Will, By Christopher Rush

Perhaps fiction, not biography, is the way to flesh out the story of Shakespeare's life

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?