Review of Nye
"A Week with Will", Review of Nye, R., Mrs Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Pp. 216. Sinclair-Stevenson. £14.99.
Times Literary Supplement, 29 Jan. 1993
In the sonnets, Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Robert Nye can now disclose its secret contents. The Bard buggered (sic) not only the Fair Friend but also the Dark Lady. Her identification as Mrs. Shakespeare, née Anne Hathaway, is the central imaginative thesis of this book. She tells the story of a week she spent with her Will in London, and adds her own lively recollections and comments, such as “Reader, I doted on the act”. This main thrust is humanely diversified with other inside information, including shrewd (if often shrewish) character-analysis of her husband, reminiscences of the Stratford family, descriptions of the London scene, anecdotes, a pudding recipe, current events, and so on. Most of her pages have a rather blank or empty look, the result of being blown up from a short story first printed in 1982 and now expanded tenfold, with extra lines and spaces to give a more poetic impression. According to the blurb, all this exemplifies “scholarship” and sheds “brilliant new light on Shakespeare”.
Only the author or his agents could seriously assert any such absurdity; but the resulting “riproaring rollicking romp”, as Saroyan called Nye's earlier novel Falstaff, is readable and entertaining enough. Its sentences are short. Like this. All in italics, with underlinings. Its focal point remains straightforward; Shakespeare is presented as actively bisexual. But the historico-biographical novelist cannot have it both ways. He derives much of his marketability from the name and fame of his subjects, and this debt has to be repaid with at least a measure of plausibility. Such fiction may be stranger than truth, but not estranged from truth; and many readers will find the basic characterisation of this book utterly unconvincing. Thus Mrs. Shakespeare, despite her selfconscious artifice of style, teasingly pretends to be a simple soul who knows the plays solely as fore-plays with the bared Bard in bed. There he predictably appeared in the part of Bottom, for example, “the tender ass”, while she was “Tit something or other”. She affects to be quite unfamiliar with all his published works, while demonstrating a detailed textual knowledge of them in dozens of deliberate allusions. Her tricks on the tightrope between irony and error are divertingly performed; but what a frequent falling-off is there! She does not even know the name of her own son, who died aged eleven in 1596. She continually miscalls him “Hamnet”, although he was of course baptised Hamlet after his godfather Hamlet Sadler, so spelled in documents, including Shakespeare's will. Her main source of factual information about herself and her family seems to be S. Schoenbaum, whose Shakespeare biography is warmly recommended in an Afterword. It is thus difficult to distinguish her from a modern writer in drag. The author adds mistakes of his own; for example “running of the reins” was a symptom of clap, not pox, while John Shakespeare was not named as a recusant in 1592 (otherwise his Catholicism could hardly have been postponed until his death-bed in 1601, as is later claimed).
I found such confusions unworthy of a work which might otherwise rank high in its genre. Its irony, when unforced, is often as bright and beguiling as its heroine's well practised and successful smile which had to be rehearsed before the mirror because “I wanted the shape of my smile to match what I knew my smiling meant”. In general, Robert Nye writes with a poet's precision of nuance and implication. 'There is no blatancy about the beauty of foxgloves...the poise of the stalk, the droop of the bells'. His own non-blatant moments are notable for such close observation and clear expression; but this rifacimento, in my judgement, too often substitutes self-indulgence for artistry.