Thursday, April 23, 2009

Warwick Collins and Shakespeare's Sonnets

The Sonnets / Warwick Collins
HarperCollins, 2008.
272 p.

This small novel aims to tell us the story behind the creation of Shakespeare's sonnets. It is set on the Earl of Southampton's estate during the Plague years in London when the theatres were closed, and actors and playwrights had to find refuge elsewhere (1592 and on). Shakespeare has been taken in by the young Earl and is biding his time by writing plays and using the library of the Earl's tutor John Florio to spark ideas. He also begins writing a series of sonnets addressed to the Earl.

Collins is a wonderful writer, and this is a well constructed and plausible tale of the genesis of Shakespeare's sonnets. It includes many sonnets within the text, but is not simply an attempt to link them all together with a vague narrative. The story actually makes sense and makes Collins' explanation feel organic. Shakespeare is politically neutral, but observes the machinations of Southampton and his puritanical and politically powerfully guardian, Lord Burghley. There are skulking spies who come and go, including Christopher Marlowe, whose actions are contrasted with Will's. The issue of the Dark Lady of the sonnets is also approached; there are two Italian women in this closed circle who appear to be candidates for the position, one of whom is Florio's wife and the Earl's mistress. There are many characters to this story, some of the most overbearing ones appearing only offstage (ie: Lord Burghley or Southampton's mother). Each one seemed to me like an individual with layers of complexity; issues of sexuality and politically motivated actions loom large. We enter right into the story without much background or buildup, so a familiarity with Shakespeare's life and the political climate of Elizabethan England helps, but is not necessary. The story stands on its own.

I enjoyed this; it was not a difficult or abstruse read, rather providing a possible context which added layers of meanings to the sonnets. Collins includes two sonnets he wrote himself, which appear in the story as Shakespeare's try at political commentary -- these sonnets are judged faintly amusing and then destroyed. (I found that subtle dig at his own skills as compared to Shakespeare's quite entertaining - and he notes clearly in the afterword that they were his own poems, to avoid confusion). The writing itself is also clear and without excessive ornamentation, bringing a distant Elizabethan setting into focus, from its dreamy opening to realistically long sleepness nights, sexual encounters, hunger, exhaustion and so on. It provides fascinating material for speculation for anyone who is a Shakespeare aficionado. Even if Shakespeare himself, or his sonnets, don't seem so intriguing to you, as an historical novel this has much to recommend it. Great characters, a well drawn setting and descriptive, engaging writing make this one a winner.

A few other opinions:

Jen at Devourer of Books
John Self at Asylum
Sally at Sally's Book Blog

And if you are interested in the fictional quest for the source of Shakespeare's short-lived spurt of sonnet writing, here are a couple of other novels which may be of interest.

The Sonnet Lover / Carol Goodman
This one posits that Shakespeare spent those Plague years in Tuscany and wrote a lost series of sonnets to his Italian lover, the infamous Dark Lady. Rose Archer, academic, is bound and determined to locate the lost sonnets.

Nothing Like the Sun / Anthony Burgess
A bawdy and dense retelling of Shakespeare's life, from youth to maturity and his writing. Who is the Dark Lady this time? A Moorish lover with whom he has a son. See a variety of covers!


  1. This is a different sort of idea. I have never heard of it before, but I think I might have to see if I can track down a copy for curiousity-sake!

  2. I'm adding this one to my list of books to read! There seem to be quite a few books out lately that are either retellings of his plays or fictional accounts of his life or some aspect of his life/world. I guess Shakespeare is still rich ground to be mined!


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