"I have hanged more men for what they have written than for what they have done."
This quote from Queen Elizabeth I’s most savage enforcer, Richard Topcliffe, goes straight to the heart of the world that surrounds Tom Wickham – a stable boy who, by the circumstances of his birth, becomes young William Shakespeare’s closest friend.
Warwickshire was one of the last Catholic outposts of Tudor England. History is written by the victors, but this is a story of a torn and bloody country as seen through the tear-stained eyes of the vanquished. The layers of Tom and Will’s turbulent environment are peeled back, revealing passion, love and desire fighting for oxygen on the face of a spiralling mountain of fear and retribution.
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In a great blend of fact and fiction, author Dominick Reyntiens seeks to discover the secrets of the great man's childhood, expertly weaving tale after tale of the young Will's adventures. Large swathes of the story are purely fictional, yet key people and defining moments from Shakespeare's life are present. This really brings the story to life - you feel like you're right there in the middle of Stratford peering in through the window of John Shakespeare's workshop, or riding alongside the characters as they head down narrow country lanes, or even experiencing the dirty, busy, smog-filled streets of Tudor London for the first time.
A great deal of research
Reyntiens is an expert storyteller, and the research he has put into this book from start to finish is clear to see on every page. Every detail is accurate; it's a pleasure to read a historical novel that is so steeped in its time and period of history.
The settings are a particular favourite of mine. Rich in description, from the poorest shack to the most lavishly decorated room, it only makes it easier to picture yourself in the story. Not forgetting the many plentiful descriptions of the Warwickshire countryside - by the end of the book you almost feel like you live there yourself!
Fratres in lacte
Our narrator and main character, Tom Wickham, is Will's closest friend. He works as a stable boy in his father's livery, and comes from a more lowly class than the Shakespeare family themselves. Regardless, the boys share a bond for life - as Will puts it, Tom is 'meus fratre in lacte.'
Sadly, Tom is an entirely fictional character, which is a shame because he's an incredibly interesting and surprisingly insightful narrator.
Throughout the book, little snatches and references to Will's future works are mentioned. Some are subtle hints, others are much more obvious, but either way, it's nice to see how the events of the past shaped some of Shakespeare's greatest work (in the fictional world of the book, anyway).
Fan of Shakespeare or not, this is a really interesting historical read, full of larger-than-life characters and fantastic detail.
Rating: 3 stars.
My Stratford Friend is available to buy now.
Will you be reading My Stratford Friend? Let me know in the comments below!