Saturday, September 10, 2011
Will, by Christopher Rush
Another book for my class on Adapting Shakespeare, this one an imagined fist person narration of the man's life, told to his lawyer: a confession in the guise of drafting a will. Will's will--play with the puns as you like it.
It's a long book, with lots of words. Possibly too many words.
Rush has tried to depict the man from Stratford as The Man who wrote the plays, showing us a dying Shakespeare so in love with language that it pours forth from him, recreating his own lineage, his youth, his path to London, how his life informed the writing of his plays. He ties the great plays to the autobiographical details, making a convincing argument for the ability of a common man to write transcendent literature. More interestingly, in crafting the man Rush finds ways to talk about the plays--which is clearly his great love.
The first third of the book is long and slow and drags on to little purpose. In some ways, it seems like Rush felt obligated to put in every verifiable fact about Shakespeare that exists. We get background into his parents, his grandparents, aunts and uncles, the rude mechanicals of Stratford. Rush takes great pains to recreate the sights and smells of 16th century rural England, and especially the religious conflict. Bloody Mary had tried to reinstate the country to Catholicism, only to be succeeded by her Protestant sister--herself on the throne less than six years by Shakespeare's birth. Rush posits the family as less religious than prudent--fond of the old religion, but not willing to die for it. Will speaks of a cousin of his father's, executed as a traitor to the new religion, his head stuck up on London Bridge. It is a convincing argument for Will's refusal to commit himself to any religion.
The early part of the book has certain jobs to perform--as mentioned, it has to incorporate all the scanty facts known about Stratford Will; it has to show us a lad with enough education to plausibly have been a playwright; it has to show us a love of language and stories. This last is done through the characterization of his maternal grandmother, "Arden Agnes" he calls her, who tells him the country horror stories of witches and ghosts, firing up his imagination in a way that plausibly provides for his later work.
The book doesn't actually come alive, however, until Shakespeare himself is 18, meets Anne Hathaway, and falls in love. Moon-calf love, forever stealing out of his bed at night to wander the lanes between his house and hers, too shy to declare himself, too hormonal to stay away. Was there an arrangement between Shakespeare's father and Anne's to marry off their children? Possibly. Anne was eight years older, and in Rush's telling, her father was dying and needed to get her landed safely. John Shakespeare is limned as a soft touch for an old friend--no real advantage to the Shakespeare family to ally with the Hathaways, but a favor to a dying friend to see his daughter provided for.
It didn't matter, as Will fell hard for Anne, but in his stupid youth, he wasn't able to do anything but wander around on fire for her until the day of her father's funeral. Which rather left Anne in the lurch--as happened the rest of her life. Rush captures the joy of first love, the burn and the madness, and it is here that his Shakespeare becomes believably the man of the sonnets.
The details accumulate--the hasty marriage and rapid birth of his first daughter, Susanna, followed the next year by the twins Hamnet and Judith. They lived in the Henley Street house with his father, and Rush paints a sad life for Anne--surrounded by her own babies, and her husband's siblings, the youngest of which was still quite small, and only Anne and Mary Arden Shakespeare to do all the work for the house full of men. It must have been crowded--some eleven people in the one house, and Will had no employment. This Will doesn't care for the butchery necessary to work for his father, and so he goes to London to make his fortune.
He finds work for Burbage at The Theater, starting as a livery boy, holding horses for the playgoers. London at this time is mad for Marlowe and Tamburlaine, and Rush gives us a swift precis of the jobs Will might have done in a city where theater was cheap and popular, getting closer and closer to the stage. It is after Will sees the botched execution of a poor, elderly priest named Hartley that he takes up the pen to write. Drunken crowds roam the street after Hartley's death, roaring their hatred of Spain and papists.
The cries grew fainter. I shut my eyes again. It all went round in my head: Tarleton, Hartley, Jacki Vautrollier, Marlowe, Tamburlaine, the Armada, the drunken crowd, fuck the Pope, fuck Parma, long live the Queen!. . .That crowd down there in the street, full of blind energy and leonine pride--it was loose in London and it had no theatre for it's will. It needed a state. It needed to see itself up there. It needed a glass and a chronicler of the time. The future was out there.
So he writes Henry VI, the pageant of national theater and national identity, and his star rises. The book then paces through the questions that lie at the heart of Shakespeare studies and hits all the marks. Marlowe did indeed die in Deptford, but it was the assassination of an operative, to keep his secrets buried. Marlowe was a spy, and one with an inconvenient amount of damaging information, so he and those around him were picked off, one by one. The quarrel over the bar bill was part of the plot--take him to Deptford, to wait for a boat to take him safely out of England. Ply him with drink the long day, then pick a fight over the bill. Marlowe will fall for it--especially drunk Marlowe, and his death will not cause repercussions.
The early epic poems, Venus and Adonis was commissioned as an attempt to get the young earl of Southampton to marry and create heir, and when it failed to convince the young man to give up his youth and settle into a premature middle age, a second (less lucrative) commission to browbeat him with the idea of what would happen should he fail to have heirs--The Rape of Lucrece. This was also the beginning of a youthful friendship between the earl and the writer, and the reason for a first lot of sonnets. And then Rush identifies The Dark Lady as Emilia Bassano, the Italian-Jewish wife of a court musician, an exotic beauty who was lass than discriminate with her favors. Will fell hard, and it all ended in tears and heartbreak when Southampton (Henry Wriothesley) also found his way into her bed and Will caught them. No more sonnets, and apparently the end of the two men's contact. But Will was able to buy a place in the Lord Chamberlain's men with the money he made while with Southampton, so onto another chapter of the life.
Hamnet's young demise brought Will back to Stratford briefly, and he purchased New Place--out of a sense of grief and guilt, perhaps. And then back to London to King John and then to invent Falstaff and Hal--Falstaff as the great expression of the English people, the gravitas and center of the plays, the recognition that the leaders and aristocrats are remembered, but it is the unnamed and unnumbered dead to won Agincourt and Shrewsbury, and they are the real England. This is Rush's declaration of why Shakespeare is still relevant today--why he remains beloved. Because he cared for the actual people of England, and spoke to them and for them. His talent was to show the people their own roles in history.
The book wends it's way through all the plays, all the family deaths and losses, and paints a picture of a man aged by the death of his only son, tiring of the effort of London, putting his griefs into Hamlet and Lear, his cynicism about politics into Macbeth, constrained and inspired by the players available and the life around him, but burning out. The Tempest was his last great effort, and after that, he was burnt out entirely.
Rush offers explanations for the odd provisions of the will, the infamous "to my wife, the second best bed" is an acknowledgement of the coldness of their marriage. Judith's limited inheritance is explained as the legal way to limit her no-good husband's access to Will's wealth; Susanna takes the bulk of the estate and Will hopes she will have sons to secure the family name. In the end, the line burns itself out through lack of children, even female, within two generations. There are only nieces and nephews, too far removed and thus the estate and library and possessions of Will Shakespeare get dispersed, and remain untraceable.
Rush even takes on the doggerel on Shakespeare's grave, "explaining" it as written only as well as necessary to scare off future sextons from digging up the bones and using the space for newer dead. It also served to keep Anne Hathaway from sharing the grave--which was also important to him. As they were never close in marriage and life, his will was to enforce similar distance in death.
It's a brave effort--a lot of scholarship and effort went into it, and it takes a fair amount of effort to read it. So many words--words piled up on each other, phrases and clauses scattered about, lists of elements and the sheer volume of facts substituting for actual poetry or description. But hard to love, most of the time.