How does one bind the genius of Shakespeare to the banality of his life? Perhaps Shakespeare's curse on any who sought to disturb his bones was really aimed at those who would seek to uncover his inner history. If so, his curse has hit home. Biographers attempt this feat almost every year and the result is rarely satisfying. Christopher Rush, on the other hand, seeks to approach the bard in the realm of the imagination.
This is a fleshy novel indeed, gorgeous, garrulous and gross, though it thins out, unpardonably, in the later chapters. The title refers both to Shakespeare and, niftily enough, his will, that notoriously anti-poetic document in which Anne Hathaway's lifetime of loyalty to an unfaithful absentee was rewarded by the "gift" of his second-best bed (it was hers anyway). Eschewing confession to any sort of priest, Will decides to confide in Francis Collins, the lawyer who is to draw up his will. Collins, who had expected a brisk affair of items and legatees, finds himself subjected to his old friend's secret story.
Ghosts roam the Warwickshire countryside, blood and stench are everywhere, "the Shambles" (slaughterhouse) is a persistent presence. Then there are women and their terrible, wonderful secrets. Of Anne Hathaway, the ideally voluptuous Older Woman, Shakespeare sighs, "all previous erections were classed as dress rehearsals." But even Anne cloys, and so does domesticity. He travels to London, finds his first job in the theatre (as a "horse-holder"), sees Marlowe, and realises what even mighty Marlowe lacks – "the crowd". Will's plays become the wonder of London. But Death, the old enemy, has all the time been tapping his foot and watching the clock. The death of Hamnet, his son, prompts Shakespeare's greatest plays and his own, unswervable decline.
Rush stitches the story together with great colour and some skill. There is no denying, however, that the first half, recounting Shakespeare's early life, succeeds rather more than the second. This is partly because, with the move to London, the author must address the plays, and therefore their origins in the poet's imagination. With this, the tone shifts to that of an enthusiastic teacher trying to animate a class of listless pupils. "But now I see a writer tying himself in knots. He's lost his power of expression. He's written too much and in too short a time. He's still trying to say something but the utterance is nervous." Now this, apparently, is Shakespeare speaking. But do writers really speak like this of their own work? In any case, these are not the cadences of the earlier narrator, let alone of the Shakespeare we know.
Then – Heaven help us – Rush's Shakespeare begins to ruminate, to pontificate, to muse. Of course, writers portrayed in fiction are allowed to come out with cracking banalities in their spare time, but not, surely, in ours. Still, the frequent glories of the prose redeem much: "...while the cold oceans washed the globe, slurped and bulged to the moonpull, and the tides sighed in their shackles." Very occasionally, these images run away with themselves and into each other. "the cat-opened carcass of a pigeon – a silent, murdered metropolis, roaring with maggots" is kind of fun until you reflect that if it's silent then it can't be roaring.
This book is full of plausible explanations. Well and good, you might say, but that's almost the problem: they read like plausible explanations, like theorems given too much air. I can believe that Shakespeare's unkindness to Anne lay in projected guilt, as I can that the death of his son sank him in the melancholy revealed in the tragedies. These, and other issues, are handled very well. But the strain of accommodation shows. This is, in many respects, a brilliant and evocative experiment, but it falls on the stone that the wily old merchant-poet set up over his own corpse.