What was Shakespeare really like? As there is little reliable evidence about his inner life, perhaps it's down to novelists to throw some light. The writer Christopher Rush, who has taught Shakespeare for 30 years, offers a fictional life and thus follows the well-trodden path of others such as Mark Twain, Anthony Burgess, John Mortimer and Robert Nye.
Rush starts at the end; William Shakespeare expiring on his deathbed in March 1616. The title refers not only to the bard, but to his will, which famously left his second-best bed to his wife. As Will dictates his testament to a lawyer, he reviews his life from conception through to final illness. The landmarks are familiar: growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon; marriage to Anne Hathaway; seeking fame and fortune in London; noble patrons and theatrical rivals; the death of his son Hamnet; the linguistic glory of his work.
By using the monologue form, Rush adopts a high-risk strategy. He takes us into Shakespeare's mind; he dares to speak in Shakespeare's words. Rush can't be accused of wearing his learning lightly: this novel's 460 pages host hundreds of lines from the works. This might be a bonanza for fans of spot-the-reference, but the novelty soon palls.
Memorable set pieces – the burning of Protestant martyrs, visitations of the plague, or Christopher Marlowe's murder in a tavern – are described with lurid intensity. Yet the story of Shakespeare's life flows slowly, its movement clogged by the weeds of heavy prose. Still, our greatest dramatist does make some good points: in a riff on holding "the mirror up to nature", Rush's bard sensibly points out that "plays are not copies but illusions of reality".
The early chapters, with their poetic evocations of the flowers that grew on the dungheaps of Elizabethan rural life, mix bawdiness and fine writing. Once Shakespeare comes to London, the skies darken: Rush has him composing poetry in brothels, meeting a variety of dark ladies, and then talking us through his plays. While instructive, these didactic accounts are unoriginal: it will surprise few that Shakespeare loved Falstaff because he embodied "a joy of life", or that he "piled on the agony" in King Lear.
Depending on your temper, this is the kind of book that either lets you sit at the elbow of the dying Shakespeare with admiring patience – or provokes you to lean over and smother this garrulous old playwright with his pillow.
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