by Cynthia Wands
I’ve read two books recently that remind me of the days of understudies/rotating casts in a show. Those performances when suddenly someone else is saying those things that belonged to someone else.
The first book is Longbourn; a novel by Jo Baker based on the servants in the book , Pride and Prejudice. It’s very much like a look at the back stage of a fancy costume play: yes there are sparkles from the chandeliers, but it’s a life of hard labor and grubby interiors. I really appreciated this back story of the servants, who appeared only as extras in the Jane Austen story. Although not written in Austen’s style, it’s a great read of “backstage” life.
The second book, THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro, is a treasure. I’ve spent many hours trying to understand the writer William Shakespeare, (this is how I know a multitude of useless bits about the Elizabethan court, and Queen Elizabeth’s favorite Shakespeare play (The Merry Wives of Windsor;), and court gossip about witchcraft and illegitimate children hiding in royal family trees). The Year of Lear reveals the time during King James when Shakespeare was writing King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
Shakespeare was writing under the rule of a king who was obsessed with witchcraft; King James had even published his own book on witches, Daemonologie, (a wide-ranging discussion of witchcraft, necromancy, possession, demons, were-wolves, fairies and ghosts, in the form of a Socratic dialogue). (Now there’s a play!) I vaguely knew of some of the historical events, (the Gunpowder Plot, the ongoing issues with Catholics and Parliament); but I didn’t really know of Shakespeare’s world when he was writing some of his best work.
The book is very densely written; I had to come up for air many times while reading it. But I came away with a different view of someone’s life that I thought I knew. And that is quite a gift. And it reminds me of the power of theater, when we can illuminate all the characters on stage, not just the leading players.