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It's a brave - some might say foolish - man who attempts to take on Shakespeare, but in the past few years two authors have stepped where angels fear to tread. The excellent Will by Christopher Rush was a fictional account of Shakespeare's life told as a deathbed autobiography. Close on its heels comes The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare by Robert Winder, a fictional account that provides an alternative take on Shakespeare's fabled lost last play.
The year is 1613 and Shakespeare has retired from the theatre and gone home to Stratford. Returning to London one last time, he is commissioned to write a play celebrating the life of Henry VIII - a man Shakespeare despises. Although he undertakes the work, in secret he also starts another, more dangerous play - Henry VII, which could undermine the whole basis of the Tudor dynasty.
What's fascinating (and probably highly accurate) is Winder's portrayal of how plays were written in the early 17th century. The popular image of Shakespeare has him slaving away over a desk, churning page after page; the sole author of the works he left to posterity. In fact, most scholars think that the process was probably far more organic, with a troupe of actors coming together and improvising scenes and dialogue which would later be collected into a coherent plot and polished by The Bard.
This book is full of such sequences and from that perspective is a well-written account of the creative process. In many ways author Winder mimics this creative process himself through the interesting narrative structure of the book. Some scenes are played out (almost) in full in play-form, so that the reader can get an idea of where the plot is heading; others are only mentioned briefly and do not appear in full until the play is finally performed for the first time at the end of the book. This also lends the book an air of mystery, since the full implications of the play (particularly the all-important ending) are not realised until late on.
In the spirit of Shakespeare, Winder also presents The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare as a play within a play (or, more accurately, a play within a book). The main body of the novel focuses on the creation of the two new History plays, but everything is building towards the performance of that play which is incorporated into the story at the end. This is a clever dramatic tactic and whilst Winder often overplays his hand (events leading up to the performance of the play feel stretched) he does at least present some interesting thoughts along the way.
The danger with trying to write a novel about Shakespeare is that so little is known about the man. Winder uses this as a licence to be rather free with his imagination, working on the basis that if something can't be proven false, then there is a chance that it might be true. On some levels this works: his Shakespeare (and other dramatis personae) is convincing and the events he experiences certainly plausible. At other times it's not quite so successful clashing with the few known facts or just including things which seem unlikely and out of place.
The language of the book can also be a little uncertain. As with Will, The Final Act tries to present dialogue in a way that is faithful to the words and rhythms of the 17th century, without making it confusing or unintelligible to the modern ear. There are times when Winder perfectly captures the sense of Shakespearean dialogue, but there are others where it sounds forced. Overall, though, the dialogue works well, and captures the sense of closeness and friendship that must have been felt by the King's Men - Shakespeare's troupe of players - who had worked and performed together for years.
As noted at the start, it's a brave man who takes on Shakespeare in the literary world; and Winder has dared go further than most. At the end of the novel, the play which Shakespeare and his friends have been working on is performed in full, bringing together all the diverse scenes we have witnessed in embryonic form. This is presented in full play format, complete with Shakespearean patterns of dialogue, stage directions etc. A brave move - and one which mostly comes off. Whilst there are times when Winder's ear is a little awry and the rhythms and patterns of Shakespearean form sound a little off, he does make a good stab at it. Words, phrases and dialogue sound like they could well come from real a Shakespearean play and I felt he particularly captured this through the more comedic characters (The Citizens and Bacon), whose dialogue sounds like it has been lifted directly from a real book by the Bard.
One thing is certain: you need to know your Shakespeare to get the most out of this book. Winder provides very little in the way of context and the whole book is primarily focussed on a very limited timespan in 1613 when Shakespeare. It is assumed that the reader will already have a reasonable knowledge of Shakespeare's life and plays up unto this point. Characters quote (or mis-quote) dialogue from his plays, in-jokes and references are made to famous works and performances or some of Shakespeare's (in)famous liberties with historical or geographical facts. If you don't know your Shakespeare large parts of the book are going to pass you by.
For all its cleverness and interest, I have to confess that The Final Act was only ever merely "OK." There were times when it seemed a bit too clever and pleased with itself. It also felt rather long and there were times when "atmosphere" spilled over into "self-indulgence". The idea of mimicking Shakespeare and using a play within a play to reveal the "truth" is a clever one, but it is rather drawn out and, by the time the shock ending arrives, many readers will probably have worked it out.
Overall this is an interesting theory on the content of Shakespeare's mysterious rumoured final play. Whilst there is absolutely no way of knowing, Winder at least creates a feasible hypothesis that makes for an interesting read. I don't regret reading The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare, but neither did it quite deliver the novel I was hoping for. If you're a real Bardophile, then it's a different take on England's greatest playwright. If you want something a little more accessible, I'd recommend Christopher Rush's Will as an alternative.
The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare
Little, Brown, 2010
© Copyright SWSt 2012