March 26, 2010

The Shakespeare Curse by J.L. Carrell

Not rated

I wasn't a big fan of J.L. Carrell's previous thriller, The Shakespeare Secret, but her story was interesting enough that I felt it was only fair to give her sequel, The Shakespeare Curse, a chance. It's currently riding high on bestseller lists, and it's less close to my specific area of research that, at the least, I thought I could enjoy a nice easy read.

The premise of the novel is actually quite interesting. The idea that the Macbeth printed in the First Folio is a later adaptation of Shakespeare's play is, indeed, a widely-held academic belief. The "original" text of Macbeth (as far as modern concepts of originality can be applied to the Early Modern theatre) is indeed lost, and Carrell uses this as her foundation. Here, the proposition is that the young Shakespeare, while touring in Scotland with a group of players, witnessed a rite of dark magic performed by an ancestor of the historical Lady Macbeth, which he later wove into his play on the same subject. The danger of this rite - which, if performed, could genuinely call up demons - caused the authorities to order a rewrite, hence the redacted version of the play with harmless scenes based on stock witch figures replacing the potentially dangerous material.

Carrell's knowledge of the Shakespearean canon allows some further exploration of the implications of her fiction. The idea is that the original rite allowed Shakespeare to be divinely inspired, hence his sudden appearance on the London stage writing miraculously good plays (my regular readers will know my thoughts on this - but it's fiction, so I'll let them pass). More interestingly, she ties this early association with magic in with other plays, particularly 2 Henry VI with its unusually ritualistic and detailed conjuration of demonic prophecies (which, in the novel, is staged and actually raises a demon, dispelled by the visiting magus John Dee who is in the audience) and The Tempest. As an exploration of Shakespeare's use of magic, it's a compelling read. My only disappointment in this part of the book was that, despite a couple of mentions of Faustus, she doesn't extend her exploration of stage magic to this play, which would have tied in quite nicely with her other concerns over authorship and stage representations of demonic summoning.

The rest of the historical material, however, is confused and confusing. The sheer volume of letters, artefacts (fake and real versions of almost all of them), books, recordings and pamphlets unearthed in the modern-day plot creates a jigsaw of evidence that is difficult to follow and, at times, often seems self-contradictory. For all Dan Brown's flaws, one of the great things about his Robert Langdon books is that the historical data found by the protagonists is presented to the reader in a clear and suggestive way: we don't need to have every gap explicitly filled in, and the things that are found are allowed to slot neatly together. Carrell, by contrast, insists on providing letter after letter from 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century historical figures in order to trace a continuous and hole-free trail of evidence between the Shakespearean time period and the modern plot, but there's just too much of it to keep track of, and rather reduces each artefact's relative importance.

The novel's real letdown, however, is the modern-day plot. A theatre director is invited to Scotland to direct a production of Macbeth using historical documents, but finds that she is also there so that she can track down the lost original manuscript of the play. Nefarious forces wish to find it first, though, in order that they can unleash the dark magic contained therein. It turns out that Lady Nairn, the actress and landowner who has commissioned the production, is a descendant of Lady Macbeth herself and a practising Wiccan, but her evil niece wishes to pervert the family heritage by calling upon the same divine inspiration that first inspired Shakespeare.

Carrell's characters are sorely lacking. The one sympathetic character, the kindly and often funny Eircheard, evokes some sympathy upon his murder, but elsewhere Carrell seems to think we will care merely because we are told to. The kidnapping of Lily, Lady Nairn's other niece, provides the Macguffin which drives Kate (the theatre director and her heroine) around the world to find the manuscript, but Lily herself is such a brattish, irresponsible, dangerous and whiny character that I had no real interest in seeing her saved. The love interest from the previous novel, Ben, is reintroduced in such a perfunctory way that his very presence remains confusing throughout, and the love triangle his relationship with an actress creates is crude, juvenile and frankly offensive, particularly in the ease with which he gets over his partner's murder. And Lady Nairn herself, retrospectively, appears to have had ALL the relevant information with which to get the manuscript in the first place, leaving Kate essentially going through the motions on her treasure hunt.

The writing is also, well, just bad. Characters - ALL the characters - speak like tour guides, providing curator-quality commentary on whichever museum/library/theatre/stark Scottish heath the characters are currently running breathlessly through. Kate's encyclopediac and instantly-recitable knowledge of Shakespearean text, theatre history, the occult, academia AND political history in particular renders her unbelievable as a character. In the descriptive prose, meanwhile, Carrell attempts to create cinematic images through detailed description, rendering the language mundane and often laughable, with characters noticing extraordinary detail even as they dodge bullets. What makes this more frustrating is that this isn't the case in her historical sections, where the writing is sparser and allows the audience to conjure up their own images. If I had one recommendation for Carrell, it'd be to stick to historical novels; her Tudor world is far more believable than her 21st century.

As a story, it's worth picking up for a bit of holiday reading, but I have to say, I think I've read enough of J.L. Carrell for the foreseeable future.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Kings of Leon

    You-ooooo, your socks is on fire!

    26 Mar 2010, 16:57

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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