Day 635: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare

Cover for The Secret Life of William ShakespeareAs I am interested in Shakespeare and recently enjoyed a Regency romance by Jude Morgan, I wanted to enjoy this novel a lot more than I did. There is of course a risk in making a historical figure a main character in a novel, and that is that no author truly knows the mind of the real person. The truly successful novel of this type bravely forges a persona. Morgan’s solution, however, is to make Shakespeare, about whom little is known, truly amorphous in character.

The novel centers mostly on the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, an interesting choice, since we know they lived apart for much of their marriage. Morgan explains the marriage between Shakespeare and his bride, almost ten years older, as a love match, which is perhaps more unlikely than many different explanations for it (although of course not impossible). He has Anne reluctantly agree to Will’s eventual decision to join a group of players only on the condition that he is never unfaithful to her. Anne does not understand Will’s fascination with the theatre and views it with jealousy.

To go along with the amorphous nature of Will’s character, the details of his London life are murky. Morgan hardly ever shows him at his work or refers to any of the events of his life. Instead, he has him in conversation with various players and writers, particularly Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. The introduction of Jonson into the novel is particularly confusing, as often we side track to examine his life and career as a playwright. In fact, he is a much more definite character than Shakespeare is.

It felt to me as though, in being perhaps reluctant to misinterpret Shakespeare’s personality, Morgan just doesn’t interpret it at all. Wife and friends find him equally unknowable. I had a hard time reconciling my knowledge of the plays with this reticent character. In particular, it seemed as though a man who was so fascinated with language would play with it more in his speech, as he does in Anthony Burgess’s much more adventuresome book Nothing Like the Sun. I did not buy Morgan’s idea of Shakespeare’s personality at all.

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