Benet Brandreth on Shakespeare’s lost years and what it’s like to have a celebrity father

Benet Brandreth will be in Harrogate for the literature festival
Benet Brandreth will be in Harrogate for the literature festival

Gyles Brandreth may be an ex-MP, TV presenter and raconteur, but his son Benet has a career that has encompassed soldier, barrister, novelist, actor, comedian and he’s also an authority on Shakespeare.

As a rhetoric coach he works regularly with the RSC, and his one-man show was a sell-out at the Edinburgh Fringe. He’ll be appearing at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival.

The Spy of Venice is your debut novel, can you give us the hard sell?

It’s a thrilling tale of Shakespeare’s lost years - what did he do before he became a playwright?

How did he get from Stratford to London and what adventures did he have on the way?

It imagines William involved in the intrigues and excitements of Venice in the late sixteenth century – a time of vengeful Popes, brilliant poet-courtesans, and an age of wonders. It is a Dumas-style thriller with Shakespeare as its hero - what’s not to love?

Why did you choose to focus on Shakespeare as your hero?

I know and love Shakespeare’s plays. For years I have been the rhetoric coach of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Knowing the plays so intimately I couldn’t help but wonder about this man, who seems to know us so well, when we know so little about him.

I imagined how he might have got from provincial Stratford to the greatest love poet and master of the English language the world has ever known. In the course of my research I discovered the extraordinary history of Venice at this time - its central role in the events of Europe.

It was a city that I knew already - and loved. It wasn’t hard to imagine Shakespeare there, inspired by its wonders and by its denizens.

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?

I love Macbeth because I love a play about a good man gone bad. The agony of Macbeth at his own debasement is so extraordinary, I find it hugely compelling.

What’s your favourite Shakespeare quote?

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”

Is all the world a stage?

Of course. We are all living out our stories and sometimes we realise that we have roles in other people’s stories too - but we don’t always like the roles we have been cast in. One of the wonders of Shakespeare is how clearly he saw us and how lucidly he expressed our characters, our hopes, our dreams, our failings.

Your career is quite eclectic, soldier, comedian, barrister and actor – has it helped inform your writing?

It may seem as if my career is eclectic - but in fact there is a common thread (well, for all bar the soldiering, but that was brief). That common thread is a love of language and the way that language works on the minds of others.

In all of the things I do I am trying to work out how language has its power, how it works and, hopefully, sometimes mastering language enough to move, to entertain, to teach - Movere, Delectare, Docere - as Cicero put it.

It’s hard not to ask about your dad Gyles, as you look so similar too – did he help inspire your ambition?

His love of language is well known and he’s a master of it. I was fortunate to live in a household that adored language and I am very conscious of the joy that it has brought me over the years. My father has been a huge inspiration, although it was my grandfather and great-grandfather that were barristers.

You’ve twice been named the World Public Speaking Champion, will you be show casing your superior oratory skills in Harrogate?

Naturally! I love to perform. I shall be coming straight from Edinburgh where I have taken a show for the Fringe. The reviews have been lovely - I hope Harrogate will also enjoy “a brilliant, witty man at his peak” (Chortle) and find me “Ridiculously funny, breathtakingly erudite…” (The Scotsman). They will certainly find me modest and unassuming!

What can you say to encourage audiences to come along and see your talk in Harrogate?

I know my Shakespeare backwards, you will learn, you may laugh, but you will undoubtedly enjoy.

Benet Brandreth, Thursday October 18, 6.30pm, at the Crown Hotel. Tickets: £11.

Box office: 01423 562 303. Full line up: harrogateinternationalfestivals.com