What is your personal favorite work by Shakespeare?
The Merchant of Venice. What can be more intriguing than a play about love, about marriage, about gaming the system? A play about the right of Jews, or any minority, to live freely in the world of the majority? All of the above!
The Earl of Oxford lived each and every one of these issues in Venice and in England. I hope this novel tells us how and why. I also hope it helps us to appreciate his plays and poems, including The Merchant of Venice. The Earl of Oxford knew several Jews even though at the time, only a hundred or so lived in all of England. His relationships with them were close: Doctor Lopez was his—and the queen’s—physician. William Lewyn was his companion from the time Edward was four years old until Lewyn resigned his post in Venice when the Earl was in his twenties. Emilia Bassano was the woman he made immortal as the Dark Lady in his Sonnets, and his lover and confidante. This play, as with almost all of the plays of “Shakespeare,” is not imagined. In many ways, it’s the Earl’s personal story.
As part of your research, you visited the current Earl of Oxford. What was that like?
The inhabitants of Hedingham, the castle of the Earls of Oxford, is said to be the oldest castle in Europe, and today is the residence of one of the Earl’s descendants, his wife and his children, four-year-old twin boys and their teen-aged sister. The novel opens when the future Earl of Oxford was four years old, and meeting the twins was a delight for my wife and me. I have fond memories of the boys’ faces covered with the chocolate chip cookies we bought in a Covent Garden bakery.
We ate lunch in the kitchen, because the family rents out the castle for weddings and other events and a prospective tenant was touring the keep. The Earl’s descendant is an architect and he is restoring the castle to its condition a thousand years ago. His wife, Demetra, works with him, and she cooked us lunch (coq au vin over wild rice, one of my favorites). Afterward, he showed me a letter written by the Earl. Its handwriting, in italics script, was clear as a bell, in stark contrast to the barely intelligible six signatures of the Stratford man on his Last Will and a mortgage, the only “evidence” he was literate.
After lunch, we strolled through the castle keep, and grounds where ancient red bricks poked out of the soil in much the same way that the story of the real author of the works of Shakespeare emerges from the hidden past.
What is the oddest thing that you learned about life in Tudor England?
I found the means used to prevent unwanted children from being conceived particularly interesting, yet poignant. Instead of plastic condoms, the rich—usually aristocrats—used condoms made of silk, which were called Venus gloves. But because silk was so expensive, they were not commonly used. As a result, conception was barely controlled, babies were born without intent, and hundreds of thousands of children died. Yet today, though societies have better and cheaper methods to prevent unwanted conception, many of them are still plagued by ancient rules, as if no progress has even been made.
Why do you think people hold on so loyally to the image of the Stratford man writing the greatest works of the English language?
The idea that complicated, profound plays and poems could have been written by someone with little or no education; that detailed descriptions of places and customs could be written with understanding, accuracy and charm by someone who never saw them; that the sources of plays and poems in languages the author could neither read or write could be used with such facility, provides many people with a seductive idea: that great works of literature can be immaculately conceived out of thin air, or by pure imagination, without study, travel, language knowledge or experience. People have always been attracted to magic and this is the most magical idea of all on a par with the myths of hallowed religions. As a result, the cult of the Bard has become another cult because it makes so many people feel so good.