‘The Secret Life of William Shakespeare’ brilliant when in Stratford
Shakespeare was our greatest writer of historical fiction. Onto the uninformative spine of a chronicle he sculpted muscle and meaning. Think Richard III, Julius Caesar, Macbeth. Shakespeare turned the dull prose pages of the dead into the most present-tense of all art forms: a play, an ensemble of moving, speaking, purposeful bodies, here, now.
Shakespeare would have recognized British writer Jude Morgan as a fellow charlatan and shaman: a magical bone-animator. “We are liars by profession,” Morgan writes in a postscript, speaking of novelists. “People pay us to make up stories for them.” But the “we” and the “us” obviously include Shakespeare.
Morgan’s fictional chronicle is better written, and more interesting, than any scholarly biography. After all, the biographer can only carbon-date the bones, subject the documents to microscopic scrutiny, situate them in the larger debris-field of Stratford-upon-Avon, 16th-century London, the Renaissance or Reformation. By contrast, Morgan can transform a bureaucratic record of Shakespeare’s marriage (to a pregnant bride) into the very Shakespearean contrast between “the roundness of her belly and the emptiness of the church.” He can photograph the scene in words: “A single shaft of light falls slantwise from the narrow window, looking both solid and temporary, like something propped there for now, soon to be taken away, sawn up. And between two calls of a crow from the churchyard, they are made man and wife.”
Anne Hathaway is, in fact, Morgan’s most engaging creation. Eight years older than Shakespeare, when the novel begins, she is already getting a little too old for the marriage market, grieving too long for her dead father. She’s a woman expecting more from life than life delivers – until life delivers 18-year-old Shakespeare. With his “green passion,” romantic words fly from him “like the hawk flying to the kill from the falconer’s wrist.”
Like the heroine of an Austen novel, Anne lives “in the great vault of the unsaid,” wed to a master of public language. She is a woman at home only in the country, married to a man whose work can be done only in a distant city. “In some buried sea-chamber of her heart she wanted him not to go,” Morgan writes, “and him to know it without her saying, and abandon his traveling-cloak and London and eminence, and just stay.” But he puts on his traveling-cloak and returns to London, two days before their son, Hamnet, comes down with the “high and frantic fever” that quickly kills him. Will is not there for his son’s sickness, death or burial. She learns that “you never stop losing a child.” He buys one of Stratford’s most impressive houses, New Place, as “a huge golden apology,” but she cannot forgive him.
The Secret Life of William Shakespeare begins the day he meets Anne; it ends when she finally forgives him (in 1603, leaving another 13 years for a sequel). The novel is structured, and works best, as historical romance, with Shakespeare in the role of dark, mysterious genius, rebelling against his father and the dull routines of a village glover’s life. He’s much more interesting – and convincing – in Stratford than in London. Morgan is free to invent the personalities of Shakespeare’s extended family and Stratford neighbors, and he invents them brilliantly.
But London is populated with famous names that Shakespeare has to meet and with the famous plays and poems that Shakespeare has to write, and Morgan’s imagination is tied down there. I’ll remember his description of the brawl in Deptford that “ended with the dagger piercing and so ending Christopher Marlowe’s brain.” But I prefer Rupert Everett’s Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love, and Geoffrey Rush’s Henslowe, too. I’ll remember Morgan describing Ben Jonson’s “strident need to pee,” but I don’t believe that Jonson, hearing Romeo and Juliet, would ever have compared “hearing each line (to) having a petal plucked from the stem of your soul.”
In London, Morgan finds himself stuck writing someone else’s novel, filled with someone else’s characters. Anyone interested in Jonson’s fascinating, richly documented life would be better served by Ian Donaldson’s biography. As for the undocumented alien Shakespeare, Morgan can only repeat the Romantic cliche of negative capability, having Marlowe apply to Shakespeare – in the novel’s most embarrassing moment – the phrase that Laurence Olivier’s film applied to Hamlet: “The tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
Every word Shakespeare wrote required him to make up his mind to choose that word instead of another, or instead of a silence. Morgan imagines the most spectacularly attention-grabbing writer in our language as “the least noticeable person” in a brimming world; Anne “never hears him enter a room.” Even if this were true, it is not new, and not a secret. And have you ever known a professional actor who didn’t know how to make an entrance?