JOYCE McMILLAN on WILL for Scottish Review of Books, October 2007
Will by Christopher Rush, Beautiful Books, 2007. Price n/a, pp. 458.
IT IS THE COLD SPRING of 1616; and in an upper room at New Place, his handsome house on Stratford’s main street, William Shakespeare lies dying. He is not old, by modern standards; his 52nd birthday is still a few weeks away. But he has packed more living into that long half-century than most might manage in several lifetimes. From humble origins in Stratford, he has risen to rub shoulders with the greatest in the land. He has made a great fortune, and for twenty years walked the high tightrope of political survival familiar to any public man in the conspiracy-ridden London of Elizabeth and James. He has lived through wave after wave of plague and disease. He has worn out his body, as much with hard work as with whoring.
He has also – by daylight and candlelight, through ecstasy, triumph, loss and despair – written forty of the greatest plays the world has ever seen; and now, he is almost ready to breathe his last. At his feet, on a little truckle-bed, sits his old acquaintance Francis Collins, the Stratford lawyer, whom he has appointed to help him draw up his last will and testament. So Will speaks his will – the pun is at least fourfold – while Francis writes and comments; and so begins this latest book from the poet, novelist, biographer and screenwriter Christopher Rush, an imaginary life of Shakespeare touched with such a raging poetry and fluency that it seems set to eclipse all other semi-fictional accounts of the great man’s story.
In terms of the development of Rush’s own work, the origins of this book are not difficult to trace. It’s no secret that following the sudden death of his first wife in 1994, Rush experienced years of despair, depression and writer’s block, released only when he was able to write his own painfully frank 2005 memoir of that experience, To Travel Hopefully: Journal Of A Death Unforeseen. As a lifelong teacher of literature, he found some small, companionable solace even then in the profound knowledge and awareness of death that runs through all Shakespeare’s work; and now, he has gathered all his feeling for Shakespeare’s mighty dialogue with death into this startilng first-person account of the life, set in the framework of the last days – the settling of accounts, the making of bequests, and the final walk into the dark.
At first – as Will talks of his chiildhood and family, his brutal schooling, his father’s humiliating business failure, his early trade as a slaughterman’s boy, and his sudden dizzying fall at 17 into lust and love with Anne Hathaway, followed by a suffocating early marriage and fatherhood – the dialogue format works well, with the gluttonous Francis alternately shovelling down food, and chirpily contributing his own local insights and opinions. Later, the structural moorings begin to slip a bit, as the more familiar Shakespeare of the London years emerges, in great avalanches of narrative and descriptive prose to which Collins has little to say.
But always, Rush’s prose retains the same intense, hallucinatory quality, a strange mixture of brisk, frank modernity and Shakespearean pastiche, alarmingly laced, at every turn, with sudden shifts into Shakespeare’s own words, culled from those ever-present plays. As a study of Shakespeare’s life, and as a piece of literary criticism, Will is both conventional in its views – there are no wild suggestions here about the great man’s identity, or about what he did during the “lost years” of his twenties – and almost frighteningly vivid in execution; the descriptions of London in the 1590’s are unforgettable, and it’s hardly surprising that the actor Ben Kingsley has reportedly just snapped up the film rights. As a confrontation with death, it is as deep, wise, brilliant, courageous and beautiful as any book must be, that fully internalises Shakespeare’s own writing on the subject. And although its feeling for the nightly life-death cycle of theatre itself is slightly limited, the book works even as drama; the voice Rush finds for his Will Shakespeare is utterly convincing, as if it had been channelled straight from the ether.
In the end, though, there is something slightly disturbing about the impulse that would drive one man to dive into the mind, life, work and language of another in such an all-absorbing way. Those who love Shakespeare as much as Rush does will probably find this book irresistible, in its literacy, its passion, its sheer narrative drive. Those who are not already Shakespeare fans, by contrast, may well find it a closed book, its erudition too showy, its wordiness oppressive, its effort to recreate the voice of history’s greatest playwright as embarrassing and presumptious as it is overwrought. If that strict limitation on its possible appeal makes this a novel of the second rank, then so be it. It remains, though, a formidable piece of writing. And it touches in its own way – albeit through extremes of hero-worship and pastiche – on the deepest questions of how we human beings are to bear the knowledge of our own mortality; and how the tragi-comic sharing of that knowledge, through art and literature, lends our brief lives what may be their only true and enduring sense of meaning.
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