An Antic Disposition

Written by Alan Gordon
Review by Sarah Johnson

In the Black Forest in 1204, members of the Fool’s Guild are in hiding from the Pope, who wants to stop their meddling in political affairs. Here Father Gerald, a Catholic priest and former fool himself, retells the story of how, in 1157, a youthful Guild member named Terence of York played an integral role in a dispute over the Danish crown. Modern-day readers of Hamlet will recognize the major players, given names from Shakespeare’s original source, Saxo Grammaticus. These are Ørvendil, a claimant to Denmark’s throne; his wife, the young and beautiful Gerutha; Gorm, their rather stuffy counselor; Fengi, Ørvendil’s disloyal brother; and of course Amleth, Ørvendil and Gerutha’s shy son, taken under the wing of Terence of York (aka Yorick) and trained from early childhood to play the fool.

Retelling the background of Hamlet from the fools’ point of view is a stroke of genius, but its tragic overtones can’t help but carry over into this tongue-in-cheek version. This creates a somber mood that even the author’s sarcastic, wisecracking humor doesn’t relieve. For the most part, the mystery content is nonexistent, except for the suspicious drowning death of Gorm’s lovely daughter Alfhild towards the end. But most readers will be too engrossed in the story to notice. As a historical novel, especially one that casts a new and unexpected light on Shakespeare’s play, it’s well worth reading.