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March 2017

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writing rengeek stratford man

we work, oh we work like the devil for our pay.

Book report #62: Dominic Green, The Double Life Of Doctor Lopez: Spies, Shakespeare, and the plot to Poison Elizabeth I:


This is a bad book, and filthily written. But not without usefulness, however--I have got a page or so of notes for my Stratford Man revision.

Let me see. How do I explain? In late 1594, Elizabeth I's personal physician--and one of Burghley's highest-placed intelligencers--a Portugese Marrano (a crypto-Jew) by the name of Roderigo or Roderick or Roger Lopez or Lopus or Lopius, was executed at Tyburn for plotting to murder the queen. There is a fairly good body of evidence to support the idea that the charges were trumped up by the Earl of Essex. Whether Lopez was a double agent or not seems doubtful.

Green's book takes the tack that Lopez was an opportunist, entirely intent upon enriching himself, and it draws a detailed portrait of the intricacies of Tudor spycraft. Unfortunately, I think it fails to prove its case, or even make it very cogently, and here's why:

The book is full of charming nuggets of information, any of which might be extraordinarily cool if I could trust them. Unfortunately, Green has a tendency to be rather airy with actual facts (He apparently doesn't know the difference between Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of  Pembroke, and Frances Walsingham Sidney. Sidney's widow who remarried Essex was Frances, not Mary, and she was Sir Francis Walsingham's daughter. Mary Sidney was Sir Philip's sister. Also: there is no evidence that Will Shakespeare was ever resident at Southampton's house. There is no evidence that the Ur-Hamlet was written by Will. And those are only a few of the the things I caught off the cuff. Et fucking cetera.) and alternately, to present his speculation and patterns of deduction as if they were fact, enough so that I am dubious of all his information--especially the bits I know nothing about.

He's also wasting a good deal of time attempting to draw parallels between the Lopez affair and both Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, seemingly quite uncritically. And he's a little too fond of cutesy folk etymologies: he comes up with one for "the full monty: that's not even included in this exhaustive article on same, and he seems hopelessly confused about the difference between the Spanish Prisoner con game (familiar to some of you as Nigerian email scam) and the game theory idea of the Prisoner's Dilemma, attempting to tie the second back (through a folk etymology utilizing the first) to techniques used in Elizabethan times (and, we presume, since time immemorial) for interrogating suspected traitors.

I am also deeply uncomfortable with his unsignposted speculation about the motives of various people, about Shakespeare's relationship with Southampton (broad-accented Will was hardly a "perfumed boy" in 1593 (the publication date of "Venus and Adonis") or thereabouts, considering he was playing old-man roles in his thirties), and about the exact nature of the plots and counterplots that lead to Lopez's execution. 

There were several chunks of the book where I keep rolling my eyes and muttering NOW HE'S JUST MAKING SHIT UP! I mean, his conspiracy theory is lovely, but it seems the sort of thing where he found a plausible pattern in the evidence and then convinced himself it was real.

On the other hand, there appears to be a great deal of original research in this book, some of it presented in extensive end notes, and there were all sorts of tidbits that mean that I can seriously shore up the Lopez subplot in Ink & Steel and make it pull its weight more than a little more.

There is also the problem of the prose. Every so often, Green goes off on extremely pained flights of metaphor and long tours through eye-squeezingly bad writing. The extended conceits, stretched (as if on the rack) to far beyond any semblance of cleverness, are not the worst of it.

Nor, alas, is the following: 

A fortress guards the river approach, the White Tower standing over the tide that licks slickly at the teeth of the water gates. Before it, the City's only bridge blocks the watery highway of the Thames like a stockade, the water boiling through its arches. Above, high thin houses jostle along its length, their diamond-shaped window-panesd catching light like watery gemstones. At the southern end of the bridge the towers of a massive gate are crowned with bare poles, their spiked tips waiting for the heads of traitors. From the gate the City debouches on to the southern bank, pooling into a slummy afterthought of brothels, taverns, and pleasure gardens, a patch beyond the City's jurisdiction, the haunt of thieves and prostitutes, gamblers and bear baiters. From the windows of his palace to the West, the Archbishop of Canterbury can see the lost sheep. (from p. 14)

Somebody get Sam Clemens in here to catalogue the literary offenses.

The real tragedy here is that when Green quits messing around failing to be evocative and just writes the book, he gives us perfectly serviceable prose, packed with useful information--if one can trust it:

The accumulated disasters of the fifteenth centure had distilled the Jews of Iberia down to their most determined and faithful core, and then poured them into Portugal, but perserverance alone was not enough. Cut off from the Jewish world outside Portugal, with education and worship rendered dangerous by the presence of the Inquisition, Marrano faith became diluted and diverged from Jewish tradition. At its most extreme, it became a theological phantasm, blending confused memories of Judaism with strands of the Christianity that concealed it. Even the mainstream of Marranism was adulterated. Where other Jews retold the story of Esther, who had saved the Jews of Babylon from the wicked king Haman, Marranos venerated her as St. Esther through a Catholic-style cult. A fully fledged Marrano represents as much a taxonomicl challenge to the historian as the duck-billed platypus did to a Victorian naturalist. All Conversos were New Christians, but some New Christians were really Marranos, and both New Christians and Marranos were in fact Annusim. (from p. 25)

I mean, okay, he's gotten flouncy in there a couple of times where he falls prey to those pained metaphors (the distilling and pouring and all) but basically, this is sound writing.

Okay, still trying too hard? But perfectly readable.

I did find out rather a lot about William Wade, however, which may prove useful.

Comments

Re: I do love the phrase "eye-squeezingly bad writing"

conflation is not causation, to mangle a statistician's aphorism beloved of archaeologists.
He doesn't know the difference between the Countess of Pembroke and Frances Sidney? Ye Gads! Words fail me!

*Splutter!*

Heh.

You and me both.
a slummy afterthought of brothels

. . . Wow.
and I spared you some worser passages.
This would have made a perfectly lovely historical novel. *g*
licks slickly at the teeth of the water gates



my eyes! my eyes!!!
Once again, you have read this book so I don't have to.
the end notes quote the original sources.
See, I'm taking my first stab at a historical setting for a specfic novel and I find myself drawn to the crackpot books and their spurious and/or nonexistent research for certain things...because I'm also writing fiction, and some of their ideas are great fun. (You want some out-there tomes, try delving into the subject of the occult during the Third Reich. Wowza.)

But I agree with your report...it is SO FRUSTRATING to be reading along, recognize an anachronism or error, and have to scrap all of your notes to that point because you can't trust the damn book any more. That and flowery suppositions kill nonfiction works for me.

Then again, I am writing about Nazi vampires so maybe I need to lighten up.
I'm doing a book with Nazi Vampires in it as well and the amount of research I did was insane for something that is likely to be consigned to back story (or maybe a short story or a prequel).

But then I've been working on a short story set in modern-day Kansas mainly as a passing Wizard of Oz reference and did ridiculous amounts of research on that.

I don't think I could ever write a historical novel as I'd need to know every fact... I don't think I could bluff successfully

if you can trust it....

" Where other Jews retold the story of Esther, who had saved the Jews of Babylon from the wicked king Haman, Marranos venerated her as St. Esther through a Catholic-style cult." I'd have a lot of trouble trusting his scholarship on the Marranos, if this is typical of undertanding of Judeaism.
or even a simple summary of the book of Esther.
(all the Jews in Medo-Persia were endangered by the Persian King Ahasuerus' chief councillor, Haman)
http://www.ny054.urj.net/living/Purim/purim.shtml
you did a great service in protecting us from this book.
I just wonder what you'll learn when reading the source material. I wager it will be very different from this author's conclusions.

Re: if you can trust it....

Once I got started, the trainwreck kept me going.
I find this very useful.

Did you ever know about my prized possession? I swear to god, if the house was on fire, I would be all, "Puppy!!! Get yourself out!!!! I'm going after THE BOOK!!!!!!! See you in a few, child of my loins!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
He's also wasting a good deal of time attempting to draw parallels between the Lopez affair and both Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, seemingly quite uncritically.

Did someone mention to him that Marlowe is dead by 1593? Or is this one of those wacky deconstructionist notions where we insist Marxist theory influenced people who died 300 before Marx was born?
Correlation is not causation.
to present his speculation and patterns of deduction as if they were fact

Argh! I hate that!

Through years of reading fanfic I've also come to hate any use of "pool" as a verb, so that alone would have had my fingers curling reflexively toward his throat. I'm sorry you're gonna have to recheck all his sources and whatnot cuz of his untrustworthiness, but glad you found stuff you can use!

Probably my favorite book of literary-historical scholarship is The Great Rimbaud Forgery, which is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, just what you want a book of research to be. *dreams of a world where all supposed non-fiction was written like that*
I've gotten spoiled by Park Honan. He's an absolute pleasure to read. And when he's making shit up, engaging in speculation to cover a deficit in the sources, he TELLS YOU.