Monday, November 17, 2008

Review: Will, By Christopher Rush

A few weeks back the good people at Overlook Press sent me a copy of Will, which imagines Shakespeare on his deathbed dictating his last will and testament to his lawyer.

Given the prominent role the mystery of the will plays in the authorship question, what with talk of second-best beds and no mention of books and theatre things, such a task is quite daunting to begin with. When you open to the first page and realize that Rushmore intends to tell Shakespeare's story in first person, well, to borrow a phrase from the vernacular let's say the man has some serious grapefruits on him. Know what I mean?

And what does the voice of Will say? Well, he quotes and references himself quite often. Not in a bad way, not like Rushmore can't think of anything better to have him say. Instead we get a man who spent his life crafting a phrase and now mocks his own talent at doing so, borrowing his character's words to express his points, those words having come from his own brain in the first place. Very believable for a playwright recounting his life. He even puns on his own work, such as referring to a particular term as a "brave new word." I particularly got a kick out of him working the word "groatsworth" into the narrative, I can only imagine how small a portion of the audience gets that reference.

What else does grumpy old Will tell his lawyer? Well he swears a lot. Talks about bodily functions in graphic detail, obsesses about death. That second bit is pretty interesting. Lots of undiscovered country talk. A fascinating digression on Lazarus and why nobody bothered to ask him any questions about the Great Beyond. In Rushmore's version, Will spent his childhood haunted by ghost stories and visits to haunted cemeteries. He does
Not paint a pleasant picture of life for young Will.

I won't lie, the narrative is hard to follow. Shakespeare is the narrator, speaking to his lawyer. So 80% of every page is supposed to be conversational, but never with a quotation mark or a "Shakespeare said..." Between every few paragraphs the lawyer interjects with typically a single sentence, and it's almost like the author does that just to make sure we don't forget Will isn't just talking into a tape recorder.

And then periodically it switches to third person, which leaves me wondering if that is an editor's mistake. You'll get a line like (paraphrased), "Then Frances took a bite of his meal." Ummm... The narrator Shakespeare is speaking to Frances the lawyer, so who is talking there? It happens infrequently enough to be jarring when it does.

What of the big questions? The second best bed and all that? I'm not done with the book yet so I can't spoil it for you. I can tell you that I'm anxious to find out for myself!

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David Blixt said...

Interesting. I'll have to pick it up. But I've always understood the second-best bed as the wedding bed. Your best bed was for guests. The second-best bed is the one that is used every day by husband and wife. As a "mystery" it's always seemed a non-starter to me.

Duane said...

I've always thought of the second-best bed thing as something of a chicken and egg problem. Have people convinced themselves that the second best bed was the wedding bed simply so that they'd have a justification for why Shakespeare wrote it? It's certainly been proven time and again that if you want to make a point about something that was "common" 400 years ago, you can almost always find enough evidence to support your case.