Patient readers of “Shakespeare” novel are rewarded


“The Secret Life of William Shakespeare” by Jude Morgan; St. Martin’s (448 pages, $26.99)

We know so much about William Shakespeare, and yet we know so little.

Through documents public and private, we know that indeed Shakespeare did exist.

And yet we don’t know Shakespeare. What manner of man was he? What was inside his head? What was his relationship with his society? These are some of the questions that Jude Morgan has audaciously set out to answer in his novel “The Secret Life of William Shakespeare.”

The book is difficult to get into — everyday Elizabethan England is to most of us an undiscovered country, and as we encounter the characters whose lives will later interweave, our heads reel.

But patience pays off, and as characters and situations fell into place, I found myself rereading passages for an entirely different reason — the writing is sometimes so beautiful that I wanted to make sure I was appreciating the words to their fullest.

Will sometimes sees himself as an empty vessel, void of personality; it’s only in his writing that ideas take on form: “In words he is home and free as nowhere else, and sometimes getting up from the desk he cannot for a moment adjust to the world being physical and not made by him, and he wobbles, as if his legs are turning to phrases and his feet to metaphors.”

But Morgan does not restrict himself to Shakespeare’s point of view; we see the world through Anne’s eyes, through the brash Kit Marlowe’s, through the egotist Ben Jonson’s. Each has to come to terms with the question of self-identity, and each confronts as well the question of who is Will Shakespeare.

That transport is the magic that Shakespeare, at his best, achieves. And that is what Morgan, at his best, has accomplished in “The Secret Life”: creating for us a world that we not only believe might have existed, but one that in the end we believe must and everlastingly does exist.

 

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