Young Shakespeare becomes a spy in British rhetoric coach Brandreth’s first novel, The Spy of Venice (Pegasus Crime, July).
What led you to imagine Shakespeare as an espionage agent?
My first question was how the son of a glover from a small town in the middle of England should have found himself in London, a player and a playwright, and more than that—the greatest master of the English language the world has ever seen. The beginning was unpromising, and the result outstanding. Something must have inspired him.
There are various theories for what happened between the date of his twins’ baptism in 1585 in Stratford-upon-Avon and his first mention in the records of the London theater scenes in Robert Greene’s Groates Worth of Wit as “upstart crow,” but one captured my imagination—that he had gone to Italy, to Venice. If so, how had he done so? Surely only in the entourage of a wealthy man, the English ambassador? And from there to the idea of him as a spy was a small leap. So many Englishmen abroad were spying that it was almost a matter of remark not to be.
We are distracted by our modern vision of playwrights as slightly tweedy figures, but the playwrights of the Elizabethan era were a more dangerous bunch, at the margins of society, such as Christopher Marlowe, who was, of course, famously a spy and murdered in a tavern brawl in Deptford.
Did your research into the period yield anything unexpected?
The things that surprised me most were about the history of Italy at the time. There is a tendency in the U.K. to have a very Anglocentric view of history, and yet for most of history we played bit parts in the great dynastic battles of Europe. At the same time, Italy was full of the most fabulous characters, vengeful popes, murderous wives, brilliant poet-courtesans. Very little authorial invention was required to fill my story with drama and remarkable characters.
Has your work as an intellectual property lawyer influenced your writing of fiction?
My interest is in language and its power to move others. That is the essence of rhetoric—the art of persuasion, which was the sum and substance of Shakespeare’s education. It was knowledge of language that got me involved in the Royal Shakespeare Company, working with the actors on how Shakespeare understood and used language. That same knowledge I deploy in the courtroom, hopefully to good effect. I think there is considerable overlap between that and my writing. A good advocate tells his client’s story; the narrative matters even in dry areas of the law, like patents and trademarks.