John Shakespeare once again serves Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's spymaster, in Rory Clements's second historical thriller, Revenger: A Novel of Tudor Intrigue.
Was there a real John Shakespeare?
I'd like to think so. There was certainly a Jone Shakespeare born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden in Stratford in October 1558, but nothing more is known about the baby.
Was John Shakespeare always going to be the lead?
No. My first idea was that my hero should be a merchant, who could travel Europe on business and do a bit of espionage on the side. But I soon decided the more direct route of having a man on the inside of Walsingham's network had greater possibilities. I also wanted a character who was every bit as patriotic as the great Elizabethans, but couldn't stomach the torture and persecution of Catholics. It seemed to me that Will Shakespeare's alter ego—his more prosaic elder brother—would fit the bill.
Was Walsingham's network really so extensive?
He literally had agents in every capital of Europe and beyond. He also knew what was going on in every town and great house in England. He was the CIA, FBI, MI5, and MI6 all rolled into one.
Why is the Tudor period so popular now?
It has great resonance throughout the Western world. It heralded the birth of the British Empire—and European colonization of North America. It is where our common histories began—and began to diverge. Apart from which, it was full of larger-than-life characters and great stories. Who needs to invent heroes and villains when you have the likes of Leicester, Drake, Walsingham, and Elizabeth herself to draw on?
Is there a theme uniting Martyr, the first book in the series, and Revenger?
That the glorious world of Elizabeth's golden age is a bit of a myth. Elizabeth was a remarkable character who was assailed by enemies on all sides, yet still managed to establish England as a world power pre-eminent in the arts. More than anything, she protected the theaters and playwrights from the joyless Puritans. However, there is a dark side to it all. We are taught about the brutality of her sister "Bloody Mary" and the burnings of Protestant martyrs, yet history has been kind to Elizabeth, turning a blind eye to the many Catholics tortured and executed in the most horrible manner either for being priests or for harboring them. The other theme is an eternal belief in the eventual triumph of good over evil. Even in the darkest of days you must believe in that—as John Shakespeare does—although it can be very difficult for him (and for us).