Before They Were Famous

In The Secret Life of William Shakespeare, Jude Morgan takes a big but astute gamble in recounting the life of one of the greatest writers the world has ever known, and about whom there happens to be a surprising poverty of biographical information. The facts about Shakespeare are thin on the ground surrounding his early years, his marriage at 18 to Anne Hathaway, the birth of their children and his eventual appearance in London’s theatrical world, and there are famously ‘lost years’ of his life between 1585 and 1592 that have thwarted historians. Morgan’s book takes a broad sweep from 1582 to 1603, following Shakespeare from boyhood to modest fame with particular focus on his struggle to establish himself as a writer in those lost years. In my previous post we had a fantastic discussion about what historical fiction could and should do, and this novel seems to me a pretty good example of fiction filling in the factual blanks with panache and sensitivity.

Morgan’s Shakespeare is a round peg in a square hole, forced in his youth to work for a father with whom he had a fraught relationship. Will is fascinated by the touring players who come to Stratford once a year, but his father insists that such a life is no better than vagrancy and unsuited to the son of a successful glove maker. When Will meets the older Anne Hathaway it looks as if he has made some sort of compromise with family expectations, but when the touring players lose a man, the madness of fragile opportunities takes hold of Will and despite his father’s disfavour and Anne’s unhappiness, he joins the troupe. His arrival in London as an actor is a definitive change of life for him, and here he will gradually make his way up the ranks, rewriting old plays, cobbling joint ventures together and finally writing his own plays and taking a share in a theatre company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

What I appreciated about this novel was the characterisation, which is careful and complex. Although Will takes centre stage (at all levels), the novel is as much about the significant people around him, the chronically dissatisfied Anne Hathaway, and his two friendly rivals, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Marlowe is a prodigiously talented but fey and reckless young man, the product of a good family and a Cambridge education, arrogant, charming, and unstable. Jonson is portrayed as having the toughest background, formed by an abusive stepfather and the bad luck not to make it into a scholarship school place despite his brilliant mind. Forced to take up a bricklayer’s trade which he abhors, Jonson continues to educate himself and eventually becomes a soldier for a brief period before settling down in London to act and write. He is a paradoxical mix of boozing and brawling and passion for classical Latin texts; a fierce egotism has kept him afloat through his early years and it makes him hard to like but hard to ignore. Both Marlowe and Jonson are self-destructive in their way, but in Marlowe’s case it’s caused by an excess of sensitivity, in Jonson an insufficient awareness of his own emotions. Against these two powerful characters, William Shakespeare is something of an enigma, even to himself, a man continually in search of self-definition and yet exploiting his capacity to be every man and no one, as both actor and dramatist.

It took me a little while to get into this one, mostly because of its prose style, but once I was in I couldn’t put it down. I knew just enough about the people and the period (hardly anything) to be pleased when historical landmarks like Kit Marlowe’s death in suspicious circumstances turned up, or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the rest was new and fresh to me. I wonder what it would be like to read this if you were knowledgeable about the era? Same question applies to the language of the novel, which to me felt as if it were continually stiving hard for the right historical feel. It’s a very rich if occasionally laboured style, full of unmarked shifts of perspective, highly idiomatic, lyrical and pungent. I admired a great deal of it and winced at some excessive sentences. For instance, I liked this description of Shakespeare seen through Anne’s eyes:

‘while many people sprawl in the world as if it is their own fireside, to see him is to think of a traveller at an inn, making a temporary separate comfort with wrapped cloak, the corner of a settle, his thoughts.’

And there’s much to like about this, on Shakespeare writing:

‘His fluency in writing is deceptive. Really he is running over the lines like a man running over a pit of coals. Only swiftness prevents the torture. Yet in words he is home and self and free as nowhere else, and sometimes getting up from the desk he cannot for a moment adjust to the world being physical and not made by him and he wobbles, as if his legs are turning to phrases and his feet to metaphors.’

But sometimes it goes a bit far for me, as in this description:

‘She sees the hairs on his wrist, the sunken green twig of blood pressed in the arm’s white book.’

Or in this piece of dialogue:

‘Only I heard that Robert Wilson had spoke against me to them, and I puzzle me why. He sits high and secure with the Queen’s [troupe of players], wherefore do I threat him?’

‘I puzzle me why’? Well now, there’s a phrase I’ll be doing my best to work into general conversation over the next few days. But any quibbles I have with the language are not terribly important, as this was an engrossing and imaginative tale, plausible, clever and full of unexpected pleasures. I’m now keen to read the two non-fiction books I own about Shakespeare, Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife and Charles Nichol’s The Lodger; Shakespeare on Silver Street. It will be interesting to pit history against fiction.


22 thoughts on “Before They Were Famous

  1. I’m not (or, at least, I don’t think of myself as being so, although I seem to have been reading them more these days) a huge fan of historical novels, especially ones like this in which the main characters were real people. If I’m going to read a historical novel, I much prefer ones in which made-up characters are put into a specific era and, occasionally, bump elbows with real figures from the past. This, however, sounds really good, although that “…sunken green twig of blood pressed in the arm’s white book” is the sort of tortured writing that makes me cringe (and that I so hope I manage to avoid in my own writing).

    • I am really surprised by how very popular it seems to be at the moment to include real historical characters in fiction (the novel I read about Louise Brooks a few weeks ago springs to mind). Sometimes I confess I struggle with non-fiction history books as the number of dates and sheer weight of information (particularly in complicated family trees!) can become indigestible for me. So I am open to this approach, with the caveat that I would much prefer a representation based in historical fact. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this but I really did, and although there were a few awful sentences, for the most part it was well written (and I’m quite sure you’d never write anything like that yourself – years of reading your blog suggests it forcibly!).

  2. Quite fancy this and the local library has copies! I haven’t read The Lodger, but Greer is interesting. The big snag is that less is known about Anne than Will! Greer tends to tell the story of the life of women like Anne and apply it to her and events in and around Stratford at the time. Seems reasonable. For Greer Anne comes out as a strong character running things on the home front while Will is in absentia. Could be true, but you also suspect that is how Greer would want her to be. She wrote it as a reply to Greenbaum’s Will in the World, which is good on Will and sparse on Anne.

    • Ooh, I’d be very interested to know what you make of this, particularly given you’ve read the Greer. Anne is portrayed as having by default to run the homestead in Will’s absence, but she does so somewhat unwillingly, and not with any conscious stepping up to take charge. She resents his removal to London all the time and never really gets over it (except at the end of the book where they seem more reconciled as a couple). This novel suggests that their love affair was very important to her, and she felt afterwards that Will had reneged on their deal to follow his own selfish dreams. Now I really must read the Greer version!

  3. I have the Greer on the tbr pile so look forward to your thoughts when you read it. I read the Lodger a couple years ago and loved this different view of Shakespeare and old London. Plus the story of the folks who read thru documents all day long week after week to find this mention of Shakespeare’s testimony in the court records.

    • Susan, I’ve heard good things about Charles Nicholl’s books altogether. He wrote one about Marlowe and his suspicious death I am sure (and I am also pretty sure I have a copy of it!). I’m really encouraged if you enjoyed his book on Shakespeare.

  4. I’m intrigued by the subject, but wary of the writing style-still, if you’d recommend it anyway, I’d give it a go. I am very familiar with the sixteenth century in Britain (my area of concentration in school, actually going back to get a Master’s in it), so I expect that would color my opinion. I’ve also had Greer’s book for a while and haven’t gotten around to it yet.

    • I do wonder what it would be like to read this if you were well informed about the era and the characters. I get the feeling that this is thoroughly researched (from the brief checks I did online). But then if you have the Greer book, that might be the one to start with anyway, and I’d love to know what you make of it. I really hope to read it soon. Oh and the best of luck with the Masters!

  5. Highly recommended: “Nicholas Cooke” by Stephanie Cowell, about Shakespeare’s early career from the POV of one of his boy actors. It’s a gorgeous book on every level, and the characterization of Shakespeare is fascinating.

  6. Oh, I can see myself saying that during one of my next meetings.”I puzzle me why”.
    But this aside, I’m quite keen on reading Morgan, I’ve heard many good things, not of this one but of his earlier novels. I suppose that with a man like Shakspeare, each writer will take another approach as there are so many gaps. When I pick a biography in novel form I want something very different from the book than I would want from a non-fcition approach. I don’t mind liberties, mistakes, yes, but not when the author gives us his or her personal interpretation, as biased as it may be.
    I suppose you don’t write a novel about someone if you are not fond of the person, quite unlike some biographers writing non-fiction.

    • Ha! Do tell me how it goes down at meetings – I am longing to fit it into general conversation. And as for biographers who don’t like their subjects, you and I have both suffered at the hands of Deirdre Bair, yes? I felt that Jude Morgan’s approach to his characters was one of the best things about the book, and he put together an utterly coherent Will Shakespeare, as the sort of enigmatic man who would be an actor and a writer. I’d be interested anyway to hear what you make of his novels, this one or any of the others.

  7. Just like watching a movie that says: ‘Based on a true story’. It’s hard to distinguish which are true/fiction. But maybe it doesn’t matter… literature is imaginary creation… and your post shows how fun and interesting this book is… despite some ostentatious renderings. 😉 Reading your review too, makes me think of the movie Shakespeare in Love.

    • Yes! I thought of that film, too – it was one I enjoyed very much indeed. There’s a school of thought (the postmodern one) that emphasises how much of historical writing is fictional, which is to say based on imaginative assumptions and deductions rather than facts. Any narrative distorts, after all, it’s what narrative does in order to make meaning. It was a very enjoyable book, despite the odd sentence here and there!

  8. This sounds kind of fun. I’d be careful slipping in “puzzle me why” to conversation, people might accuse you of trying to play the Riddler in Batman. Grante, he’d say Riddle me this, but still… 🙂

    • Ah, I knew there was some other formulation tugging at my memory and of course it’s the Riddler! Thank you for that, Stefanie. It did feel so familiar!

  9. I’ve just collected a book for my dad’s birthday on the “secret source” of Shakespeare’s plays (which the author says is Henry Neville). As intriguing as that sounds, it does start to get boring quite quickly whereas this novel sounds much more fun. I’d be interested to read it (if I can ever get through all the other books on the list first)!

    • Pete, I confess I know so little about Shakespeare’s history, but in the novel, Morgan suggests that some of his plays were rewrites or touch-up jobs of plays in circulation that needed the language improved. There was no Henry Neville character however, so I must look up and see if anyone else expounds this theory online! I confess I struggle a bit with non-fiction history books (it’s the sort of thing I admire, but fall asleep over). I know you’ve got quite a backlog of books though – but it will keep until you are ready!

  10. There’s lots of scope for the imagination because so little is known about Shakespeare. It sounds intriguing and all depends on whether the cringey bits make me roll my eyes or whether the good ones just make me pass over them!

    • I found that once I’d got into the writing style, I didn’t mind it and tended to forgive the occasional linguistic extravagance! It’s quite the book that doesn’t have any poor sentences. But yes, I think Shakespeare was a good subject and the novel concentrates its bulk on those ‘missing years’, which offer a good opportunity for fiction embroidering!

  11. Oooh, I’ve read ‘The Lodger’ (and ‘The Reckoning’ about Christopher Marlowe’s death) and it is really fascinating – apart from anything else, how much you can find out just by starting with one little piece of paper. It’s very readable too – I don’t have the intellectual stamina for most history books.

  12. Maybe Morgan was getting inspired by Shakespeare for his own prose! 🙂 It sounds just about convoluted enough–I puzzle me why…. I sort of like the sound of it, but pity I don’t think I’ll be able to insert it into any conversations easily. I read one of Morgan’s Regency books and enjoyed it–have added this one to my wishlist as well. You’re becoming a historical fiction aficionado! 🙂

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