. Historically, Marlowe is the famous influence of Shakespeare, a fact symbolized in Shakespeare’s character.

Like Marlowe, Shakespeare is different from the figures around him and combats societal norms through a humorous and witty approach to various interactions. Shakespeare, however, is much more conscientious and tamed in the way he conducts himself with others, and even appears timid when facing the initial danger of his mission. Yet, as Marlowe and Shakespeare face the hardships of infiltrating the Gunpowder Plot (neither playwright knows of the other’s actions or whereabouts), their personalities converge, leading to the meeting between the two writers in the Globe Theatre and their first embrace since 1593.

License to Quill is crafted around historical facts of the playwrights’ lives. Due to the proliferation of espionage during Shakespeare and Marlowe’s time, much is known about the two writers, and indeed, Quercia presents a significant quantity of footnotes as proof of consulted documents. In approaching the time period in the style of a modern spy thriller, Quercia brilliantly animates and explains the figures and events that occurred hundreds of years ago.

Additionally, many allusions to Shakespeare’s works are present in the novel. For example, Bianca, a fictional spy and former love interest of Shakespeare, is referred to as the “Dark Lady.” This is a reference to Shakespeare’s sequence of sonnets — 127 to 154 — that address an assumed lover of the poet, whose identity is unknown. Furthermore, in the novel, Guy Fawkes tasks Shakespeare with writing a play that would become Macbeth. In reality, Shakespeare did write this play around and possibly as result of the Gunpowder Plot. Jacopo della Quercia’s License to Quill is a highly entertaining spy thriller, complete with vivid characterization and creative depictions of a significant and infamous chapter in European history.

Nick Swan is a freshman in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. He can be reached at nb252@cornell.edu.

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