Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun is a highly fascinating, albeit fictional, re-telling of Shakespeare’s love life. In 234 pages, Burgess manages to introduce his reader to a young Shakespeare, developing into manhood and clumsily fumbling his way through his first sexual escapade with a woman, through Shakespeare’s long, famed (and contested) romance with Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and, ultimately, to Shakespeare’s final days, the establishment of The Globe theater, and Shakespeare’s romance with “The Dark Lady.”
Burgess has a command for language. This is my third experience with a work by Anthony Burgess and, once again, I am impressed and awed by his skill as a story-teller and an imagist. While, in typical fashion, he does tend to break-off at points of leisurely prose into something more Gertrude Steine-esque (stream of consciousness, for example), for the most part he keeps this novel in finely tuned form. There is also an exceptional arc to this story, which carries the reader from Shakespeare’s boyhood, to his death, with common characters interacting regularly and to an end result. Even the minor characters, such as Wriothesley’s secretary, are well-established and easily identified, once they have been described. I also very much appreciated the references to other historical figures of the time, and how they impacted Shakespeare’s life and works. Marlowe, Lord Burghley, Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I, The University Wits (Greene, Lyly, Nashe) all make an appearance, or are at least referred to, throughout the novel – their works (as well as works of the Classicists – Ovid, Virgil; and the early dramatists – Seneca, etc) are clearly defined in relation to their impact on Shakespeare’s own designs and interpretations. I found this highly informative and a nice refresher to/reinforcement of my studies of Shakespeare at the Undergraduate and Graduate levels – I enjoyed being reminded of how the playwrights competed and worked together, how Shakespeare was inspired, and by whom, and how politics and the time period played an important role in the successes and failures of the players (Greene, for instance, died sickly and shamed; Marlowe hunted down as an atheist; Jonson’s imprisonment for treasonous writing, and Nashe’s escape from England for the same). Incredibly fascinating and surprisingly sound story, which also appropriately references, with subtlety, many of Shakespeare’s works, at their time of development, so that a reader familiar with the works may catch them without their names actually having been written. Lovely little way for Burgess to reward his learned readers (as Shakespeare oft amused himself by doing).
Burgess takes much creative, though well-researched, license with Shakespeare’s life and the details of his relationship with various people. For instance, while many scholars believe “The Rival Poet” of “The Fair Youth” sonnets to be either Chapman or Marlowe due to circumstances of fame, stature, and wealth (ego, essentially), Burgess breaks from the traditional interpretation of “The Rival Poet” to explore the possibility that Chapman was, in fact, a rival for Henry Wriothesley’s attention and affection and, for this reason, Shakespeare became jealous and critical of Chapman. Similarly, the ultimately un-established relationship between Shakespeare and Wriothesley, Shakespeare and “The Dark Lady” (or Lucy, in this novel), as well as, even Shakespeare and his wife – are all quite largely fictional. That being said, while the novel’s general details – including historical happenings, political and religious tensions, and rivalries between the poets and the players are all well envisioned – the novel is dangerous in that the story of Shakespeare’s life comes across so logical here that it almost appears factual (and, who knows, a large portion of Burgess’s interpretations may have been true). Thus, the writing is fantastic, but the liberties taken are troublesome.
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0
The story was well written and enjoyable. It was also, I thought, a fascinating glimpse at history and this particularly time period. Burgess reminds the reader of many of the fears and prejudices of the time, and seems to be more critical of Elizabeth I than Shakespeare himself (most scholars believe) was. I appreciated Burgess’s cleverness and subtlety, but also his openness and candor in terms of sexuality and taboo relationships. Burgess clearly wants to open the reader’s eyes to what very well could have happened, yet is never acknowledged. Still, some of the author’s creative license, I think, goes beyond an artistic historian’s realm. When I compare Nothing Like the Sun to, say, Stone’s Lust for Life I find the latter to be much more honest to the facts as we know them, whereas the former is a bit more adventurous in scope. Overall, though, it was a highly educational, enjoyable read of an interesting and valid perspective look on Shakespeare.