Here we are, quickly approaching the start of summer, and I find myself reading another book that has to do with Shakespeare. I’ve never really been much of a Shakespeare fan…well, I like him and his works enough, but I’m not a fanatic or anything, driven to read every work written by or about him, or even to see every movie that is a rendition of one of his works (Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, yes; 10 Things I Hate About You, no). And yet, I often find myself reading novels that feature him not only as a theme in the plot, but also as a character. Last summer it was The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman, in which our sonnet-loving protagonist finds herself at a villa in Florence, unraveling a couple mysteries, one of them having to do with whether or not Shakespeare spent time in Italy (where many of his plays take place), and another having to do with the identity of a certain dark lady. Then it was The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber, which focuses on the tantalizing idea of a newly-discovered Shakespeare play, as well as the myriad sorts of people who would do just about anything to have it (previously mentioned here). Now, I’m reading Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Carrell, in which our theatrically-inclined heroine follows a trail of clues that might or might not lead to a copy of Cardenio (one of the lost Shakespeare plays), as well as the discovery of the identity of a certain dark lady, all the while leaving burnt theatres and libraries in her wake.
So much of the Shakespeare in these novels is supposition: for a man who left what is arguably the most important body of literary work in history, there is very little to be found in the way of business or personal records kept by him or anyone else. There are recordings of births, deaths and marriages, a few tax evasions here and there, land and property deeds and the like, but no letters, no diaries, no notes or to-do-lists. The companions to and biographies of Shakespeare detail his life with the use of contemporary sources of all kinds, as well as works written about him from later periods, but the man himself left nothing to know him by–except for his plays and sonnets, and it’s up for debate as to how much of himself he put in them. The lack of personal information about a man that so many people admire is not only frustrating, but lends itself to the perpetuation of mystery and questioning. Who is the Dark Lady? The Fair Youth? What kind of man bequeaths his wife his second-best bed? Did he really write all those plays? To be or not to be? Novelists who want to imagine the life and actions of Shakespeare are, on the one hand, limited by the lack of information, and on the other hand, free to let their imagination go far and wide.
O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast.