The dexterous Nye provides another wonderful Shakespearean “biography” (The Late Mr. Shakespeare, 1999), this time by giving Anne Hathaway her chance to tell all.
And tell all she does, in short takes (“I don’t like long sentences”) and tiny chapters, filling up page by page the vellum-covered book that was a gift “last Christmas” from her daughter Susanna. With a penetrating and contradictory intelligence worthy of the Wife of Bath, she’ll let us know that her story is a “sad” one, or refer to herself as “the detested wife,” yet end chapters with yearning notes of love, as in “Dead Mr Shakespeare. My bad husband. The darling.” Digressive she is, too (“It has taken me 122 pages of my little vellum-bound book to get me and Mr Shakespeare from London Bridge to the door of his London lodgings”), though she digresses ever with a sly and deft genius that lets her bring past and present together and thereby bring character alive. She writes her story in 1623 (“seven years to this very day” after Shakespeare’s death), and her task of telling all means telling mainly of her only trip to London, in April of 1594, to visit Mr Shakespeare there—explaining thereby the real meaning of the “second-best bed” clause in Shakespeare’s will. The reader can gain this same knowledge only by following the feisty, intelligent, raven-haired Anne right into bed with Mr Shakespeare, something only those as open-minded as she is may wish to do—or learn as much from it as she does. Or, maybe, as Shakespeare does, too, since much of the fun of Nye’s marvelous book is discovering all those ways that the poesy-hating Anne was the real source of so much poesy (“ ‘What’s in a name?’ I always used to say,” and “I know a hawk from a handsaw”).
From first word to last, brilliant, moving—and often ribald—intellectual entertainment.