Top positive review
on 6 January 2013
Another well-researched biographical novel by this author, who now moves from the 19th century ("Passion", about the Romantic poets; "Symphony" about Berlioz; see my Amazon reviews) to the 16th and early 17th. This means a change of language (not Elizabethan except for the occasional archaic words) and of style (actually more modern, more staccato, more mannered than in the other two, modishly using the historic present a great deal, and with - surely - unhistorical swearwords like b....r and f.....g. Many happy similes, though.)
The first part of the book is about young Shakespeare wooing Anne Hathaway; a loving marriage was hastened by her becoming pregnant. The reactions of their respective families are very well done, as indeed is the their household setting.
Already the young man is enthralled by players who come to Stratford, and we have rather more about the relationship between the players than I found really interesting. But eventually, after a struggle within himself and with his family, Will joins them in London and on tour. Whenever he returns later to be with his family for a while, he has to cope with his sour and resentful father.
In London he has a hard time of it in the beginning. He is thrilled by Marlow's writing; but when he gets to know his hero, their relationship is very edgy. He is an only moderately good actor, but he begins writing his own scripts. When he comes to Richard III, Morgan begins to convey something of the creative process as Shakespeare works with Burbage on the play and as the chronicling of the Henry IV plays turns into the absorbing portrayal of character.
In due course, and with the help of his patron, the young Earl of Southampton, he becomes prosperous enough to buy a house of his own in Bishopsgate and at last, after some persuasion, he brings his wife and three children to join him there. But poor Stratford Anne is a fish out of water in London, and can stand it for only a season. That chapter is headed 1595/1596. Those dates are not Shakespeare's famous "lost years" (1585 to 1592); and as I can find no reference elsewhere to Anne and her children having moved to London, I take it that this is part of the "Secret Life" that Morgan has invented. But it is well invented: I found it the first chapter that is really involving. There was already a gulf between Mary and Will because he spent so much of his time in London; but the (real) tragedy that occurs at the end of the chapter deepens it further, and Mary's unhappiness is always very well and touchingly described.
Another invention is Morgan's presentation of the famous "Dark Lady" of the sonnets: she is not one of the several women we find in the speculations of other scholars. Though Shakespeare's love for Anne had gone cold, he did not want to cheat on her. But the hold the Dark Lady had over the normally self-controlled Shakespeare is well done. There is also a delicate portrayal of Shakespeare's feelings for the pretty Matthew Hollingbery, one of the boy actors who plays women's parts in the company. I think he is another invention - the part he plays in the imagination of the Dark Lady and of Mary and in the moving climax at the end of the book certainly is very much the kind of untangling with which Shakespeare ends some of his comedies, though with an emotional complexity that the comedies rarely have.
In parallel with Shakespeare's story is that of Ben Jonson, escaping from brick-laying to become an intellectual playwright himself, eight years Shakespeare's junior. It is more than half-way through the book that they meet and become friends. Jonson, unlike the self-contained Shakespeare, will be in frequent hot water, ready to quarrel with everyone except with Shakespeare. And a similar great sorrow befalls both men.
Morgan vividly brings out the difference between crowded, bustling, unruly, foetid, pestilential Elizabethan London and the fresher air of the fields outside it and of country townlets like Stratford.
I found the first half of the book disappointing, the plot lacking in drive and vitality, and I was set to give it a poor rating. But in the second half I really began to feel for the characters and what they go through.