Never mind today’s silly “Karen” stigma. Living the “Jessica” life can turn out to have some pretty unexpected challenges, as we discover in Jessica Barksdale Inclán’s lively new historical romance novel, “The Play’s the Thing.”
Playwright and poet William Shakespeare actually invented the name Jessica, at least in its modern form, which first appears in the 1598 play “The Merchant of Venice.”
The name has certainly aged better than the drama. “The Merchant of Venice,” one of the few Shakespeare classics that has faded from the stage, uses a cringeworthy ethnic stereotype. The cartoonishly antisemitic depiction of Shylock, the greedy moneylender, is generally considered by today’s audiences to be Shakespeare’s second-biggest, second most backward blunder (after the brutal sexism of “The Taming of the Shrew”).
“You can’t not be troubled by ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ ” said Inclán, a novelist, poet and retired literature professor who moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Vancouver with her husband two years ago.
“ ‘The Jew’ was a stock character, a type of character known to audiences, that predated Elizabethan times. To his credit, Shakespeare made Shylock a more rounded, emotional character than other writers before him. … But in our modern sensibility, we are still appalled.
“We have to look at Shakespeare in context. He was a writer of his time,” Inclán said. “We can’t expect him to be a feminist, freethinking liberal.”
Perhaps we can’t, but author Inclán has found a way to force modern attitudes into Elizabethan England — time travel.
In “The Play’s the Thing,” Inclán sends her own avatar — a literature scholar who’s either blessed or cursed with the name Jessica — tumbling across the centuries and landing in the bedroom of her name’s creator: a handsome young poet who turns out to be the real, true William Shakespeare.
It’s 1598 and the future bard is starting to taste success at the local theater, but he hasn’t yet written his greatest plays. Jessica must avoid spilling any beans about the writer’s immortal phrases or his ultimate destiny. She keeps catching herself quoting Shakespeare to Shakespeare.
She also gets hopelessly entangled in people’s affairs, love and otherwise. Constantly reminding herself about a smart rule from nearly 1,000 years in the fictional future — the Prime Directive of “Star Trek,” never to interfere with developing cultures — doesn’t help much.
Meanwhile, the passionate playwright introduces his mysterious visitor to his world of bedbugs, plagues, public hangings, power politics and, crucially, forbidden love. It doesn’t take Jessica more than one glimpse of eyeball electricity between Shakespeare and a certain friend to solve a real literary riddle: Who was the ambiguous “WH” for whom Shakespeare wrote many of his most passionate sonnets?
“That is an existing literary mystery and no one knows,” Inclán said. “I put it into the story and took a deep dive. I made my best conjecture.”
She also did her best, she said, to ignore any time-travel romance-novel conventions. While Jessica begins this story striving not to alter history, she ultimately decides that the antisemitic sections of “The Merchant of Venice” demand a rewrite.
“There’s a whole unofficial genre of time-travel romances, and there are many rules about time travel,” Inclán said. “I got really tired of all those rules, so I broke them.”
We won’t spoil how it all turns out. We’ll just say that fans of the swashbuckling, time-traveling “Outlander” books or TV series are sure to enjoy this similarly unpredictable visit to Shakespeare’s England: a place and time teeming with comedy and tragedy, snappy dialog and serious observation, unrequited passion and candlelit encounters with the world’s sexiest playwright.