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.