One of the annoying things about Shakespeare is that we don’t know a lot about him. This has led to the perennial debate about who wrote the plays, with half a dozen different candidates proposed as the real pens behind the glover’s son who hardly used the same signature twice and left his wife his second best bed when he died.
Sarah Hoyt skips by all that. Will was Will, not some dandy nobleman trying to hide his disreputable hobby behind a false face. No, William was the Stratford boy, not the Oxford nobleman, and before he sensed the lure of fame and fortune with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in London, he was a confused young fellow trying almost vainly to keep body and soul together for himself, his somewhat older wife and their child by doing what he could do with the education he’d received at Stratford’s grammar school.
Hoyt assumes that William became a junior schoolmaster in a nearby village, somewhere within reasonable walking distance each day, somewhere that took him through a mysterious forest when going and coming.
Hoyt assumes that John Shakespeare’s decline in fortune from the equivalent of town councillor to a much lower status made the family home a less than happy place. She provides a sinister reason for this otehrwise unexplained fall from grace. She also postulates a real love between young Will (19) and Anne Hathaway (mid 20s), whom she calls Nan in this tale of his “lost years”.
So where did the inspiration for the plays and poems come from? Hoyt has quite a few of them springing out of events transpiring in the faerie realm within the Woods of Arden, nearby. Here, in a plot reminiscent of “Hamlet”, an elf prince named Quicksilver has been displaced in his inheritance by a relative whom he suspects of having done away with his parents. And that King, Sylvanus by name, with a yen for mortal women, has decided upon Nan to share his bed, so in enchantments like something out of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, he has stolen her away while Will was off with his students.
But the theft was badly done, and the imperfect simulcrum left behind reverted to the stick it was before even Will came home, leaving him to know that something has gone wrong, to seek out his wife, and to see her, as in a vision, transformed by a glamour in a world enough out of step with ours that he can see it, but not touch it.
Nor can she, though she tries, make her way back into our existence; though she can see it clearly, she is without substance in our grosser reality.
So is Quicksilver, a being of two aspects, moved to seduce Will into helping him take revenge on Sylvanus. Seduction enters into it, for his female aspect is that of the “dark lady”, that sexually ambiguous creature who haunts so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Will does not know of Quicksilver’s two natures for most of the story, and is entranced by the faerie glamour of their encounters, himself made more susceptible by what he believes to be Nan’s defection.
Thus Hoyt plays with many of Shakespeare’s themes: star crossed lovers, boys/girls who are not what they seem, purposes mistaken which fall on the inventor’s heads, accidental deaths, and power struggles within the realms of the nobility.
As I seem to have done in this review, Hoyt falls into an almost Shakespearean cadence as she writes, ending up with a style that allows her to insert lines and phrases which are familiar to anyone who passed through the basic English courses in our high school system. We see Will experience things that he will later shape into his plays, and become acquainted with levels of social conduct far above that of his youth.
The end result of all this speculation is a book that I’m sure you can tell I enjoyed, and I’m even happier to report that it’s the first of a trilogy, with both of the others already completed. The second, All Night Awake, is already in paperback and the third, Any Man So Daring, is out in hardcover.