Books: Shakes in the night

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DARK LADY: A Shakespearean Novel by Michael Baldwin Little, Brown pounds 16.99

SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS, published when the sonnet fad had almost burned itself out, sketch the skeleton of an intriguing love quadrangle. There is the epicene nobleman who is the poet's patron; the rival poet with the same patron; and the notorious "Dark Lady", with whom the poet is in love, and latterly in (maybe syphilitic) hate. Baldwin has written an entertaining yarn as a gloss on this story, bravely mixing historical reconstruction with wild phantasmagoria.

The dark lady is Emilia Bassano, mistress to Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon. When it becomes clear that she is to bear Hunsdon's bastard, Emilia is married off to Alfonso Lanier, viol player at court. Meanwhile, she is pursued by a middle-aged bumpkin poet, the 28-year-old "Shagspeare", whose lustful attentions she eventually reciprocates. Emilia applauds his lovemaking, but gives him the clap, an unwelcome token of approbation.

Shakespeare's young patron is identified as Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (a popular choice, although the title page of the Folio Sonnets names only a "Mr WH", and scholars offer no watertight explanation of the reversal of initials). In "Dark Lady", Henry is terrified of women and goes so far as to get himself buggered by the rival poet Christopher Marlowe, but the irresistible Emilia persuades even Henry to bed. she is also a practising witch, who commands two demons and is acquainted with Lord Satan's "lordly pissing". Rather than being resolved, the story is brought to a halt by a sort of hellish Deus ex machina, when it attains the critical mass of the mid-length novel.

Dark Lady's prose is a lewd and comical Elizabethan vulgate. Baldwin has boned up on euphemisms for tumescence - "his tally stick was standing proud as a pikestaff at the high-port-and-push" - and there are numerous arch allusions to Shakespeare's plays. However, imagery is often unfocused, as when Emilia's "protector" gazes on "the crouching hemispheres of her bottom" - one is left to wonder how a hemisphere can crouch. And passages written in the lovesick Will's voice are banal.

At one point, we see Shakespeare in his lodgings scrawling a draft of "Venus and Adonis", drawing on his voracious landlady's character: "Her face doth reek and smoke, her blood doth boil / And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage." He then ponders: "To say her face did 'reek' was a trifle unjust. Madame Mountjoy's face, like the rest of her, smelled of live woman rather than dead flesh." This is importantly wrong. Baldwin is unaware that the word "reek" did not attain its modern sense of "stink" for at least another century; here it means to give off vapour, or to emanate, as of a gas. Compare Sonnet 130: "In some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath that from my Mistress reeks." The word "reeks" is perfectly neutral: the iconoclastically "realist" poet is not suggesting that his lover has bad breath, only that some things perforce smell nicer.