Review: ‘The Secret Life of William Shakespeare’ by Jude Morgan


Blurb from 

There are so few established facts about how the son of a glove maker from Warwickshire became one of the greatest writers of all time that some people doubt he could really have written so many astonishing plays. We know that he married Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant and six years older than he, at the age of eighteen, and that one of their children died of the plague. We know that he left Stratford to seek his fortune in London, and eventually succeeded. He was clearly an unwilling craftsman, ambitious actor, resentful son, almost good-enough husband. But when and how did he also become a genius?

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare pulls back the curtain to imagine what it might have really been like to be Shakespeare before a seemingly ordinary man became a legend. In the hands of acclaimed historical novelist Jude Morgan, this is a brilliantly convincing story of unforgettable richness, warmth, and immediacy.


To start, I liked the atmospheric quality of this (historical fiction) novel, the use of language and description and the sprinklings of humour- especially the little anecdotes and ‘in jokes’ that Morgan puts in. For instance, when genius wunderkind and Elizabeth tragedian Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe comments on the young Will Shakespeare losing his hair, or when Kit and Will try to decide whether the meat in the pie they are eating is cat, dog, or rat. It is details like this which make the whole thing seem genuine and believable, rooted in a real time and place.

Morgan is a highly skilled and no doubt talented historical novelist, and this shines through in the immersive details of the novel, and in how thoroughly researched it is. At times, it had all the flavour and style of a Philippa Gregory novel (and believe me, I’ve read a lot of those.) But for me, this novel had one major flaw- it was about Will Shakespeare, when actually it should have been about Kit Marlowe. Full disclosure: I have been a Marlowe fangirl for many years, and I love his play, Dr. Faustus, which I would recommend EVERYONE to read. I am also about to read Ros Barber’s The Marlowe Papers, so yes, I probably am a teeny bit biased. And probably more than a teeny bit #TeamMarlowe.

Kit Marlowe with a fetching flower crown 🙂

Having said that, the young Will and his wife, Anne, are likeable enough characters- Will ambitious and striving to prove his talent in a cut-throat industry, Anne loyal and loving but nursing a secret wild spirit. Yet when Marlowe swaggers into the story with charm, wit and vim, they seem plain and conventional by comparison. Will is keen and clever but Marlowe is scandalous, flirtatious and dangerous, desperate to escape his poverty-stricken roots and forge a new bright, bold life for himself- even if it entails violence. He is the life and soul of every tavern party, the bloody fist at the heart of every inn brawl, and his bragging and bed-hopping antics make for wonderful reading. He has a ‘fox’s beauty,’ and like a fox he is vastly cunning, a little cruel, and hugely magnetic. Beneath all his charm and bravado he hides a secret bitterness, and perhaps a not-so-secret loneliness. And yet, for all that, his fabulous plays make waves all throughout London.

As a result, struggling playwright Will is seethingly, painfully envious of Kit- *oh, aren’t we all?*- at one point Will even admits, ‘I want to be you,’ to which Kit says, invitingly, coaxingly- and all too easily-‘so be me.’  Marlowe encourages and coaxes Will, and pushes him onto greater writing, all the while flirting with him and making him question him relationship with Anne. The sexual chemistry between them is palpable- in my opinion much more so than between Will and Anne, but I think it could have been pushed further. I would have liked to have seen them in an actual physical relationship.

Instead, Anne and Will’s children are tethers, fixing him in place, meaning he not only has to write, but also succeed at it. After all, they need money to survive, and thrive, whereas Marlowe has no such tethers- he is mercurial, mysterious, mischievous: a will o’ the wisp character who attracts hangers on and allies such as fellow would-be playwright Thomas Kyd. At one point it is even intimated that Marlowe and Kyd are lovers- a wonderfully delicious, controversial thought. After all, Kyd seems a little too sensitive, a little too offended, when Marlowe plants obscene ‘blasphemous’ material into Kyd’s papers. In fact, Marlowe himself is wonderful- a wonderfully openly-gay character at a time when it could probably have got you hanged or imprisoned. It was refreshing to see a character from that time period talk about gay relationships (and gay sex) so candidly, and without guilt or shame. At one point, he calls it his ‘nameless vice,’ but he never apologizes for it.

(SPOILER) Marlowe’s early death (in a tavern fight in Deptford) is one of the novel’s true poignant moments- you know it’s coming, and yet it still shocks you. Will’s grief for his lost friend is as honed as a knife blade, but with his death, Marlowe seems to pass the mantle of ‘moste ye olde badass playwright’ to Will. I’m not quite sure whether Will carries it off, however. After Marlowe’s shining star has been so abruptly and brutally extinguished, the novel seems to tumble into a void. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I really cared for Will’s character, and to be frank, Anne’s bored me, too softened by childbirth as her role as a dutiful wife. Marlowe burned out in the heat of his own genius, whereas Will gets everything he wants, but still seems to fade in comparison. Overall, this was a good book, but its slow pacing, multitude of characters and point-of-view perspectives bogged it down and made it a slow, heavy read. if you do try this, read it for Kit, not for Will.

Overall rating: 4 out of 10

Favourite Character: Kit Marlowe. Duh.

This book is four words: More. Marlowe. Less. Will.

Read if you enjoyed: ‘The Lady of the Rivers’ by Phillipa Gregory


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