Shakespeare & Marlowe: Secret Agents – A Review of License to Quill

With the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death exciting University English Departments and theatre lovers the world over (myself included), it is no surprise that there are a number of Shakespeare related publications coming out over the course of this year. However, among all the literary criticism and biographical work, it would seem that the most exciting work to come out of all the Shakespeare fanfare is Jacopo Della Quercia’s newest novel License to Quill.

License to Quill follows the parallel stories of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe as they get caught up in the midst of a late sixteenth century spy thriller, working to dismantle the gun powder plot that Guy Fawkes and his men are planning. With Shakespeare working undercover in Fawkes’ gang of revolutionaries, writing the play that would ultimately become Macbeth as part of his cover, and Marlowe lost somewhere in the sinful luxury of Venice trying to uncover a group of female assassins, License to Quill takes readers on a hilarious and cleverly written adventure that anyone could read and love.

In a novel such as this, which plays so much on the parodying of the spy action thriller genre, it is difficult to ignore the parallels with spy classics such as James Bond. Indeed, in places, the Bond references are thinly veiled, and add an immense familiarity to the world in which Shakespeare is moving within. One cannot help but laugh when they see Shakespeare being reprimanded by his spy boss W, or being handed gadgets by Francis Bacon, or even riding his horse Aston (and mourning his previous, Bentley). More than once we discover Marlowe in bed with questionable people, and Shakespeare himself becomes the centre of a love triangle between his wife and his past lover, echoing the dangerous uncertainty of Bond women past and present. Even the title itself is an obvious take-off of the famous License to Kill. The parallels are endless and hilariously well done, making this a novel not just for the Shakespeare fan, but just as easily for the spy action film fan.

But beyond the general fun of the novel, it is clear that Della Quercia has put a lot into this novel. Meticulously researched, License to Quill does everything that it can to use its historical context and figures as accurately as possible. With footnotes throughout, and references to real historical texts, Della Quercia often seems like he has written less a work of fiction than he has taken poetic license with history. The major events of the novel are familiar, and it almost seems as if all the events around them could just as easily taken place. Furthermore, the clever construction of the events in the novel that lead to the development of Macbeth are beautifully executed, paying homage to the original text whilst also having some fun with the play’s themes and the notorious figures of the Witches.

I must also take a moment to commend Della Quercia for his female characters. Whilst many women in the novel remain silent, such as the deliberately silent female assassins (silence comes with the profession), the women who do play central roles in the novel are given an amazing depth and complexity of character. No-one intrigued me more in the novel that the figure of the Dark Lady, inspired by the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She is covert and excitingly aloof, and we can’t help but be entranced by her autonomy in the male dominated space of late sixteenth century England. Similarly, the figure of Lady “Penny” Percy, who seems to hold a name of wealth and power in this period, yet works as W’s secretary, is intriguing, and always seems to draw the reader in, even when she acts on the periphery of the scene. Even the Witches hold more power than the men of this novel, and so I cannot help but applaud Della Quercia for attributing most of the power in this novel to women instead of men.

All in all, this novel is a wonderful tribute not only to Shakespeare’s life and work, but also a hilarious (and accessible) novel of spy thriller fun that one cannot help but enjoy, even if you can’t make it through a Shakespeare class.


License to Quill is available in all good bookstores.

As always, INWORDSANDINK encourages its readers to shop at and support their local independent bookstores.

Check out Jacopo Della Quercia’s website to read some interesting facts about License to Quill, its characters and its inspiration, along with his other work.


© Hayley New 2016


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