Shakespeare can divide people like no other. Some people think he is one of the greatest storytellers and playwrights the world has ever seen; others a boring old git who is responsible for many a dull English Literature lesson at school
How much you enjoy Will could well be influenced by which side of this divide you stand on, since it presents a fictional account of Shakespeare's life told in first person by the great man himself, as he lies on his deathbed, dictating his will to his lawyer. Instead, he starts to reminisce about his life from early childhood, through to his success as an actor and playwright.
Fittingly, Will turns out to be a superb work of literature. It tells a tale worthy of the man himself, spinning a fascinating and believable story out of the relatively few bits of information we actually possess about Shakespeare's life.
As befits the story of someone who became famous through the clever use of language, it's the writing that sets Will apart from other accounts of the Bard's life. Rush's command of both the English Language generally and Shakespeare's style in particular is stunning. It effortlessly captures his style and voice and you can well believe that this is an account from the pen of the English playwright himself. For the first time in four centuries, the Bard of Stratford has a voice once again.
Rush demonstrates great imagination in recreating the early influences on Shakespeare's life and even has the cheek to attribute some of his most famous speeches to the inhabitants of the Stratford Shakespeare knew as he was growing up! These literary references never feel forced or pretentious. Where quotes from his plays are inserted in a new context, they feel perfectly natural and believable. The quotes slot naturally into the ebb and flow of the rest of the dialogue and don't appear contrived.
Rush's use of the English language is unrivalled. His imitation of Shakespeare's style is quite uncanny; that mix of flowery language, fine speeches, clever wordplay and coarse puns are all present and correct. His use of exactly the right word at exactly the right time is superb and helps to create a real Shakespearean rhythm and cadence to the book to reveal a genuine sense of character.
True, this flowery language can be a little overpowering at times. It's not so much that the exquisite use of language becomes too self-satisfying and smug; rather that, as with Shakespeare's plays themselves, the constant bombardment from this unfamiliar language can be overwhelming. Certainly, although I greatly enjoyed the book, I did find it a little heavy going at times, and found that it was more enjoyable to read a couple of chapters at a time, rather than in great big chunks. Still, this is not a problem, as the book is ideally structured to be read in this way, since it is split down into manageable chunks, each "re-creating" certain episodes in Will's life.
It's not just the Bard himself who is brought to life, however. Long-vanished locations and ways of life are also accurately recreated. Late 17th Century Stratford is presented in a highly believable way, as is London later in the playwright's life. The sights, sounds, smells and inhabitants of these places are established wonderfully and, just like the fictional account of Shakespeare's life, always strike you as completely feasible. Rush also perfectly recreates the attitudes of the era in which Shakespeare lived, the political intrigue and deadly diplomatic games played out at all levels of society. The sense of religious intolerance, the fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person; the fear of spies and malicious gossips help to bring history to life and create an understanding of how dangerous those times were.
For such a well known figure, relatively little is known about Shakespeare's life and Rush takes advantage of this by using the known facts as a framework on which to hang all sorts of other possibilities. Yet, all these events whether factual or fictional fit comfortably together and do not seem out of place. Occasionally, when you read stories based around real people, you can clearly distinguish between what really happened and where the author has filled in the blanks. With Will, this is not the case. If Shakespeare himself came back and confirmed that this really was a true and accurate account of his life, you would not be the slightest bit surprised.
It is perhaps a source of mild frustration that Rush never make clear where fact and fiction begin and end and you probably do need to know at least the basic facts of Shakespeare's life to get the most out of this book. There are no author's notes at the back to explain where the division lies and no potted biography or timelines outlining the known facts of the Bard's life. This does mean that if you are not well-versed in the basics, you might occasionally find yourself at sea. Having said that, the life that Rush constructs is so convincing, so compelling that such a "real history" is almost superfluous.
Some may find parts of the prose slightly distasteful. Some of the language is very coarse, including liberal use of swearing. Sex plays a part in many of Shakespeare's recollections (often in vivid detail), whilst the various punishments meted out to criminals - including the horrific punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered - are also described in great detail. There are similarly graphic descriptions of the burning of witches and heretics and public disembowelling. These are definitely not passages for the squeamish and faint-hearted. Yet grim reading it might be they are also true reflections of the style of Shakespeare. Pick up any of his tragedies and you will come across similarly vivid descriptions of pain and punishment. Moreover, such public executions were such a feature of Tudor life and a crude form of entertainment. As such it would be stranger if the Shakespeare in this book turned out to be something of a prude or Rush sanitised these accounts to spare our 21st century sensibilities.
Will won't be to everyone's tastes and some will find it heavy-going and pretentious. Similarly, if you absolutely hate Shakespeare and his plays, there is really nothing here that will make you change your mind and you will still wonder what on earth all the fuss is about.
At the end of the day, this comes back to what you think about the Bard. If you can't stand him or think his plays incomprehensible or outdated, then this will only reinforce your perception. On the other hand, if you like Shakespeare, then you will value this stunning work of fiction as something which, after almost 400 years, finally lets the Bard speak once again.
Beautiful Books, 2007
© Copyright SWSt 2011
Biographies can often be terribly boring, academic tomes that find interest only in those who are fascinated by the subjects. Autobiographies can be terribly indulgent works that leave out anything negative about the person. In general, it is far more fun to read fiction. What makes the book "Will" by Christopher Rush special is that it is a fictional autobiography. What this means is that Rush has decided to get into the head and voice of the most famous writer of all time, William Shakespeare, and write a biographical piece with the narrator being none other than the Bard himself!
The premise here is that Shakespeare is on his deathbed and he is dictating his last will and testament to his lawyer, a Falstaff-like gentleman named Francis Collins. While our William isn't all that happy to be in the physical state he's found himself in, he takes this opportunity to reflect on his life as a whole and tell Francis of all the events he experienced. We thereby get an account that begins with his parents, brothers and sisters and his own birth straight through to the 'present' when he's nearing death.
There are certain drawbacks in such a work. For instance, the language here is very much in tune with the time of Shakespeare's life and era. In this, we find that it to be both lyrical in the use of words and phrasing as well as using less than modern language. This may be tough going for many readers, but those who enjoy Shakespeare's poetry and his creative word usage will find that it flows with an almost dreamlike quality. Personally, this was very attractive and had me transfixed from the opening.
Readers may also find that certain sections of this account are less than palatable. There are numerous accounts of how the plague, well... plagued the citizens of Britain throughout Shakespeare's life. He even goes so far as to describe the horrendous pain and suffering of those afflicted before they succumb to the disease. Here too are some terribly unhappy accounts of the filth of London, not only concerning the sub-standard hygiene but also the personalities and types of characters that roamed the streets. But Rush doesn't bother to wax lyrical about Shakespeare's own depravity as William tells Collins freely of his many adulterous actions. Some of these accounts are fairly graphic, but thankfully fall just short of being pornographic, although many readers may find them to be on the heavy side.
One of the more fascinating parts of the book is where Shakespeare discusses the different political situations that he lived through. He lived to see the end of King Henry VIII's rule, as well as the brief reigns of Edward IV and Mary I. William also lived through all of the reign of Elizabeth I, as well as the almost half of the rule of James I. What Shakespeare never revealed to the world during his lifetime, Rush also leaves as a mystery to the readers, and we don't ever find out which side of the religious struggle he sympathized with. Of course, the explanation here is obvious - in order to remain employed, keeping your religion secret during these times was practically mandatory. Moreover, when Shakespeare talks about Christopher Marlowe, he brings up the conspiracy theory surrounding his mysterious death, and how his professed atheism came into play.
Other intriguing sections of this book include tales of how Shakespeare began the Globe Theatre, his own theory on why his plays became so popular and how he went from bordering on poverty to amassing a fortune and how it grew through his wise investments.
The most fictional part of this book covers the times that are known as Shakespeare's "lost years" from 1585 (when he left Stratford-upon-Avon) through 1592 (when he was known to be in London) where there is no consensus regarding his life. For this period Rush was free to let his imagination run wild, and yet, he kept this from being farfetched by keeping to the theme of Shakespeare's pursuit of the theatre. All this ties in beautifully with Williams becoming a famous playwright and poet that also contributes to the general flow of the book. In fact, the meshing here of fiction and known fact is so well crafted here that you will truly get a feeling that this could have been the Bard himself recounting his life's story. For those who have read Shakespeare's works, you'll recognize many quotes from his plays and poems added in for effect. What's more, Rush also includes a first-person postmortem - which means we get to read Shakespeare's words from beyond the grave. While this is a bit strange, it is forgivable since this is fiction.
All told, this book is an extremely creative way to learn about Shakespeare and his life, even if not all of it is totally factual. While earlier parts of the book are a bit hard going, if you get past the first drier bits, you may find yourself compelled to read through to the end. While not for everyone, especially because of the language and some of the more graphic sections, this book is truly highly recommended and deserves a solid four out of five stars.
Davida Chazan © December, 2010
Available new from Amazon for £6.99 or through their marketplace from £0.01
The cover says this is going to be a movie staring Sir Ben Kingsley but thankfully, IMDb denies this.
This story is told in the fictional voice of Shakespeare on his deathbed, recalling his life as he dictates his last will and testament to his lawyer, Francis Collins. The reader is taken on a "womb to tomb" journey through the Bard's life, from his humble beginnings in Stratford to his rise to fame and fortune in London. This is no gushing, reverential account: the dying man is brutally honest about his own weaknesses and failings, including an apparently insatiable and indiscriminate sexual appetite.
In addition to insights into the life of William Shakespeare, the book offers a fascinating view of life in English society in the sixteenth century, including the influence of religion and politics at the time. The reader is not spared gruesome details of poverty, executions, torture and the plague.
"Will" is impressive in scope, echoing the universal themes (love, loss, death, sex, power) that Shakespeare encompassed in his works. It is full of Shakespearian-style prose, language and imagery, and includes many references to characters in, and famous lines from, his plays. Although rambling in places (in keeping with the premise of a dying man reflecting on his eventful life), there are beautifully expressed sentences that merit re-reading; for example:
".....love that comes too late is the last futile flag of our own humanity, run up in anguish to signal to a vanished soul that this is what we meant to say, for years and years - and never did."
This book is not an easy read, and will not be to everyone's taste, requiring a fair amount of commitment and concentration on the part of the reader. Nontheless, the rewards of reading this vibrant and evocative fictional biography are immense.
Will opens with William Shakespeare critically ill and needing to get his affairs in order.
*** Religion ***
Most people at this time would want a priest at their deathbed, but the reader learns about Shakespeare's life as he tells all to the lawyer in charge of his last will and testament.
Over his lifetime he has seen people change from Catholic to Protestant, and vice versa, to be in the "right" religion for safety and/or worldly ambition. As he says that he does not want to be "accused" on being on one side or the other, he does not want any sort of churchman. Readers will in time learn of his true religious views.
*** Elizabethan Rural to City Life ***
William Shakespeare tells his lawyer how he was born into a rural Warwickshire community, where he was to fall in love with, and marry, Anne Hathaway.
Although he was raised in a family not having to worry about the basic necessities of life, his beginnings are a lot more humble than most people of his time who remain famous today. Shakespeare earned his right to fame, rather than was born to it.
Do you think that the right schooling is necessary to nurture the talents of the best writers? Well I was pleased to learn that, like me, Shakespeare was glad to leave his school, which taught him what the masters regarded as absolute certainties, so leaving no room for intelligent discussion. In those austere conditions his masters would keep themselves warm by beating the posteriors of the small, hungry boys.
He tells life like it was for him. The reader will need to accept the violence, lack of hygiene and social niceties to appreciate this read. This master of words sometimes makes his descriptions more vivid than poetic, in his striking accounts.
By reading about his life in historical context, I felt catapulted back in time. The everyday realities of his life included using the shared shithouse of his rural community, learning the trade of the slaughterhouse and the ever present disease risks such as plague and syphilis. The lawyer, impatient for him to get on with the most important things he needs to know, asks if he wants his craps itemized, but doesn't rush him through the baldy parts of his verbal meanderings.
The odours of the age grow stronger when he leaves the family home and goes seeking success in London, with its closely packed dwellings for ordinary folk, the open sewer of the Thames and the slaughter house where he initially needed to work close-by.
I greatly appreciated the entire book, but the most interesting part for me was the rivalry between the London theatres in the second half.
As Will gets opportunities to met members of high society, as well as less salubrious people, political astuteness becomes necessary to realise his full potential. Here some of his sexual exploits mix business with pleasure. Readers are also introduced to his favourite whores.
The further into the book you get, the more you learn about the inspiration for Shakespeare's writings. Influences include national events, the tastes of the people he is writing for and his personal life.
Among those impressed by this novel is Sir Ben Kingsley. He will be starring in a film version.
*** The Author ***
This is my first experience of Christopher Rush's work, but I will be on the look out for more by him including Hellfire and Herring which is a memoir of his childhood in a Scottish fishing village in the 1940s and 1950s.
*** Recommendation ***
Having read this compulsive novel, I will now think of William Shakespeare not just as a playwright, but also a real person with a wide range of emotions, strengths and weaknesses.
Reading words that alternated between witty, imaginative, poignant, vivid, gross and poetic, or are a mixture of these qualities, I felt that I was living alongside the Bard and eavesdropping on his life.
I think that the style of writing is pitched just right. I felt that I was back in Elizabethan England because it was not too modern, but at the same time was fairly easy for a 21st century reader to understand. (A lot easier that reading Shakespeare's plays.)
Read it yourself if you want a credible fictional insight (based on facts) into William Shakespeare the man, as well as the times that influenced this poet's writings.
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Beautiful Books (9 Oct 2008)