BOOK REVIEW / Will well done by his wife: 'Mrs Shakespeare' - Robert Nye: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
ROBERT NYE writes the unauthorised version. In the past he has given us brilliantly subversive glosses on Malory, the New Testament and the virginity of the Virgin Queen. Now he brings us Shakespeare, through the merciless, uncomprehending gaze of Shakespeare's wife.

The voice claims us from the first page: insistent, homely, scornful of poetry but at times unconsciously speaking it. This Anne Hathaway has never bothered to read her husband's work but likes to quote the Bible. She distrusts art, and metaphor in particular: 'You take one thing and you say it is another. It does no good to anybody.' We get a memorable glimpse of her at London Bridge, counting the traitors' heads, then the houses on the bridge, then the arches: 'You have to have something to do.'

There is more to Anne than remorseless pragmatism, however. Will, presumably knowing this, once invited her to his London lodgings, where he had prepared a surprise for her at the top of the stairs. This is the event towards which the story moves by fits and starts. The surprise, when we get to it, is hardly a surprise, but what happens subsequently works both as an erotic adventure still zestfully recalled in later years by the narrator, and as a commentary on certain dark thoughts in the plays and sonnets, a commentary that addresses their author's psychology.

Nye does not disdain to play the games which ask to be played. Literary references are thrown about. There are drinking cronies called Bardolfe and Fluellen. And, as always, there is much sensual pleasure to be had from Nye's writing. His Elizabethan London is vivid, and his earthy similes can be startling and beautiful: 'He answered me very sly, very soft, like a mouse in cheese.'

Yet the structure is flawed. The solid and striking things in it - its erotic soundings, its conceit about the plays as sexual fantasies, its identification of Anne Hathaway with the Dark Lady of the Sonnets (a scholar's idea, fertile only outside the bounds of the novel) - are all packed into the last 80 pages. Before that we jog along with gossip, details of Shakespeare's sugar habit, a recipe for hare soup, and a rather desperate reliance on rhetorical questions and the Old Testament. The thinness of this fare from an author who normally serves up a rich brew puzzled me until I read the Afterword. Mrs Shakespeare has been developed from a short story. I suspect that its original length was closer to the correct one.