New Reviews of Geoffrey Craig's SHAKESPEARE'S YOUNGER SISTER
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- Published: Tuesday, 14 January 2020 16:07
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Reviews of Shakespeare’s Younger Sister, by Geoffrey Craig. Golden Antelope Press, 303 pages. ISBN: 978-1-936135-84-4. $19.95, Paperback.
Sandy Raschke, Calliope, Small Press Review, Winter 2020
“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Most of us have studied English literature in high school or college and know that this famous quotation comes from William Shakespeare’s play, Richard the Third. But did he really write it? Or was it his sister, Constance Shakespeare, summoned to London by Will to manage his household, because he was so busy earning fortune and fame?
Now we need to suspend our disbelief for a while as we take in the alternate history of Shakespeare’s rise to prominence, as skillfully rendered by Geoffrey Craig in his latest novel, Shakespeare’s Younger Sister.
Constance is a fictional construct, stuck in the staid ways and mores of 16th century Elizabethan England. But this young and beautiful libertine, barely eighteen years old, is bold enough to leave Stratford-on-Avon in the middle of the night, without funds, to go to London by carriage to help her brother, William Shakespeare. She is offered free passage by Lord Edmund Gravel, eldest son of the Earl of Pennyford, a handsome young man who shows an immediate interest in her—later seduces her, with her blessing, and has his coachman take her into the bowels of London where her brother Will resides—a sordid, putrid slum, where the plague and other diseases run rampant.
When Constance arrives, she finds her brother’s house filthy with half-eaten food strewn about and a chamber pot filled to the brim. He’s down to his last few shillings but expects Constance to take care of the house and his needs.
She does, in artful ways, even secretly edits his manuscripts during her rare moments of “down time.” Later, when he realizes how talented she is, they end up collaborating on many of his plays.
She cleans the house and shops for him, and meets a woman at the Leadenhall Market that will have a profound influence on her and her brother’s future: Susanna Marsham, Duchess of Bastrow, who later invites Constance to her home and seduces her in the garden’s maze; there they become lovers. As their relationship deepens, the Duchess arranges for William Shakespeare to give a performance of Richard the Third in her mansion, with Lord Edmund, other royalty and the Queen in attendance. Shakespeare walks away with a bag of gold sovereigns worth over 150 pounds, along with a boost to his reputation as a playwright and impresario.
After the Duchess leaves London during a breakout of the plague, she tragically dies in a horse accident. Constance is bereft, but then she meets a young lawyer and has an affair with him. He turns out to be a radical. He is dragged away and tortured, then executed in the most heinous of ways. When the powers-that-be turn their attention to Constance, she ends up in the Tower, facing torture on the rack. Lord Edmund comes to her rescue again. John, her lover, bequeaths her his substantial estate. Constance, pregnant with his child, is now set for life.
Madge, another long-time friend she met upon arriving in London, is now a widow with two boys and moves in with her. Madge asks Constance about physical love between women, and whether Constance prefers women versus men. Constance suggests that love is love and shows Madge what it is like to be loved by a woman.
Shakespeare’s Younger Sister is lush with description and meticulously researched history. The characters are sharply drawn, luminous and memorable. The story itself is delightful, sensual, humorous at times, and evilly witty. Geoffrey Craig has created an unforgettable tableau of Elizabethan England at its worst and its best, and a young woman who is not afraid to embrace whatever life throws at her.
Garner Simmons, Author of Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage
Geoffrey Craig’s Shakespeare’s Younger Sister, is a unique composite: part historical fiction, part fantasy and wholly original. Essentially, Mr. Craig presents an unvarnished snapshot of Elizabethan England, warts and all. From the sewerage in the streets to the crowded markets to the squalor of plague-riven 16th century London, he captures it all in well-researched detail. Then against such harsh reality, he introduces Constance, Shakespeare’s imaginary younger sister.
In truth, Shakespeare did have a real younger sister named Joan (1569-1646), who married a hatter named William Hart and had four children. Their descendants lived on in Stratford for some 200 years. Clearly Mr. Craig has something more intriguing in mind. His fictional Constance, who is 18 when we meet her in 1592, is both beautiful and intelligent. On the verge of womanhood, she has received a letter from her brother, Will, a struggling but self-impressed playwright, who needs her to join him in London to help maintain his household. Knowing their father would never approve, she sneaks off in the dead of night thus beginning what can properly be called a bildungsroman – a story of the psychological and moral growth of a young character (like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, for example).
To be accurate, Constance is a postmodern feminist, whom, like Zola’s Nana, uses her body but preserves her soul. The novel portrays Constance as bisexual, equally attracted to men and women (not unlike William Shakespeare, himself, whose sonnets are addressed to both a “Fair Youth” and a “Dark Lady”). But more critically, it is Constance’s literary gifts and feminine sensibilities that insinuate themselves into her brother’s work as she demonstrates her talent as a writer and becomes his silent partner. As the novel’s cover – an attractive young woman contemplating Yorick’s skull from Hamlet – implies: the question at the core of Shakespeare’s Younger Sister is truly Constance’s own personal self-realization: “To be or not to be…?”
Without question, this is a novel that demands suspension of disbelief. But if one is willing make that leap, Shakespeare’s Younger Sister is a rewarding read.
Anonymous, JD, Yale Law School - Consultant