The Play’s the Thing

Written by Jesscia Barksdale Inclán
Review by Gail M. Murray

In this historical fantasy, suspend disbelief and take a comedic romp through Elizabethan England, circa 1598. Travel to Will Shakespeare’s time with the bard as your guide. Literature professor Jessica Randall is ripe for adventure, her life in a slump—endless marking, uninspired students, and frustrated, nonexistent personal life.

With The Merchant of Venice as the mechanism, she’s transported to 1598. At rehearsal, she suddenly feels hazelnut shells beneath her feet. Later, pondering Shylock, she awakens in Shakespeare’s closet! He is annoyed she doesn’t vanish like the visitations from the other Jessicas. Will speaks in Elizabethan English, quoting lines from his plays, entertaining for Shakespeare aficionados. Along with Jessica, the reader recoils at the rats and bed bug bites, tastes the pasties and cherry tarts, and shudders when Will takes her to a hanging as entertainment. This Will is young, handsome, broke, and on the cusp of greatness. They share passion, and she becomes his muse. We are privy to this great writer’s human side, his sorrows and longings as Inclán, like the bard, taps the complexities of the human heart. Both at a crossroads, they help each other move forward.

We encounter Lord Pembroke, thought to be the Fair Youth of some love sonnets. Was Shakespeare bisexual? Jess works as a scribe for writer Lady Mary Sidney, who suggests a re-working of Merchant to dispense with the anti-Semitism, which could be the portal back, but not before Jess hides Will’s leather folder of erotic poems in St. Helen’s church.

Critics praise Shakespeare’s sonnets for their profound insight into love, passion, death, and time. For me, Inclán takes too much license with historical fact in the final chapters, but it’s an engaging read.