WS’s immortal gaze will continue to haunt humanity, even as the last members of our race gasp their final breaths, reminding us that we are all poisoned at the root.
I read the second half of the book in close succession, having been entranced by Burgess’s language as one transfixed by a spell. The plot is not surprising, though it is magical observing the conception and execution of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, the Henry IV plays, Henry V, and the better part of the sonnets. Most poignant, however, is the scene in which WS, making a rare visit home, tells his son Hamnet a story:
“Tell me a story and let me be in the story.”
WS smiled. “Well, once there was a king and he had a son and the son’s name was Hamnet.’ He thought of Kyd’s crude play; strange, this matter of the name. And of dead Lord Strange with his north-country voice: “I’ll play Amloth with thee, lad!” Meaning that he would go into a rage (it was with a servant, not a player) like the hero they half-remembered in Yorkshire from the old days of Danish rule, only his rage had been a feigned madness to discover who had killed — “And the king’s father died but his ghost came back to tell the prince that he had not truly died but had been murdered. And the man that had murdered him was his own brother, the uncle of Hamnet.” (121)
Not fifty pages later, Hamnet has died and not further beyond that, WS returns home unannounced to find Anne incestuously in bed with his brother, Dickon. Art imitating life imitating art: there is, perhaps, more than the Danish historical truth of Prince Amloth’s sordid tale in Hamlet.
This is not to say that WS is a blameless cuckold; indeed, he voraciously consummates his affair with Harry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (“Mr. WH,” putting his family name before his given name as he’s always told), “wrestling” playfully and otherwise maintaining a quasi-sado-masochistic relationship:
[H]e thrust his arms in a tight hug round the slim boy’s calves. Harry’s voice, high up there, screamed. Then WS brought him down, not hard on that deep pile showing embroidered green wantonness, his arms striving too late for balance, laughing, breathless. “Now,” went WS in mock gruffness, “I have thee.” They fought, and the craftsman’s arms were the stronger. (110)
And then, in the autumn of 1594, she arrives:
It was while he was walking off Bishopsgate — Houndsditch, Camomile Street, St Helen’s Place St Helen’s Church — that he saw her. She stepped from her own coach outside a house near St Helen’s, veiled, escorted by her unveiled maid. But, in the fresh fall wind, her veil lifted an instant; he saw. He saw a face the sun had blessed to gold. Another autumn, that autumn in Bristol, returned to him in a gust of shame. Beaten out of a black croshabell’s brothel for want of a little tinkling silver. It was different now. But this woman was, he thought, no tib, no purveyor of holy mutton. (137-138)
Asking around, WS eventually hears from Richard Burbage — who has a strangely intimate knowledge of the Dark Lady’s background — that she goes by the “Christian nickname” Lucy in England, though her real name is “some foreign or paynim name, a Mahometan one” (139) — Fatimah, we come to learn. WS rouses the gumption to follow her to her house, where he forgoes his former shame and strikes up a seemingly platonic relationship with her; but he soon steps outside the bounds of the Friend-Zone, as he himself narrates in a section of the novel that appears to be selections from his diary:
— Do you kiss in your country?
— We kiss not as you do. We have what is called de chium. It is done wid de nose.
— Show me.
— Nay, dat I may not.
— I beseech you.
She shyly places her delicate splay-nose on my left cheek and ploughs up once and down once, as she were new-making the furrow already there.
— Ah, that is good, but an English kiss is better.
So saying, I seize her in mine arms and place my lips on hers. It is like no English kiss I have ever known: her lips are neither a rosebud nor a thin predatory line; they are full and fleshy, like some strange fruit or flower of her Indies. Her teeth are well forward, set like a palisade to forbid the melting of a close kiss. I bring my mouth away from hers and set it to kissing the cool-warm smoothness of her shoulder. But she will have none of this and yet she will; she pushes and pulls me toward-away from her. So now it is to me to say:
— I love thee, by God I do. My love my love I love thee.
— I love not dee.
And then she thrusts me away with more power and strength than I had thought possible to reside in such slenderness. But now I am whetted and will not desist. I clasp her and she batters me with little golden fists, crying at me in her own tongue. She cannot prevail and so she bites toward me, her tiny white teeth snapping at the air. So it is needful that I bear down upon her, drawing, as it were, the teeth of her biting in a great disabling kiss, the while I hold her to me as I would engraft her on to my body. And so soon she yields.
Soon? Very soon. I see soon that she knows all. She is no tyro in this game. I feel that disappointment that all men know when they discover they are not the first, and disappointment makes a kind of anger which makes a kind of savagery. But I possess her in a terrible joy, the appetite growing with the act of feeding, which astonishes me. And in the end I coldly see that I have a mistress. And a very rare one. (149-150)
After all this time, since his boyhood fantasies, WS has at last possessed his goddess. Or has he? There is still the trouble of their past, of her beating him out of the Bristol brothel when he was “want of a little tinkling silver;” and then, too, there is the strangeness of Burbage’s knowledge of her. WS sees his relationship to this Dark Lady as one in which he dominates, but like a clueless trick, he thoughtlessly gives her gold: “WS, prospering man of affairs, gives gold. Prices are so high, she says. It is on account of the crops failing last year” (151). And what is worse, she heatedly clambers for an introduction to WH, and when she at last receives one, Southampton, too, is intoxicated:
He then, as she were a Bart Fair show like a pig-headed child, praises her strangeness, her colour, her littleness. Oh bring her over, he says, we must exhibit her, my friends will be much taken. And all the time she quaffs him and, when he is gone, will not do what she is rightly come to do (or have done) but talks of his clothes and his deadgold swordhilt and his quicksilver words, Mercurio. He is gone now for his plump prostitute boy, I roughly tell her. Oh, dat believe I not, she answers, he is much a gentleman for de ladies; date see I bwery clear. (153)
[I marked the word WHORE in thick capital letters more than a few times throughout the margins of this section.]
WS at last comes to his senses about the Dark Lady/Lucy/Fatimah when WH indicates he has seen her in a carriage with none other than Richard Burbage. He does not in the end blame Burbage, though his temporary rage at his fellow actor causes him to forget his lines as Antonio in his own Two Gentlemen of Verona, to the amusement and mockery of the audience. Perhaps it is the Dark Lady’s hasty though inevitable dalliance with his own bed-companion WH that allows WS to forgive Burbage. Regardless, his fear of supposed cuckoldry by his dark mistress provides an uncomfortably ironic contrast to the genuine, though as-yet-unseen, cuckoldry by his wife.
Despite WS’s inability to see so, the Dark Lady remains still a prostitute, or at least continues to function as one, and WH remains his friend, more platonic than sexual at this point. One charming section of the novel finds WS and WH, having both lost the Dark Lady, rekindling their friendship as Southampton recovers from an as-yet-unidentified illness. They discuss the twenty new sonnets WS has written for his friend, but their amiable conversation inevitably turns to their mutual “dark little doxy,” or “heterodoxy,” as WH quips:
“Where is she now?”
“She wished to be a fine lady. She had, would you believe it, ambitions to marry into the English nobility, that black creature. And she comes crying to me that she is with child.”
“With child? Your child?”
“Who knows whose child? Mine. Yours. Anybody’s. It might well be yours from the time of her having it, if my calculating is correct. Though there are untimely births. But let’s talk of other things, not drabs and their brats.”
“I must know this,” said WS. “What happened?”
Harry yawned. “That wind blowing in makes me sleepy.” WS did not get up from the chair where he was sitting to close the window. “Oh well, I see you are concerned. That I did not expect. I have heard all sorts of tales about her since, chiefly that her house and coach and servants were all paid for in Spanish gold and that her aim was to reach me through you –”
“I did all the wooing there.”
“Wait. And to reach Robin Devereux through myself and slay him. And even to slay other great ministers of state and then, when apprehended, plead her belly.” (181)
Pregnant? Involved in a Spanish conspiracy against English heads of state? Perhaps, but WS cares for only one of these rumors: another Shakespeare child? Another son, even? As it turns out, yes, another son; but this tidbit comes from the Dark Lady, so the veracity of the information remains in doubt; but as far as WS is concerned, it is true, and the boy’s mother has sent the child to live with relatives back East. “The male line died in the West,” WS tells us in the novel’s epilogue; “It was right it should continue in the East” (234).
Though any tale of Shakespeare’s life is intriguing — for indeed, the scarce facts leave us with scant but our imaginations — in the end, Burgess’s “WS” is another shade of Joyce’s Poldy Bloom. He might be a playwright — the playwright — instead of an advertising agent, but WS is inward, sensitive, and imaginative; he is man who cannot hold his liquor, a father grieving over a dead son, and, of course, he is a cuckold. Perhaps this was Burgess’s intention, however: Shakespeare could do worse than be represented by the personality of the most likable character in all of Western literature.
Burgess’s true original strengths in Nothing Like the Sun lie in the mesmerizing language and the vivid evocation of the Elizabethan time-period. Whether in a backwater village or in the metropolitan streets of London, there is no doubt that this is Shakespeare’s England. In addition to the illustrations of the plague-stricken English, of street brawls and court intrigue, there are enthralling depictions of the public’s enthusiasm for everyday sadism and gore. Take, for example, this passage, in which WS has been dragged unwillingly to the public execution of three men accused of conspiring against the Crown:
This is Noko. What is his name? Noko, no, Tinoco. A foreign and heathen name. He is to be first. And now this Tinoco, a dark and shivering man in a white shirt, had his shirt stripped from him as he was roughly untied from the hurdle. The hangman presented the knife, new-sharpened, new-polished, to the sun; the mob went aaaaaaaah. Called the hangman, it was yet not his office to fix the long thin neck into the halter; the first assistant must do that. Tinoco, stumbling, falling with fear, and all to the crowd’s laughter, was made to mount the ladder, rung by slow trembling rung. Behind him, behind the gallows itself, the hanger waited on a narrow crude podium, a platform mounted on a platform. He was a young man, muscular; his mouth opened in some ribald pleasantry to his victim as he secured the hempen noose about his neck. And then WS could see the lips of the victim moving, as in prayer; the trembling hands sought to join in prayer, but could not. Of a sudden the noose was tightened; over the momentary inbreathed silence of the crowd the choking desperation of the hanged could clearly be heard. The second assistant pulled the ladder away sharply. The legs dangled a second but the staring eyes still blinked. Here was art, far more exact than WS’s own: the hangman approached with his knife, fire in the sunlight, before the neck could crack, ripped downwards from heart to groin in one slash, swiftly changed knife from right to left, then plunged a mottled fist inside the swinging body. The first assistant took the bloody knife from his master and wiped it with care on a clean cloth, the while he eyes were on the artistry of the drawing. The right hand withdrew, dripping, holding up for all to see a heart in its fatty wrappings; then the left arm plunged to reappear all coiled and clotted with entrails. The crowd cheered; the girl in front of WS leaped and clapped; a child on his father’s shoulder thumb-sucked, indifferent, understanding nothing of all this, the adult world. Blood poured and spurted richly, the sumptuousness of heraldic bearings, glinting as the sun struck. And then (for the rope must be used again) the noose was loosened, the ruined body upheld while blood poured still, the tautness of the rope made slack again. The hangman threw the heart and guts into the steaming bowl, freeing his arms from the incrustations with quick fingers, drying them then, unwashed, on a towel. The crowd moaned its pleasure, its continued excitement, for were there not two more victims to come? The hangman was handed a hatchet, squat and dull compared with that quick artist’s instrument but sharp as it cracked through bone for the quartering — the head, the limbs. A gaping torso was upheld a moment, then all these pieces of man were thrown into a basket. (128-130)
Horrifying, but enthralling; and yet, the whole scene is accurate, right down to the heart and entrails tossed in a bowl. Burgess tricks us here, however, for while we think we should identify with WS, whose shock and numbness at the spectacle reveals a transcendence from the cultural norm, the language describing the violence draws us in and fascinates us to the point where we identify with the “aaaaaaaah”-ing audience and are thus complicit with the hangman and his goons. So absorbing is Burgess’s evocation of the period that he transforms us, the readers, into Elizabethans — sadism and all.
The execution scene makes us Elizabethans, but it ends by making us feel uncomfortable about it. Dr Roderigo Lopez, “Jew, Machiavel, small and black” (130) is the third and last here to be executed:
Let him not be granted the least dignity in his dying: strip all off. There is a fair-sized thursday for thee; mark, he is like all foreigners for the appurtenances for lust. Lopez prayed aloud in a high screaming voice, in an outlandish tongue, his own. No, it is to the Devil he prayeth, for is not Adonai the foreign name of the Devil? And then, in ridiculous foreigner’s English:
“I love de Kvin. Ass mosh ass I loff Zhessoss Krist — “
The crowd split their sides with laughter but were, at the same time, most indignant: this naked foreign monkey praying, saying the Holy Name in his nakedness, screaming with that smart filthy rod, of his love for the Queen. Despatch, but not too slowly. And then, in articulo mortis, his body spurted, but not with blood. Parents, shocked, covered the eyes of their children. Draw, draw, draw. The hangman’s hands reeked. Then he went with his hatchet for the body as he would mince it fine. (130-131)
The crowd cheers the unnatural tearing of a man’s hearts from his chest, but they cannot abide the natural release of excrement upon his death. But we are the Elizabethan crowd as we read, and we marvel at this spectacle as we do at the previous two; and yet, there is the discomfort we feel at Lopez’s praying “aloud in a high screaming voice, in an outlandish tongue, his own,” and the pain at hearing his “foreigner’s English”: this is an ambiguous pain that plays out clearly at the end of Merchant of Venice, as Shylock numbly renounces his Jewish faith. Burgess was keen to place WS in an equitable state of numbness upon witnessing this scene: Lopez is Shylock, and WS is the quiet voice of the ambiguous discomfort. This voice was not heard as loudly as others in Elizabeth’s England, but it was as much of a reality as anything else that Burgess so vividly evokes.
And so, Burgess concludes: WS is the author of several popular plays, though his most important is yet to come, which will showcase an unprecedented personage who bears a name similar to his late son’s; Lucy Negro/Fatimah has bore a dark-skinned Shakespeare son and sent him off to the East, where the Shakespeare line shall continue; the spring of WS’s relationship with WH has resolved into its inevitable decay, as Southampton has insulted WS too close to the bone through mockery of his cuckoldry via his brother; and WS, now an honest gentleman with a coat-of-arms to prove it, is decaying bodily with syphilis.
In the oneiric epilogue, which seems to be WS speaking hazily at the close of his life many years after the narrative proper’s ending in 1599, he sees his body as analogous to London: “In my delirium the City was mine own body — fighting broke out in ulcers on left thigh, both armpits, in the spongy and corrupt groin” (228). Decaying WS is the decaying City, Eliot’s “unreal city.” And as he’s dying, his morally righteous son-in-law, the good doctor John Hall, gives his own critical view of WS’s body of work:
— His plays were first all flowers and love and sweet laughter or else the stirring true record of England’s progress towards order. Then he brooded on what he called evil, aye.
— Evil? Wrongs, that is?
— Nay, not wrongs, for wrongs, he said, were man-made and might be redressed. But he thought that the great white body of the world was set upon by an illness from beyond, gratuitous and incurable. And that even the name Love was, far from being the best invocation against it, often the very conjuration that summoned the mining and ulcerating hordes. We are, he seemed to say, poisoned at the source. (231)
And this seems to be what Burgess proves through his narrative time and again, through the loves and lusts, the desperation and the ecstasy, the madness and the violence: we are poisoned at the source.
But O! what sweet poison!
“What’s here? A cup closed in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
O churl, drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after. I will kiss thy lips.
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them,
To make me die with a restorative. (Romeo and Juliet, 5.3.167-171)
“Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.”