Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Meredith Whitford
ISBN: 978-1-905202-57-7, 2010, Paperback
William Shakespeare remains an endless source of literary pleasure. Not only for the exquisite brilliance of his words in both the plays and poems that bear his name, but for the speculation which surrounds the bard. Was William Shakespeare little more than a merchant and actor, and was the great writer really Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, or Frances Bacon? Who was the inspiration for the sonnets? And why did he leave his wife Anne Hathaway the second best bed? Anyone writing a novel with Shakespeare as its protagonist has centuries of scholarship and the continuing mystery to contend with, and not just in terms of the material it provides. Readers will come with their own preconceptions about the man and about his works, and it’s almost impossible to pre-determine what those will be. It hasn’t stopped writers and filmmakers from using Shakespeare as a character however, as anyone capable of writing such tremendous works, with so much timeless insight into the human character is bound to be an evocative character, whatever his real name. Meredith Whitford’s fictional Shakespeare (Shakspere) is no exception. For the non-Shakespearean reader – even one with absolutely no knowledge of the bard (hard to imagine as that might be), Shakespeare’s Will is a story full of all the elements of good fiction – full of excellent characterisation, emotional conflict, historical drama, and evocative setting. The story of William and Anne – and how they balance their lives between the domestic, the theatre, and the grander sweep of history and immortality is a powerful one that drives the reading forward towards a conclusion that, if foregone, is still one that hints at a story with much more to come.
For those who are fans of the bard’s work, Shakespeare’s Will is a novel which is rich with scholarship, hints, puns (of course), and enough plausibility to supersede speculation. The way in which the book marries the rough publication dates of Shakespeare’s work with the happenings in William’s life is both subtle and powerful. Other characters that inform the work step off of the page, including the beautiful ‘golden lad’ Harry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, the rakish Christopher Marlow (who I will forever think of as Kit now), and the dark lady, who becomes a malevolent force in this book, against which the poignant death of Hamnet is contrasted. The weaving of a deep knowledge of Shakespeare’s work and the limited known facts of his life and the lives of those around him into this fictional creation is so deft and subtle, that it forms an almost imperceptible verisimilitude. Nevertheless, the clear enjoyment that the author had in pulling together such a rich book is obvious and will be felt by the reader.
Best of all in this book though, and perhaps, to a certain extent, uniquely, is the powerful characterisation of Anne Hathaway, whose point of view drives the narrative. This is more Anne’s story than Williams. In Shakespeare’s Will she is strong, and fully aware of both the bigger picture of the power of William’s work – the poetry and plays which will provide an immortality which will render even the most painful moments as minor historical blips, and of the man’s own weaknesses. Her strength never falters, nor her role as muse, mentor, and supporter. This version of the Shakespeare story creates a woman who is as important in the overall creation of the work as William the man:
“This morning I was thinking how much I’d enjoy stabbing you to death. You’re not so bad. I love you. But I won’t live with an unhappy coward who lost his dream for lack of effort or courage, and punishes his wife for it.” (72)
For those who want to go that little bit deeper, Whitford has included her own notes and a bibliography. Above all though, Shakespeare’s Will is an enjoyable piece of fiction, made deep with scholarship and references, but also, in itself, a terrific story that evokes both the streets of London and Stratford in the sixteenth century while providing a timeless tale of love, betrayal, genius, and redemption.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks and Meredith Whitford will be an upcoming guest.