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4.0 out of 5 stars The Bard explored, 22 July 2012
This review is from: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare (Paperback)
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This novel aims to provide the reader with a fuller understanding of William Shakespeare the man. We join him on the eve of his meeting Anne Hathaway, his future wife, and follow him through episodes of domestic life at home in Stratford to his being taken on by a touring group of actors to success in London, first as an actor, then also as a notable playwright, and achieving acclaim both under Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. The book also tries to acquaint the reader with the two other major players in the London theatre scene of the time, namely Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

From the first sentence, we are dropped into the middle of the plot, no gentle introduction or preamble. Only rudimentary facts about Shakespeare's life are known, so that he is at once the best known and the least known of figures, as Bill Bryson aptly puts it. The reader joins him for brief but significant episodes in his life and then often jumps years ahead to the next event. Jude Morgan tries to fill in the blanks with plausible thoughts and actions, backed up by research into what is known, turning a life of facts into a narrative and the actor and playwright William Shakespeare into an actual living, breathing, feeling human being. Maybe the author or the publisher felt that there wasn't enough material to deal with Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway alone, so there are sections that deal with Marlowe and Jonson's lives, too. At times I found these diversions distracting - the book is called the Secret Life of William Shakespeare after all - but these two were contemporaries and rivals of Shakespeare and possibly even well known to him, and the author aims to explore the Bard's (fictitious?) difficult relationship with them, even if he goes into too much detail at times. All three were unlikely heroes of the late Elizabethan stage (a glover's son from Stratford, a shoemaker's son from Canterbury and the stepson of a Westminster bricklayer), and we get a very good sense of their very different personalities and attitudes to writing plays and the theatre in general. The big surprise of this book to me was that the author elevated Anne Hathaway to one of the major characters in the novel. Famously left for a life in London with three small children and only bequeathed the second-best bed in his will, she surpasses even Shakespeare in the exploration of her feelings and personality at times and stands well above Jonson and Marlowe; in Jude Morgan's capable hands she is transformed from being a mere footnote in history to a person of flesh and blood, and to the reader it becomes clear that however removed she was from the theatre life in London, without her Shakespeare wouldn't have been the man he was.

Jude Morgan's prose is one to savour, inviting comparison with the Bard's verse in places, working its magic on the reader so that I reread sentences just to enjoy the ring of words in my ears and how easily they rolled off the tongue (when was the last time you read about a gimcrack gallimaufry?), yet it is also unnecessarily wordy and cryptic in places and I had to concentrate throughout the book; a page-turner it is not. The last 75 pages deal in most part with an affair Shakespeare has in the novel with a Frenchwoman, Isabelle, and I found these the least enjoyable of the novel. Their unhealthy obsession with each other is distracting and adds nothing to the plot or the examination of Shakespeare's psychological and emotional make-up in my opinion, apart from a hesitant reconciliation between William and Anne at the end. The author brilliantly conveys a sense of time and place and it is easy to forget that apart from a few verifiable events the rest is pure speculation and conjecture, however beautifully written or plausibly conveyed it is. In this sense I find that the title is perhaps slightly misleading as we learn no secrets or revelations about Shakespeare's life, but maybe it has helped to make the man behind some of the best-known literature in the world a little more human; that goal Jude Morgan has achieved unequivocally.

I read this in tandem with Bill Bryson's excellent short biography of the Bard, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage (Eminent Lives), in order to separate fact from fiction.
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