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The Secret Life of William Shakespeare (edition 2012)

by Jude Morgan

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39None290,134 (4.07)10
GeraniumCat's review
Jude Morgan, who has acquired many plaudits for his accounts of Byron, Caroline Lamb, the Brontës and others, has daringly turned his hand to Shakespeare, a man whose very existence has been doubted by many. This book tells the story of Shakespeare's adult life, while he was still working in Stratford for his glovemaker father, and beginning with his meeting with Anne Hathaway. Despite his father's disapproval he is drawn to the performances staged by travelling players, conscious that there is something missing in his life, a need which proves to be only temporarily assuaged by his love for Anne. What starts as a minor rebellion becomes an open one and he leaves for London with a troupe of players. Life as an actor, even a competent one, is hard in a city where the theatres are frequently closed by plague, so he turns his hand to improving scripts and, eventually, to his own plays, but his writing is driven as much by the creative urge as by the need for survival.

You really need a spark of genius to put words into William Shakespeare's mouth, he had such facility with words, coining a new one when there was nothing that would immediately answer. Jude Morgan is very, very good, but there was a tiny lack, for me, of that spark of brilliance, and a recognition that all the best lines in the book actually come from Shakespeare's plays, but this is subtly handled and there's never any hint of pastiche. Morgan uses the neologising nicely, making it the subject of discussion between writers, producing some inspired examples. There are some well-wrought Shakespearean conceits, too.

The joy of this book was when the attention was turned to writing - to the creative drive, the pleasure of words, the turning of old stories into new. At such times all the playwrights, Will himself, Marlowe, Jonson, Kyd, Dekker, seemed most alive, close to our modern sensibilities but not anachronistically so – after all, the problems that face the writer are born anew with every individual. Something of that is true for actors, too - you can learn technique, but not talent. Will's also an actor, of course, and Morgan uses this adroitly to address the issue of Shakespeare's identity, drawing one of those characters who's difficult to know, someone who slips through the fingers of even the most perceptive acquaintance.

This is an excellent historical novel which offers some convincing insights into Shakespeare and his contemporaries. If Morgan set out, in the words of his protagonist, to "write me a man, who thinks and lies and bleeds, and you remember him when you lay the book down or leave the theatre, recall and judge and think around him like a man you've known long to drink with", then he has succeeded here. ( )
  GeraniumCat | Apr 19, 2012 |
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Showing 4 of 4
As a Shakespearean by profession, I’ve read many works of fiction centered on the life of William Shakespeare. Most of them are pure drivel. Those by Robert Nye, in fact, so disgusted me that I trashed them rather than passing them on to some poor unsuspecting reader. But Jude Morgan is one of my favorite historical fiction writers, so I had high hopes for his latest book—and it did not disappoint. The title—which suggests something raunchy—is rather inappropriate; but I had experienced the same issue with the first Morgan book I read, Passion, which sounds more like something by Danielle Steele. Who would have guessed that it was a brilliant novel about the Romantic poets?

Instead of focusing solely on Will’s rise to fame, Morgan gives equal attention to his wife Anne. Too many authors take the easy way out, depicting the 26-year old pregnant Anne as the seducer of the much younger glover’s son (he was 18), who later turns into a wife so shrewish that her husband has few qualms about leaving her and his three children in Stratford while he pursues fame and fortune on the London stage. Or a greedy woman content with her husband’s long absences as long as he keeps sending home the gold coins. But Morgan takes a different path. He shows us the couple, each of whom is dissatisfied with life in the parental home, falling in love—and we believe it. And ironically, it is Anne’s love for Will that allows him to leave for London: he has told her that he will stay if she asks him to, but she realizes the strength of his desire for the stage and wants him to be happy. Either way, she will lose a part of him, but she believes it would be better to bear his absence and retain his love than to live day-to-day with his resentment and fading affection. But Will’s brief visits home are nearly as difficult as his long absences as Anne senses that he has become a changed man. At one point, she and the children move to London to live with Will, but almost as soon as they arrive, it becomes apparent that this was a mistake. The noise, the filth, the unhealthy air, the lack of friends, the ever-present violence, Will’s late nights, the company meetings in their house that keep the children awake—all this soon drives Anne and the children back to Stratford. On parting, their division becomes even stronger when Will says, “I have tried, Anne”—his tone clearly implying that she has not. Events follow that all but cement the differences between them, yet a small glimmer of what was ultimately remains.

Morgan’s depiction of Will’s life in London’s theatre world is low-key when compared to other novels, but he brilliantly characterizes Shakespeare’s cohorts: Burbage, Kempe, Tarleton, Kyd, Dekker, Nashe, Middleton, and most especially Marlowe and Jonson. It is the sly Marlowe who questions Will’s self knowledge (“So, who is Will? And what is he for?”) and provokes him to delve for the truth. And it is the stolid Jonson who encourages him to look beyond pleasing the masses to pursue a higher, everlasting truth in his work. But Will must find his own way, even if it leads to a divided self.

This is perhaps the best Shakespeare-based novel that I have read, and I highly recommend it to anyone curious to know more about the holes in his biography, especially his marriage to Anne Hathaway. Although the facts may be questionable, Morgan has done his research, and the emotional lives he portrays are as complex and recognizable as are our own. ( )
5 vote Cariola | Dec 29, 2012 |
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 his 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 Shakespeare 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.

(This review was originally written as aprt of Amazon's Vine programme.) ( )
  passion4reading | Jul 23, 2012 |
There is a scene, in this book, where William is coating his face in white make up to appear as a ghost in one of 'the plays what he wrote' (a small tribute there to another great British playwright, the late Ernie Wise). He seems to have kept the mask throughout this tome. Anne Hathaway, John Shakespeare (his father) and even Ben Johnson have life breathed into them by the author but, I am as much mystified about William Shakespeare now, as I was upon first opening this book.

Why William hankered for the stage is not told; why he, a modest actor, felt the desire to write, where he developed the talent - these are amongst so many questions that this book does not address. The other main characters seem in awe of William and unable to fathom him and Jude Morgan appears to say, 'If these people living with the Bard could not comprehend the man, how then should I?' This may be a fair comment, but it does leave the reader feeling just a little cheated. We know that he was a great talent, we hoped to understand, rather than stand in the wings admiring the genius.

It would have been easy to turn this book into a list of Shakespeare's plays, with a few obscure facts about each. Our author avoids this pitfall well; almost too well. This book is far more about Anne trying to comprehend what William could see in her; rejecting him when he goes to London, blaming him, unjustly, for the death of their son and determined to prove that he went to the capital only to have an affair - possibly with a woman, or perhaps with one of the lady-boys used for female characters in those times. Anne comes across as a deep, not altogether likeable, character but Will remains a chimera. From page one to the last sentence, he is always just about to come into focus but, always remaining in soft focus on the edge of the camera's view.

I am not sufficient of a scholar to be able to confirm all the details of seventeenth century life but Mr Morgan certainly portrays an eminently believable picture of what it was like. The only thing that I would question, is the manner in which the middle ranking, which I take Shakespeare senior to be, and even the lower ranks of society seem to talk in a cod Shakespearian manner. There is little of the common man who would surely have featured in the life of a theatrical making his way in the metropolis.

Reading over this review, it is rather more negative than I intended it to be. I enjoyed this book and would commend it to your bookshelves; but it is not a source of enlightenment upon W. Shakespeare esquire. ( )
  the.ken.petersen | Jun 19, 2012 |
Jude Morgan, who has acquired many plaudits for his accounts of Byron, Caroline Lamb, the Brontës and others, has daringly turned his hand to Shakespeare, a man whose very existence has been doubted by many. This book tells the story of Shakespeare's adult life, while he was still working in Stratford for his glovemaker father, and beginning with his meeting with Anne Hathaway. Despite his father's disapproval he is drawn to the performances staged by travelling players, conscious that there is something missing in his life, a need which proves to be only temporarily assuaged by his love for Anne. What starts as a minor rebellion becomes an open one and he leaves for London with a troupe of players. Life as an actor, even a competent one, is hard in a city where the theatres are frequently closed by plague, so he turns his hand to improving scripts and, eventually, to his own plays, but his writing is driven as much by the creative urge as by the need for survival.

You really need a spark of genius to put words into William Shakespeare's mouth, he had such facility with words, coining a new one when there was nothing that would immediately answer. Jude Morgan is very, very good, but there was a tiny lack, for me, of that spark of brilliance, and a recognition that all the best lines in the book actually come from Shakespeare's plays, but this is subtly handled and there's never any hint of pastiche. Morgan uses the neologising nicely, making it the subject of discussion between writers, producing some inspired examples. There are some well-wrought Shakespearean conceits, too.

The joy of this book was when the attention was turned to writing - to the creative drive, the pleasure of words, the turning of old stories into new. At such times all the playwrights, Will himself, Marlowe, Jonson, Kyd, Dekker, seemed most alive, close to our modern sensibilities but not anachronistically so – after all, the problems that face the writer are born anew with every individual. Something of that is true for actors, too - you can learn technique, but not talent. Will's also an actor, of course, and Morgan uses this adroitly to address the issue of Shakespeare's identity, drawing one of those characters who's difficult to know, someone who slips through the fingers of even the most perceptive acquaintance.

This is an excellent historical novel which offers some convincing insights into Shakespeare and his contemporaries. If Morgan set out, in the words of his protagonist, to "write me a man, who thinks and lies and bleeds, and you remember him when you lay the book down or leave the theatre, recall and judge and think around him like a man you've known long to drink with", then he has succeeded here. ( )
  GeraniumCat | Apr 19, 2012 |
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