Post Your Opinion
A Review of: The Double Life of Doctor Lopez
by Nancy Wigston

If ever we wonder how things can get so tangled and scandalous in public life today, we need only look back to Elizabethan England, which set the gold standard for a civilisation's achievements-at both ends of the scale. To wit: this investigative romp through a Renaissance London exposed to its very bowels. In The Double Life of Doctor Lopez, writer and researcher Dominic Green delivers some zealously highbrow detective work for our delectation, presenting, as per his subtitle, "Spies, Shakespeare and the Plot to Poison Elizabeth I."
Green tantalizes us by promising to answer two questions: one emerging from the realm of fact, the other from the world of imagination. First, was Doctor Roderigo Lopez, physician to Queen Elizabeth, really guilty of the plot that lead to his death? Second, and equally intriguing, was Doctor Lopez and his fall from grace the original model for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice? Although Green is more successful at uncovering the truth about the former mystery, his portrait of the world of intelligencers-we call them spies-their plans to overthrow regimes and cash in for themselves and their bosses during Elizabeth's reign emerges as powerfully in these pages as in any modern thriller.
Through a penetrating and frequently witty analysis of the period, using parish records, private and official letters, and court documents, Green pieces together the times and life of Doctor Lopez, which ended badly, with his being hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on a summer's day in 1594. Because Lopez was a Portuguese Marrano, born a Jew, but forced, like all Jews, to convert or be killed by the Inquisition, there exist more than the usual number of layers to his tale. Marranos, "Jews in all but name and Christians in name only," scattered from the Iberian Peninsula around Europe and the Mediterranean. Only in Constantinople could they openly follow their faith. In London, their world was one of hidden synagogues and familial ties. "Tightly knit by secrecy, exile, and intermarriage, less than one hundred in number, their horizons were the boundaries of the known world. They were well educated, with a surfeit of doctors among their ranks. They were well-organised, with communal facilities secreted in their homes and an intelligence system that reached over the borders of Spain and beyond the frontiers of Christendom. And they were well-connected, with family and business links in Lisbon, Antwerp, Hamburg, Salonika, Milan, Genoa and Constantinople."
Add to this the peculiar anxieties of a state that had tilted back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism several times, and was currently headed by a single, childless, female monarch. Elizabeth's reign was "threatened from within by religious strife and from without by imperial envy," setting the scene for a whole cast of competing civil servants, "enforcers and strategists." Rich in original characters like the pro-peace Sir William Cecil and his hunchback son, the dashing pro-war Earl of Essex, the spymaster Francis Walsingham, the clever lawyer Francis Bacon, the relentless prosecutor Sir Edward Coke and several more, Green hardly needs to look to the stage for drama.
In the mid-1500s, legitimate money lay in the Spice Trade, but huge fortunes were derived from looting Spanish galleons and sacking rich warehouses in foreign cities. Adventurers like Sir Francis Drake did very well in such enterprises for himself and his Queen. So when the deposed King of Portugal washed up in London, his well-connected childhood friend Dr. Lopez put together a "Counter-Armada", a joint-stock expedition aimed at invading the Azores, returning Don Antonio his crown, while looting and pillaging along the way. Green brings the ensuing disaster to lurid life. Plans were delayed; winds failed to cooperate. Desperate for booty, the English and their 150 ships invaded the Spanish port of Coruna, whereupon the noble sailors began an "orgy of looting and murder." Things did not improve with more delays and the onset of disease, so that the ragged band limped to England with a loss of 17,000 men and fifty thousand pounds.
Don Antonio's "Ambassador," Doctor Lopez, was responsible to his creditors, but the poverty-stricken Don Antonio could neither pay him nor the investors in the scheme. When this same Ambassador sued Don Antonio for repayment in the English courts, Green equates his dogged legal case with Shylock's legal manoeuvrings in The Merchant of Venice. Was Lopez the model for Shylock? The most persuasive arguments remain literary, not factual. After being neglected for nearly three hundred years, a London revival of The Merchant in 1879 convinced Sidney Lee, an Oxford undergrad in the audience, that Shylock seemed so real "he must have been drawn from life," and so he unearthed the forgotten scandal of Lopez, the Queen's physician. But Green can't prove much more than this, since little evidence exists about Shakespeare's sources, due to the fire that consumed the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII.
Still, Green fills in the details about the life of the real Jewish doctor very thoroughly. Lopez's extant letter of formal apology for the Counter-Armada fiasco, written in Italian, the new language of the courts, is just one of many documents that makes him come alive for us, showing a man struggling to navigate the treacherous shoals of Elizabethan politics. As Green continues with the saga of this aging court physician, an immigrant trying-and achieving-success in this new land, his tale culminates with the doctor caught in a trap. Due to hubris, perhaps, Lopez was running his own secret agents in order to make enough cash to retire to Constantinople, where he could at last be himself. If only he hadn't kept a ring given him by the King of Spain, from an earlier plot managed by the now-deceased Francis Walsingham. Once Lopez had crossed the major players-Cecil and Essex-they had to dispose of him, and indeed they did, choosing a moment when the Queen, still partial to her physician, was out of town.
There is much plotting in the book, and Green is given to inventing dialogue and painting scenes like the following: "two hardened intelligencers, whispering in a empty church over wraps of poison and hair dye." But there is much besides plotting too, much of it personal. We learn that Lopez first proved his value to Francis Walsingham, a chronically ill man, by rushing to him in Paris with his purges and bleedings. When it came to the licentious Earl of Leicester, "the maintenance of the Earl's sagging libido was another of his doctor's tasks." The tastes of many of the fashionable young men of the court ran to their own sort, and Green enjoys dissecting Will Shakespeare's poetry with its coded message urging his artistic patron, the Earl of Southampton, to marry. Antonio Perez, a Spaniard newly arrived in London, who had escaped the Inquisition amid charges of heresy, sodomy, murder, torture, treason, "raising a rebellion against Philip II and seducing the king's mistress," subsequently "became a mentor to the Bacon brothers [Anthony and Francis] who shared his tastes in classical literature, political ambition and sodomy." Perez, not the Queen, was the target of Doctor Lopez's scheme. Perhaps influenced by the company he kept, Lopez fathered a child out of wedlock with a comely widow when he was seventy, then promptly took his wife to Venice and Constantinople for a holiday, to avoid acknowledging the infant left on his doorstep.
The final chapters are riveting-like a particularly lurid episode of American Justice-and the portraits of powerful players like Cecil, Essex, Francis Bacon, reproduced from the National Portrait Gallery, in my reading at least, became very well-thumbed. One painting of Elizabeth I shows her clad in a rich red gown, decorated all over with eyes and ears: the Queen as Chief Intelligencer of the Realm. Looking at our players faces, we puzzle out the meaning of a sneer; of a lofty, dissolute countenance; of a cold demeanour; of a dashing knight's martial breastplate. Together with the flood of detail Green provides, portraits of the public and private lives of major and minor players in the Elizabethan Age emerge in all their sublime complexity.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us