Sunday, January 24, 2010

From The Sunday Times January 24, 2010
The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare
by Robert Winder

Portrait of Henry VII

The Sunday Times review by David Grylls

Robert Winder may just have redefined literary chutzpah. Not only has he produced a novel with Shakespeare as its principal character, he has also put into it the complete text of Shakespeare’s supposed last play, made up by Winder but modestly described as the Bard’s “masterpiece”. The Final Act in the novel’s title refers partly to the concluding phase of Shakespeare’s life and partly to this culminating dramatic production, conceived as an act of defiance. For Shakespeare, in this novel, is a radical with a conscience. A democrat disgusted by regal corruption, he fears his life’s work might be seen merely as an apologia for tyranny. In Richard III, he celebrated the advent of Henry Tudor, father to the monster he calls “Henry the Ape”. Now, with The Tragicall History of Henry VII, he intends to put the record straight about the Tudors.

Shakespeare’s urge to defy royal authority is sharpened when, after visiting Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower, he is abducted by agents of James I and ordered to cobble up a drama flattering Henry VIII. Instead, he enlists his old playhouse cronies (Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn, Robert Armin and Joseph Taylor) to help him construct a seditious alternative — a play about Henry VII. Also in the company are a boy called Harvard and Constance Donne, a teenage girl who plays female roles despite the ban on actresses (Shakespeare has feminist instincts). To ­Constance’s surprise — doubtless shared by most readers — the play is improvised by the company, although Shakespeare is the guiding spirit. In a postscript, Winder admits this practice may be fictional, but drama, he insists, is a “team sport”.
He also explains that the main characters are all based on historical personages. ­Harvard gave his name to the American university; ­Constance was the daughter of the poet Donne. Similarly historical were the Catholic translator Richard Stanyhurst, who here supplies a coded message to Shakespeare, and the scholar John Florio, who helps him decode it, thus providing him with the “monstrous truth” about the Tudors that he uses as the climax of his play.
The full review at The Times.

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