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This review is from: The Sonnets (Hardcover)
When Warwick Collins' fictionalised Shakespeare speaks of a `most rich and lewd conceit,' he perfectly describes the author's own creation.
Set between 1592-4, Collins explores Shakespeare's `mental landscape' at a time when his world has been turned upside down. London is ravaged by Plague and most of its theatres closed down, with political intent to keep them that way. And the actual landscape, the beautiful countryside in which the story is set, is also a menacing place where each cry of a bird and twitch of a horse may warn of the presence of enemies.
The nervous, sensitive poet writes to flatter his sensual and sexually ambivalent patron, wooing the Earl of Southampton with words rather than flesh. But this is a time when men play all female roles in the theatre and the relationship between the two men provides a piquant irony. Collins goes on to create a `comedy of errors' where both share the same lover - the mysterious dark lady of the later sonnets.
But, despite humorous scenes of love and confusion, this is essentially a tragedy where all are trapped by society's games and conventions, struggling for protection in a world where the chance of survival, whether from disease or political dabbling, is as fragile as an apple thrown up into the air in a drunken game. Southampton, who Shakespeare sees as a mirror image of himself - "both my plight and aspiration" -is obliged to produce an heir to ensure his family's power and wealth; the dark lady to remain in a loveless marriage and, though Shakespeare will escape unscathed, others in his profession will not. Christopher Marlow - his rival for Southampton's patronage and affections, and a lurking presence throughout the novel - will come to a terrible end. Other playwrights will starve in poverty.
Collins has cleverly captured the tone of danger, spying and sensually charged isolation. His poetic language weaves a chilling story, exposing the characters' real fears and desires, even showing the method of the Sonnets' composition, with Shakespeare counting out beats on his fingers or fretting over the scansion of lines. When the author acts the `magpie', stealing whatever words he will to construct `imitation' poems that extra conceit only adds to the pleasure - and if Collins had not been so honest in his afterword, less learned readers might well have been inclined to assume them composed by the bard himself. A cunning achievement indeed.