Shakespeare In Love it ain’t! No offence to Tom Stoppard and his noble work on that noble film, but Burgess’ 1964 novel, subtitled “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-life”, is in a whole other category. No author living today, with maybe the exception of Will Self, can come anywhere close to Burgess’ linguistic pyrotechnics on the page. (It helped that the man was fluent in 17 languages.) Here, he embraces with uncanny verisimilitude the nuances of Elizabethan English – including mind-twisting puns, arcane vocabulary and slang right off the streets of 16th-century London.
Burgess takes the basic biographical framework available to him and fleshes it out with a fictitious yet wholly plausible story. Burgess’ Shakespeare comes from a brew of glove makers, suffers from creative anxieties, falls madly in love with a woman from India named Fatima (describing her not as “black” but rather “golden” – brilliant!), gets cuckolded by his own brother and, near the end, contracts a venereal disease from his beloved. All in 235 densely packed pages of prose. Burgess melds his own narration with Shakespeare’s thoughts in seamless perfection, and doing so gives him a chance to spout off about the writerly process in the bard’s own words: “It was glove-making all over again, a craft only. Not, perhaps, so mean a craft but still a matter of fitting, taking orders – five feet instead of five fingers. And certainly a more corrupting craft.”
Evident through it all, of course, is Burgess’ lifelong obsession with the relationship between the creative impulse and the impulse toward cruelty – convinced, he was, that they arise out of the same place. He presents this version of Shakespeare as a bit of a womanizer, an adulterer for sure, perhaps even a misogynist; but also as a nascent genius about to face the full brunt of his own creativity. Burgess asks for no forgiveness. He lets his art, and that of the bard, stand up on its own. And it does. Wow, does it ever.