Monday, March 23, 2009

Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

It is almost universally agreed upon that there are three big mysteries pertaining to William Shakespeare: Did he really write all those plays and sonnets, what happened to him during the lost years between grammar school and acting on the stage in London, and lastly whom did he marry?

It is generally thought he married (very quickly because she was with child) Anne Hathaway of Stratford, but in the same official record where this marriage is recorded there is another made just days before with the name William Shakespeare and a woman named Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton. A marriage bond or license was issued, or so it is recorded as thus. Who was this Anne Whateley? Could she be the “dark lady” of The Bard’s sonnets? Could he have had more than one wife?

And so we have the tale of William Shakespeare as told through the eyes of the dark-haired Anne Whateley, the daughter of an Italian street dancer and English shop merchant. Her story, separated into the five acts of a play, describes growing up as close friends in Stratford; their secret betrothal just days before he was forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway; and later their life together in London as Will struggles with his writing and acting career and Elizabeth the I’s fight against hidden Catholics. Together they deal with hunger and the plague, persecutions and executions, love lost and found again, all while Shakespeare becomes the greatest writer of the Elizabethan Age.

Could this be the real story of Shakespeare in Love, a movie I adore and had to watch again after reading this book? I haven’t read any of her other novels, but Karen Harper has done her homework here. She knows much about the Elizabethan period and it shows. The rich detail of London in the late 1500’s - early 1600's, and of the known character’s in Shakespeare’s life made for a very fun read for a Bard-loving nerd like myself. And like the movie, I enjoyed the word-play, the guesses on how he came up with these stories. Did they often mirror occurrences in his own life? I found that all fascinating, and the cover of the novel I loved. It was the reason I picked up the book in the first place.

As for the story itself, it flowed for me well enough. Anne Whateley was strong when she needed to be and weak when Shakespeare – who was of course always in and out of her life – would inevitably return to her. More than once I wanted her to just tell him off, but this was supposed to be written during a time when women had few rights whatsoever, let alone the ability to think on their own without a man telling them what to do. The story plays into that general concept whether it was true of the time or not.

One day I swear I’ll read a book where the heroine shrugs off the dead weight of the man in her life and rides off into the sunset all by herself in unbridled glory…sigh, but until another author is brave enough to attempt such a feat I must be content with fine enough stories such as this secretly knowing I probably wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t have ended the way it did. Pathetic I know. 3.5 stars


hamilcar barca said...

one book you might find amusing is Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove.

it's an Alternate History story (the Spanish Armada conquers England) featuring Will Shakespeare as a very reluctant freedom writer. the strongest character in the tale is a wiccanish woman who saves Will's romanticizing butt by "diverting" the Spaniards as they come to arrest him.

there are a lot of interesting sidelines as Turtledove speculates about the three big mysteries you cite. he also enjoys himself as he rewrites some of the Bard's works ("Love's Labour Found") and gives us a taste of what staging a play was like in Shakespeare's day.

L said...

I looked this one up, at first confusing it with one of similar title, Rule Britannia by what's her name that wrote Rebecca and the The Birds, Daphne something. Not really known for her Shakespearan tales. Needless to say, I figured it out. No grass growing here...I say as I tap my head. (That's a classic Stephanie Plum line. Of course you'd know that if you'd ever read Two for the Dough:D)

It sounds like a fun read. Thanks for the recommendation. Anything to tide me over until the plays start this summer.

Serena said...

Sounds like a good read. Thanks for the recommendation...I love that Shakespeare's life is steeped in mystery and I love that writers give readers something to think what it might have been, etc.

L said...

I completely agree! So little is really known about his life that it's fun to speculate.