Author: Michael Blanding
Source: from publisher for review
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads
Summary: I really enjoyed the historical parts of this story, but the Shakespeare theory was too speculative for me.
Author Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief was some of the earliest narrative nonfiction I read and, like Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La, it stands out as one of the books that made me love the genre. When I had an opportunity to review his latest book, on a researcher named Dennis McCarthy with a new theory about Shakespeare, I couldn’t pass it up. I was a little nervous about the topic though. The last book I read on a Shakespeare theory was pretty bad, presenting theories that felt laughably thin. This book didn’t have that problem. It was purely speculative, but some of the coincidences were persuasive. However, I still enjoyed the historical bits better than the Shakespeare theory. As someone who really appreciates solid evidence and wants to know what I’m reading in nonfiction is true, I’m not sure Shakespeare theory books are the best fit for me.
Because the Shakespeare theory was such a large part of my reaction to this book, I’ll discuss that first. McCarthy’s theory is that most of Shakespeare’s plays are revisions of plays he bought from Robert North, a nobleman’s impoverished second son. I found some comparisons of text from North’s writing with Shakespeare’s plays striking. Other comparisons felt like a stretch. The same was true of the links between North’s life and the autobiographical elements McCarthy claims North included in the plays. The inclusion of the weaker evidence made it harder for me to take McCarthy seriously. He seemed obsessed and I didn’t trust him to objectively evaluate the evidence.
I also had a hard time getting past the fact that no plays attributed to North survive. This contributed to the biggest problem I had with this theory – it relies entirely on coincidence, with no definitive evidence. It reminded me of a true crime story I read somewhere, which described multiple suspects, each of whom seemed like they must be guilty because of persuasive circumstantial evidence. They didn’t all commit the crime though, so some of those too-strange-to-be-coincidental events were actually coincidences. That seems to be happening with alternate-Shakespeare theories and at most one of them has gotten it right.
So, I didn’t love the sections of the book that focused the most on the Shakespeare theory. I was pulled out of the story by trying to evaluate every claim myself. Fortunately, as with The Map Thief, there were multiple elements to this story, including some that I really loved. Following North’s life gave me a fascinating glimpse of daily life in the Elizabethan era for someone of his rank. Most histories I’ve read focus on those more closely connected to Elizabeth. Blanding did a great job giving little details of North’s experience that brought this era to life from a fresh perspective. While I feel bad that McCarthy hasn’t been given much of a hearing by Shakespeare scholars, his clashes with the academic establishment also made for entertaining reading.
The author’s conclusion made me feel a bit better about the speculative nature of the theory presented here. Throughout the book, he’s very clear about when McCarthy is speculating. The conclusion then gave a great summary of what was known vs what was only hypothetical. I certainly don’t think the book overstates McCarthy’s case and it was a credible enough theory that it was interesting to read about. Unfortunately, while I loved the author’s previous book and enjoyed his writing here, I’m forced to conclude that this topic is just not for me. If you feel differently, but share my love of narrative nonfiction, I definitely recommend this one. You can check out another review from Julie at Julz Reads if you’re looking for an opinion from someone for whom the topic was a better fit.