Morgan (A Little Folly, 2013, etc.) draws restless young Will Shakespeare as he resists being trapped in apprenticeship to his glove-maker father.
Will’s father, John, once respectable alderman and bailiff, has been disgraced by missteps into unlicensed wool trading. Will has no real prospects, but he will not be a glove-maker. At 18, he meets older Anne Hathaway and marries, with her pregnant. Morgan writes page-turning historical fiction, hearth to farm to London, following Will, who is stringing "his soul along posts of dream and fantasy and invention and imitation." Will’s a loyal son, devoted father and husband, but when a troupe of traveling players loses a member, he captures his dream, becoming a player and ending up in London. Will settles in "the great stinking trading-crowded roofed-over first place of the kingdom." In the great shadow of Christopher Marlowe, Will begins to write for theaters, his scribbling less than respectable but popular nonetheless. First are collaborations, plays Will doctors so that he might find stages to act upon, but his writing soon evolves into individual genius built upon folk tales and legends and cooperative stews, Will believing "there is no such thing as originality, except the originality that comes from synthesis." Soon, however, original comedies, dramas and tragedies flow swiftly, easily from his pen. Woven into the tapestry of Will’s story is the thread of Ben Jonson’s life, a London mason’s brilliant stepson denied a Queen’s Scholarship. Morgan writes masterful characters—royals, patrons and players; Marlowe, reckless rake; Jonson, arrogant, envious, but great loyal friend; Anne, earthy, passionate, loyal, fractured after the death of their son, lost and found again after Will’s dalliance with the troubled Huguenot widow Isabelle Berger; and most of all, Will himself, great, gentle genius behind a placid, circumspect exterior, implacable, unknowable, all effortless burning brilliance. In a layered narrative with a richness that rewards measured reading, Morgan re-creates Shakespeare’s Elizabethan milieu, every place and person rendered with near-perfect realism.
A tour de force.