Will by Christopher Rush
|Will by Christopher Rush|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: William Shakespeare speaks once more in a voice demanding to be heard by a modern day audience more than delighted to listen. Appealing to purists as well as we who struggled with Elizabethan English at school, it's lewd, fun, touching and downright fascinating.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 512||Date: February 2014|
|Publisher: Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited|
It's March 1616 and William Shakespeare, not having long to live, sends for his lawyer and old friend Francis Collins to draw up his will. While Francis works (at both the will and eating Shakespeare out of house and home) William's mind meanders, regaling Francis with stories and opinions from a life well-lived in a nation in turmoil. After all, Mr S could never resist an audience.
Scottish writer and academic Christopher Rush began the ground work for this novel nearly half a century ago when, as a teen, he first encountered and fell in love with the works of the Bard. Such a long run-up has paid off. Will is the sort of epic opus that any writer would be proud to be judged on. Not only does Christopher do his subject justice, but presents us with a fictionalised history that is accessible to even the adults for whom Shakespeare is synonymous with past scholarly boredom and window gazing. (It's safe to admit it now most of my teachers are no longer with us!)
The first 50 or so pages are hard going but the rambling does down to a coherent chronological narration which is more than worth it. The second thing we notice is the language as Christopher writes in a way that would make old Will beam with pleasure. It's a skilful interweaving of three types of thread: some 17th century phrasing and linguistic rhythms, a peppering of Shakespearian quotes and the main thread of easily understood modern English that immerses even the most notorious sluggard (me again!) in the story without alienating Shakespeare's fans and willing students.
I'm not a Shakespearian expert so can't vouch for the veracity of the history but what wonderful tales this man has. What at first sight seems to be densely written is actually rich in texture, context and content. We encounter not only William the playwright and poet (those celestial words he used to woo Anne Hathaway!) but also Shakespeare the bawd (the fully graphic descriptions of conjugation are not for the younger readers methinks), Shakespeare the genius, the raconteur and, of course, the historian.
We follow the glove-maker's famous son as he grows up in a family that's no stranger to untimely demise, marries the impregnated Anne Hathaway and then goes off her, leaving Stratford to seek his fortune as a player in London. Once here, we're treated to grand canvas views of the Elizabethan capital with its capricious Queen, plague, and ever present danger to anyone with a Catholic background (like William).
He (or Christopher) also has an eye for detail, for instance we finish the novel a lot wiser about the pitfalls of various forms of execution. It may not be one for children but I was totally enthralled, having never, for instance, realised that well-wishers could inadvertently prevent a swift death at the stake.
Walter Ralegh/Raleigh, Marlowe and the notorious School of the Night, Elizabeth I's supposed lover Darnley (who had it in for the whole Shakespeare family), Black Luce of Clerkenwell (gentry turned brothel owner), ex-joiner impresario Burbage (God was a joiner till he found something better to do!)… The delicious characters and moments just keep on coming.
In the past it may have been said that William only left his 40 plays and 154 sonnets (only?!) to remember him by. I'll leave the experts to argue over its accuracy versus its artistic licence but for me this novel provides an image of the man himself and his fallible humanity that connects with his works to make him almost tangible.
Further Reading: If you'd like to read more of Christopher's work, we recommend Hellfire and Herring. If you'd rather read more fictionalised Shakespeare biographies, then how about The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan? Want to understand more about his plays but don’t know where to start? We have that covered too with The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide by Emma Smith.
You can read more book reviews or buy Will by Christopher Rush at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Will by Christopher Rush at Amazon.com.
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