A Tale Told by an Idiot

Robert Nye's new novel brilliantly reimagines the life of Shakespeare.

It's been over a year since I saw that rotten Shakespeare in Love, but I just can't let it go. Every time I get into another argument with someone about why I found it so idiotic, I get a look similar to that hurt puppy-dog thing that Gwyneth Paltrow trots out on every possible occasion. "But I thought that film would be perfect for you!" they cry. The Late Mr. Shakespeare

by Robert Nye

Arcade Publishing, $25.95 It's true, certainly, that the events of the film are no more idiotic than most Hollywood biopics, which inevitably insist that an artist's inspiration must come directly from life experiences. (The film's major howler is that Shakespeare swiped the plot for Romeo and Juliet from several contemporary sources; the idea of him suddenly being "inspired" to write a tragedy of star-crossed lovers is ludicrous.) But what I can't forgive about the film is that it egregiously ignores Shakespearean tradition and the quality of the playwright's imagination. Where are all those lovely legends and gossip about Shakespeare, like his being forced to leave Stratford after being caught poaching, or the theory that he served as a soldier in Holland, or even, for god's sake, anything about the Dark Lady of the sonnets? So Robert Nye, the author of The Late Mr. Shakespeare, has earned my eternal gratitude. Nye's an old hand at the Shakespeare imagining game—he wrote the 1975 novel Falstaff—and here he creates a fictional biography of the playwright by the man who claims to have known him best, the aged and crabbed Pickleherring, an actor in Shakespeare's company who by 1665 is reduced to living in the upper story of a London whorehouse. Discovered by the playwright as a boy, he has played all of the great female roles in Shakespeare, from Juliet to Cleopatra, from Cordelia to the sprite Ariel in The Tempest. In some ways Nye's novel is a fictional counterpart to Samuel Schoenbaum's monumental work of literary investigation The Lives of Shakespeare, which detailed every known source of fact and fiction about Shakespeare, from the parish register at Stratford through all of the gossip, legend, and fiction written about the Bard. This includes such bizarre sources as the poet William Davenant, who claimed to be Shakespeare's bastard son but whose familial resemblance was hindered by the loss of his nose to a treatment for syphilis. Davenant makes an appearance in The Late Mr. Shakespeare, as do a whole host of other figures, including anachronistic references to the works of such later writers as Poe, Joyce, and Dylan Thomas, from whom Nye quotes and draws upon with a cheerful postmodernistic 鬡n. Almost every goofball piece of Shakespeare legend and lore receives treatment in this novel, except the (still prevalent) school of thought that someone besides Shakespeare, be it Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, or some other candidate, wrote his works. Nye dismisses—in my opinion, rightly—such theories as the opinion of snobs. "Because those lads were nobles, don't you know, while our hero was only a clod." His elegant defense includes a wonderful chapter entitled "Of Weeds and the Original Ophelia," in which he leads us through the extensive knowledge that the playwright had not only of well-known flowers but of the sort of flora that would be encountered only by one with an intimate knowledge of rural life. Despite the length and breadth of scholarship that Nye draws upon, he's actually at his best when at his most fantastical. Legends of Shakespeare's birth and childhood include a hilarious bit of bawdiness where Queen Elizabeth is imagined as his mother, a ghost story involving the tailor who sewed his breeches, and a list of the stories that the infant prodigy told his mother on winter evenings. Not one of these has the least basis in known fact, but as Pickleherring explains, his aim is not to tell a "town history," based on known facts, but a "country history," "a tale told by various idiots on the village green" filled with willful exaggeration, lies, and gossips. It is a poetic reimagining of life, which has the poetry and imagination of Shakespeare as its only authority. Again considering the extensive scholarship that's often evident, it's strange that Nye claims that The Tempest was Shakespeare's final play, which even cursory research reveals is untrue (it was followed by a trio of plays most likely coauthored with others). But by doing so he merely asserts that The Tempest is the creative summation of the playwright's life, and what followed—years of little creative output and increasing mundane business as a landowner—was a sad dwindling away of his artistic life. Unfortunately, Nye's book also suffers a dwindling away in its last chapters. Having given us a multitude of Shakespeares to choose from in the first half of the book, the author has increasingly little to offer later on. It's as if as Shakespeare comes nearer to his great, mature works, Pickleherring is left with less and less to say, and he leaves the book on a note of sad regret as opposed to triumphant departure. But the lack of a resounding note at the end doesn't dispel the marvelous vitality of this book, one that in being faithful to Shakespeare's imagination is as faithful a biography as the Bard may ever receive.*

 
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