The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet by Myrlin A. Hermes
The concept of slash–that is, the reading of characters assumed to be straight as gay–is nothing new to me. It is among the many gifts Lady Trekkies bestowed upon geeks of all stripes well before my time. But it’s something you find in fandom, not mainstream fiction. I was mightily intrigued by Myrlin A. Hermes’ The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet for this reason. It is, by no means, the first piece of work to assume Hamlet is gay, but it’s certainly the first published work I know of that assumes the same.
The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet is a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Horatio is a skeptic, scholar, and poet in Wittenberg, spending his days studying, teaching, and taking the occasional writing job. His world is turned upside down when he meets the outrageous, gorgeous, and petulant Prince Hamlet. Overwhelmed by his love for Hamlet, he casts Hamlet as the heroine in the play he is working on for his current employer, the Baron de Maricourt. Hamlet’s performance in the play draws the attention of the Baroness de Maricourt, the sensuous, manipulative, and cunning Lady Adriane, who becomes Horatio’s patroness and is very interested in Horatio’s love for Hamlet. But Horatio’s position in this love triangle is threatened when a rival poet styling himself “Will Shake-spear” comes onto the scene…
Hermes’ Horatio is marvelous. He’s thoughtful and very educated, sometimes drifting off into wordplay and etymology when he gets overwhelmed. My personal favorite is the deconstruction of the word “clavicle” while overwhelmed by Adriane’s. His love and devotion for Hamlet is downright heartbreaking at times, as Hamlet’s attitude towards him can be cruelly cavalier. He has no illusions about himself, but he’s utterly blind to Hamlet’s faults for a great deal of the novel. While I haven’t read Hamlet in a great while, I can see the connection between Hermes’ Horatio and Shakespeare. Still, since the novel is narrated by Horatio, it was sometimes a little awkward to see him continue to fawn over Hamlet while Hamlet treats him poorly. You just feel bad for the poor guy!
We are saved by Lady Adriane, who occasionally takes over the duty of narration. Adriane is sinister, cunning, and brilliant, playing poor Horatio like a fiddle. She’s not beautiful–according the novel, she is the mistress of ‘Sonnet 130’, which begins, “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. But she’s something better–she’s seductive. Horatio, so in love with the gorgeous Hamlet, is constantly surprised at the depths of his devotion to his supposedly “ugly” mistress. I loved Lady Adriane; she’s compelling and downright slippery.
Hamlet, on the other hand, sometimes feels too perfect. Since we spent a great deal of the novel with Horatio, who takes forever to figure out that Hamlet is not perfect, this can get grating. I realize that’s there no real way around it, if Horatio is the narrator, but even Adriane’s first few chapters don’t give us an alternate look at Hamlet. It makes you feel all the worse for Horatio towards the end. Also, did we really need to introduce Hamlet while he was, shall we say, “mastering his domain”? It felt both unnecessary and remarkably careless for the time period. (Speaking of sex, it’s dealt with frankly in this novel, albeit touch more explicit than most novels. You have been warned!) Towards the end, we can start to see the possibly mad Hamlet of Hamlet, but this continuity doesn’t link as well as Horatio’s does.
Hermes’ style is perfect for something Shakespearean–it’s lyrical and a little formal, but totally accessible. I was very impressed when it flowed into Hamlet towards the end and everything still worked smoothly. The specter of Hamlet, of course, hang over the entire novel. Lady Adriane occasionally tells the story of what is occurring back at Elsinore while Hamlet and Horatio are in Wittenberg. This is just as compelling as Adriane herself, especially how Hermes makes the story her own. It also keeps the novel from becoming too light. The way she uses Hamlet at the end is fascinating–I was a little ambivalent at first, but it’s really grown on me.
The Shakespeare references fly fast and furious. Horatio composes a handful of his sonnets and apparently writes As You Like It. The best references, however, are the incidental ones. Adriane, in passing, explains why the ghost of Hamlet’s father wears his beaver up, and some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are referenced, paraphrased, or even used. But my personal favorite isn’t a Shakespeare reference, but a Stoppard reference. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is one of my favorite plays. Hermes’ Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are courtiers and spies, instead of the befuddled pair Stoppard made them, but I grinned when Rosencrantz questioned why they were sent for. If you’re worried about the oddity of Shakespeare himself showing up (which I myself was), I will only say one thing–Hermes handles it brilliantly.
Bottom line: While Hamlet is too perfect for too long in the eyes of Horatio, this prequel to Hamlet is filled with clever references, witty wordplay, and the marvelous Lady Adriane, carefully manipulating Horatio and his love for both Hamlet and herself. If this seems remotely up your alley, give The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet a try. It won’t disappoint.
The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet will be released on January 26–next Tuesday!
I requested this book for publicity purposes from Harper Collins.