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The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare

By Robert Winder
Little Brown £16.99
436 pages

Dateline: 2nd August, 2010

Since nobody actually knows anything very substantive about the life of William Shakespeare, he is an obvious subject for novelists and several try to recreate aspects of his life every year. Generally, he has been treated sympathetically and worthily and Robert Winder is no exception.

Taking the limited facts about the man and adding in information about his friends, era and work, Winder has written a fascinating page-turner that gives readers a real insight into both the man and the difficult political climate under James I.

The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare is set in 1613 and starts off by making a couple of wild flights of fancy before following them through to their logical conclusion and on occasion taking a step or two further.

We may not have realised it thus far but when he was commissioned by James I to write Henry VIII, influenced by Sir Walter Raleigh no less, the adventurous playwright left John Fletcher to write about the composer of Greensleeves. Instead, Shakespeare and his company risked life and limb to create a play about the latter King's father, Henry VII.

In some ways, this is perfectly feasible since the history plays and Henry VIII run sequentially through the period with the exception of the Tudor king who replaced the much maligned Richard III. Indeed, Winder's proposition is that Shakespeare felt so guilty about his portrayal of the crookbacked cripple that this was his attempt to redress the Red Rose/White Rose balance.

That is not the only revelation that the novelist offers. Some of us may not have realised it but the juiciest bits of the King James Bible were also penned by the Swan of Avon.

More surprising even than this is the suggested methodology that William Shakespeare used when writing his plays. Rather than the traditional view that he locked himself away for a few days and emerged blinking into the sunlight with a new literary baby, the Bard was apparently almost half a millennium ahead of his time in devising plays with his most trusted actors from the King's Men.

These included Richard Burbage, Robert Armin and Edward Alleyn. Even his supernumeraries, a highly intelligent young boy and girl, turn out to be significant historical figures, just to add to the fun.

After spending 300 pages taking readers back to the life and times of William Shakespeare as the play is written, the ambitious Mr Winder fills the next 100 pages with the text itself. While acknowledging that he is not the greatest playwright that the world has ever known, this is a really respectable effort that uses iambic pentameter with ease and shows abundant skill in the areas of plotting and characterisation.

Probably the key to the success of the book is in using phrases from the man himself as the basis for ensuring that the language of the period is conveyed accurately both in the novelised sections and the play.

While there can be a tendency to go for the overly melodramatic, Robert Winder has put in incredible amounts of research and written a really fine Shakespearean pastiche that is strongly recommended to anybody with an interest in theatre. It would also be great to see his Henry VII play professionally produced at some point in the future.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010