You guys know I love Shakespeare, and I read pretty much every adaptation/novelization I can get my hands on since that’s what I’m doing with my writing life right now. That’s why I picked up “Prince of Shadows” the second I saw it, even though it’s based on Romeo & Juliet. Not my favorite play. But I was willing to read the book. Ready to roll my eyes at the perennial dumb teens and be underwhelmed.
Instead, I was rocked back on my heels.
In fair Verona, where we set our scene, the Capulets and Montagues are still the most powerful families under the rule of the Prince. Romeo, the charming and dim-witted Montague heir, still begins the story besotted with Rosaline Capulet. Juliet is still a maid destined for marriage with Paris, a cipher of a girl until the night she meets Romeo.
But this is a fire-breathing Verona, and these characters are more than cut-outs on a stage.
Benvolio, the main character and narrator, defends the family honor with his sword, but he takes no pleasure in it. As he says, he has never killed anyone who was not trying to take his life from him in a fair fight. In this, he stands in contrast to Tybalt Capulet who is willfully, eagerly cruel, especially to those who are weaker than he, such as his sister Rosaline. Benvolio rages inwardly against the feud and what it drives people to, his frustration building as events unfold, even as he vents his anger on luckless Capulets both in streetfights and in his disguise as the notorious catburglar known as the Prince of Shadows.
This novel, then, became a study of more than just doomed, forbidden love. It explores what happens to people when they are forbidden by social structures to fulfill their true selves: when a gay man has to hide his love, when a woman cannot be anything other than a wife or a nun, when a man wants to hold up his hands and refuse to fight a war that’s been chosen for him. It’s about the shapes that rebellion can take, and what happens when passion slips its reins and runs free.
In addition to magnificent characterization, the writing is fantastic. The flow from Shakespeare’s own words into the author’s is seamless, and there is nothing stilted or awkward to the modern ear about the way the characters speak or the way Benvolio narrates. The descriptive similes and metaphors are beautiful, breathtaking. I wish I had marked more of them as I was reading so I could share them with you. Here are a pair: Benvolio’s nasty sister wears a dress “too hot-tempered for the day” and the interior of Friar Lawrence’s chapel is full of “heavy, silken silence.” Brilliant! Mercutio is made of “fire and fey grace,” and I can’t imagine a more apt description.
I wish Rosaline had had more of a chance to speak, for her voice was pure and clear and full of wisdom and truth. It’s easy to see why she captivates Benvolio.
The only hesitation I have with this story was with the suggestion of a supernatural explanation for the fatal events. Mercutio’s famous dying words — “a plague on both your houses” — are made into a literal curse through witchcraft, and that drives the plot towards its conclusion. I don’t love mixing fantasy and reality; I prefer one or the other. Either there is magic or there isn’t, and in the middle ages which Caine brought to life so well, there wasn’t. Witchcraft was superstition and a tool for the oppression of women (and some men) but it was not real. I suppose one could argue that so long as the people believed in it, it could have an effect, but I don’t love that explanation either, especially not for this practical Rosaline and this canny Benvolio.
But this is a quibble. The book is so good, I want to turn around and read it again.
And finally, a bonus for those of us who love the Bard: references to his other works are scattered throughout. A modified quote here, a play title there, amount to little gifts — Easter eggs, if you will — for Shakespeare fans. Since I did the same thing in “Finding Kate,” I really appreciated those touches.
This is must-read historical fiction, must-read beautiful prose, and a must-read for Shakespeare fans.