Within the last thirty years, readers have been exposed to several new versions of William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, versions that take us far afield from the Shakespeare that tradition has presented us. And primarily, those variations have been seen in historical mysteries and romantic suspense. We are given a view of Shakespeare as Sherlock Holmes, and his Watsonian counterpart(s), that are as varied as the plots our hero tries to sort out.
I came to this field honestly. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I was pursuing a MA degree in Creative Writing. For part of the literature component, I took a graduate seminar in Shakespeare. It was an intense experience-–8 plays in 16 weeks. The midterm and the final examination included sections in which we were given Shakespearean quotes. We were required to identify each quote by play, act, scene, speaker and its significance to the play. Such intense study begs some relief. So, I began writing an historical mystery that featured a kind, yet enigmatic, Shakespeare, who shared his room with a young actor who had been his apprentice. A murder on stage at the Globe threatens to shut the theatre down. Shakespeare and his amanuensis must sort it out. Thus was born my master’s thesis and my first published novel.
But the concept of Shakespeare as detective has far earlier roots. Authors have used the settings of Shakespearean tragedies to place their own detective stories. In fact, even attempting to list those books with some connection to Shakespeare and his plays would require a book-length work of its own. But authors that introduce the great bard himself as a detective are fewer.
Shakespeare in Love really kicked off the new depictions of gentle Will. Though the film itself is more romance than mystery, there are elements of both. Penned by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the plot revolves around a young Shakespeare, not yet famous, and a cross-dressing Gwyneth Paltrow trying to break the rule against women actors. It’s cleverly written and was a winner at the box office, but the studio and the writers were sued by mystery author Faye Kellerman, who wrote a Shakespearean mystery that also featured a woman dressed as a man, The Quality of Mercy.
Kellerman’s book (1989) was an effective romantic suspense novel starring a young William Shakespeare and a female newcomer to London, and one of the earliest. Of course, they fall in love but then fall afoul of the wrong people, so on and so forth. My own YA book, Murder on the Twelfth Night, portrayed Shakespeare as very much the Holmesian investigator, ably assisted by his former apprentice and roommate Ben Jonson (but not THE Ben Jonson).
Possibly the most popular adult mystery series which stars Shakespeare as detective is Simon Hawke’s series. A young would-be actor, Smithington Smythe II, encounters the young Will Shakespeare. Together, over the course of four novels, “Tuck” Smythe and young Will sort out several murders and plots. Starting with A Murder of Errors, in which the novel’s plot parallels Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, Hawke brings us the aptly titled The Slaying of the Shrew, The Merchant of Vengeance, and Much Ado About Murder.
Another YA series that has garnered many awards is Gary Blackwood’s series about Widge, a young orphan and thief, who enters the Globe with illegal intent, but becomes a well-liked and trusted apprentice actor. While Shakespeare is not the main character here, he does lend young Widge his wisdom, especially when the Bard breaks his arm in Shakespeare’s Scribe, and Widge is pressed into service as his scribe.
Phillip Gooden’s “Shakespearean Murder Mystery” series is the most long-lived of the crowd, but Gooden’s detective is actually Nick Revill, a member of the Globe company and friend of Shakespeare. While all the entries have Shakespearean-themed plots, Revill is the sleuth. But that said, Gooden, a member of the Medieval Murderers group and former president of the Crime Writer’s Association, does a nice job of recreating late Elizabethan/early Jacobean London, with all its warts.
With the popularity of Tudor England not even close to declining, and with the popularity of Shakespeare and murder mysteries always strong, I expect to see even more mysteries which turn the great Bard from playwrighting to mystery detection.
When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.