Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review : The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare

Score one for my mom, who has apparently been paying attention when I talk.  A few weeks ago she handed me Arliss Ryan's The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare , which she'd picked up at a yard sale for fifty cents.  "I saw Shakespeare and thought of you," she told me.  I enjoy that this is the response to Shakespeare people in my life have, "Oh Duane would like this."

I thank her for the gift, and based on the cover art I assume that it is a young adult piece of fiction that I can hand over to my daughters.  Nevertheless I decide to read it.  It does not go past me that a) I blogged about this as a new arrival in February of this year, and b) it's still got it's $15.00 price tag on it from Borders, and my mom found it for 50 cents.  So I do not have high hopes for a book that tumbled so quickly out of sight.

I have to say, I am pleasantly surprised.  First of all it
is not young adult.  It does not take long at all for Mistress Hathaway to meet young Master Shakespeare, and all sorts of things are being unbuttoned and unlaced very quickly.  My kids aren't seeing this one anytime soon.  So forget the young adult thing, this is more of I guess what you'd call a "historical romance."  (Although I am left wondering, since the book basically starts with them getting married when Anne was what, 28? Why is there a young teenage girl on the cover?)
Once I realized what I was reading, everything fell into place.  This is to be your classic "behind every great man is a woman" story.  Will Shakespeare, forced into a loveless marriage and unhappy with his life in Stratford, runs away to London to make a name for himself.  What does Anne Shakespeare do?  Why, follows him of course.  Leaving her children to the care of the Shakespeares, forever loyal Anne (who continually repeats her mantra that she married for life) packs some belongings, hitches up her skirt and heads off to London as well.

What happens next?  Why, she writes Shakespeare's plays, of course. :)  I'm only half kidding.  Using the story that she is Shakespeare's sister, not his wife (thus allowing both of them many freedoms a married couple would not have been allowed), she quickly gets a job copying scripts for him, which turns into a job (unknown to anyone else) helping him edit and, soon, write the plays.  How many?  I won't spoil it.  In this book's world, her contribution is ... not small.

I am very pleased with the amount of detail that's gone into the biographical portions.  All of the details of Shakespeare's life that I would expect are accounted for - Greene's Groatsworth, the back story behind the sonnets, Marlowe's bar fight, the night time raid on the Globe, Hamnet's death, etc... The author appears to have done some research.

The downside, however, is in the treatment of the plays. It looks pretty obvious to me that the author took her own opinion of the plays, and pasted that over her storyline.  Falstaff and Hamlet are their greatest creations (makes you wonder what role Bloom played in the research, doesn't it?), while King Lear gets nary a mention, other than to say that it's the saddest of the lot, and is part of a comedy sequence involving Shakespeare trying to figure out how to make it rain in his theatre.  Most of the later plays are dismissed as "not our best work."  Coriolanus is singled out with "no one will be quoting that one in twenty years."  And it is a fairly obvious modern woman who heaps her scorn upon Two Gentlemen of Verona, and not a historically accurate Anne Hathaway.  The author may hate that one, but the words she put into Anne's mouth seemed pretty out of place for anybody that pays attention to more plays than just "the big ones."

Oh, and the Dark Lady of the sonnets gets completely brushed off, which to me screamed simply that the author didn't want to take a stand on that one (or, did not have the research to do so).  From her perspective, she knows that her husband has women on the side, so if he writes about one in particular in his sonnets, so what is it to her?  The only obvious thing here is that the sonnets are supposedly autobiographical. Take that how you please.

Another disappointing bit is that she seems to just plain get bored detailing how the plays came to be.  They start out strong, and there's good back story for why the Henry plays were written, and in that order.  But it's not long before the plot chugs along as quickly as "Oh, the new Scottish king likes witches, does he?  Here, let's bang out Macbeth" or "I'm feeling a bit jealous today, oh look there's a new Italian story on the market nobody's done yet let me just run home and whip up Othello."  But even then, later in the book the two Shakespeares will bemoan that they'll only be remembered for "the great ones like Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello."  Other than with Hamlet and Falstaff (and maybe a little Romeo and Juliet), there is very little time spent on "Wow, we wrote a masterpiece that will be spoken of for centuries to come."  It's all just "Shakespeare became a successful playwright by giving the audience what they wanted."

It is an entertaining book, don't get me wrong. I want my wife to read it. I think it's written for a very specific audience.  Clearly a romance novel.  Anne, the ever loyal wife stuck in a loveless marriage, tries everything to make it work.  But darn it she's still a woman, she still has needs, and she finds ways to fill those needs.

This is an good book not precisely for a Shakespeare fan, but for someone close to a Shakespeare fan.  You want your family and your friends to get the details of Shakespeare's life? To share a little bit of your passion for the subject with them, without boring them to tears or talking over their heads?  That's where a book like this comes in.  The details are basically right. I would much rather have somebody start with this book and explain to them where the story is not historically accurate, than for them to fall victim to any number of Authorship theories and have to start them over from scratch. This book knows that it is fiction.

Pick it up and give it to a loved one, like my mom did, and like I'm going to do.

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