Author: Anthony Burgess
First published: 1964
Locale: Stratford and London, England
Plot: Livre à clef
Time: The Elizabethan period
William Shakespeare, an actor, poet, playwright, and lover. The novel covers Shakespeare's life from his youth to near his death and shows the growth of his darkening view of life. This changing attitude results mainly from his encounters with various loves throughout his life. Young Will abandons his plans to marry true love Anne Whateley—they had even taken out a license—when he is forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. To support his growing family, he later leaves his home in Stratford and travels to London, where he eventually becomes the lover of his patron, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare's passion for this younger man inspires two narrative poems and, more directly, a succession of love sonnets, but the continuation and completion of his sonnet cycle results from his obsession with the exotic Dark Lady, who accepts Shakespeare's attentions and money but who also becomes Southampton's lover. Infected by her with the syphilis that eventually kills him, Shakespeare wonders, while back in Stratford during his declining years, whether Southampton may have initially transmitted the disease to her.
Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife. Anne's English features, with straight, carroty hair and a narrow brow, contrast with the dark, golden appearance of Shakespeare's later lover, the Dark Lady. They also belie Anne's lusty, experienced background. She revels with a drunken Shakespeare in a wood one May night. After their forced wedding, he is unsure that their daughter is really his. The marriage becomes, over the years, a prime source of his growing disappointment and bitterness. Anne's knowledge of sexual technique shocks him. One night, the sight of a mob in the street torturing a woman accused of witchcraft arouses Anne's exhibitionism, and she begs Will to make love to her at the window. The request repulses him, and he momentarily transfers to Anne the witchlike traits of the accused woman. Shortly after this incident, he leaves Stratford to begin his life in London. During this time, Anne scolds him about his absences, refuses to read his poetry, and cuckolds him with his younger brother.
Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, whom Shakespeare first meets when the earl is a beautiful, pale, teenage boy ten years Shakespeare's junior. Even then, Will notices a slyness in his eyes. Southampton becomes Shakespeare's patron and, responding to Will's overture, his lover. Southampton supplies Shakespeare with court gossip about Elizabeth I and the politics of the day, and Shakespeare reciprocates with stories about the theater. The two men start to drift apart when Will's Dark Lady secretly becomes Southampton's lover, but what permanently separates them is the earl's attempt to get Will to write seditious works to inflame the masses and depose an aging, ineffectual Elizabeth. When Shakespeare injudiciously relates his discovery of his wife's adultery with his own brother, he elicits an uncontrollable peal of derisive laughter from Southampton. Shakespeare notices again how the beauty of the earl's face hides a frightening ugliness.
Fatimah, also called Mistress Lucy and the Dark Lady, Shakespeare's lover in London. Rumored to have been brought as a child from the East Indies to London on Sir Francis Bacon's ship The Golden Hind and reared by a gentleman in Bristol, the Dark Lady is first seen by Shakespeare as she steps, veiled, from her coach. She becomes Shake-speare's lover, though at first she seems more interested in hearing about Richard Burbage, the leading man of Shake-speare's acting company, than in the balding playwright. Also Southampton's lover during this time, she gives birth to a son and later returns to Shakespeare, telling him that the boy (which he assumes to be his) is in Bristol, to be sent eventually to the East. She passes to Shakespeare the venereal disease that in time kills him, and she shrinks from him when he first reports to her that he is unwell.