The Secret Life of William Shakespeare: A Novel

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare: A Novel

by Jude Morgan

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Named One of Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Books of 2014

There are so few established facts about how the son of a glove maker from Warwickshire became one of the greatest writers of all time that some people doubt he could really have written so many astonishing plays. We know that he married Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant and six years older than he, at the age of eighteen, and that one of their children died of the plague. We know that he left Stratford to seek his fortune in London, and eventually succeeded. He was clearly an unwilling craftsman, ambitious actor, resentful son, almost good-enough husband. But when and how did he also become a genius?

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare pulls back the curtain to imagine what it might have really been like to be Shakespeare before a seemingly ordinary man became a legend. In the hands of acclaimed historical novelist Jude Morgan, this is a brilliantly convincing story of unforgettable richness, warmth, and immediacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250025043
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 595,868
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

JUDE MORGAN, who studied with Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, lives in England. Morgan's previous works include Emily and Charlotte, a novel about the Brontë sisters; An Accomplished Woman; Symphony; Indiscretion; and Passion, which was called "one of the best books of 2005" by The Washington Post Book World; and most recently A Little Folly.

Jude Morgan, who studied with Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, lives in England.  Morgan's works include Emily and Charlotte, a novel about the Brontë sisters; An Accomplished Woman; Symphony; Indiscretion; and Passion, which was called "one of the best books of 2005” by The Washington Post Book World.

Read an Excerpt

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare

By Jude Morgan

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Jude Morgan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02504-3


A King and No King (1582)

The storm woke him, but it was something else that made him dress and go downstairs.

A feeling.


He opened the workshop door. Shadows fled.

'You couldn't sleep either, hey, Will? Just so, just so. Well, step in.'

Five or six candles were burning in there. Will winced at the thought of the expense. But his father needed the light, he knew: as much light as possible. Above the house, thunder boomed again, loud and close. The whites of his father's eyes flashed, like a panicked horse's, and sweat glistened on his brow.

'Aye, there's no air tonight,' Will said, feigning a yawn. 'Shall I bring you a cup of ale?'

His father shook his head. 'Stay though, boy, stay. I was just ...' Shirt-sleeved, hairy, he roamed about, restlessly touching cutting-block, knives, dolly-pin, then took up a glove from the workbench. 'Just looking over your stitching. Round seam? I would have thought prix seam sufficient for this quality. But it's tidy enough. The sword-hanger too. These welts, mark you, should be stronger, if —' He jumped at the crack of thunder, but Will pretended not to see that, or the trembling of the big hands that nearly dropped the glove. 'Damp air these nights, makes the hides dry slow. But one should be ready tomorrow. Have your tablets? Set down a dozen eggs for the treating, no, say two dozen —' His voice broke into a whimper as the thunder turned vast and mad and shook the shutters, and Will began talking, anything, to cover up what he was seeing and what he was feeling.

'Lord, if we have more rain the south road will be a slough again, and another poor market. And I hear Lord Howard's Men are on their way from Banbury. Mind, players always get through. Once they loosed the horse and lugged the cart on their backs. Then there's Richard due up from London, he'll have a dirty ride of it. Still, it may clear. I thought I smelt a wind in the west this even ...'

'I never heard that. About the players' cart.' Through the fear and shame, a new sharpness in his father's glance.

Will shrugged. 'Someone told me.'

'I think they told you.' Thunder sounded more faintly. His father allowed himself a small inward smile. 'The players. I know, Will. Last summer, when they came. You slipped out and spent the whole evening with them at the Swan.'

For a crushing moment Will was a child again, and his father's square forefinger was tapping at his breast: I see all through there, my boy. 'Yes,' he managed, 'so I did. I meant no ill by it —'

'But you didn't tell me. So you must have known I would not approve it. Oh, though I don't go about, I hear things, Will, I have my intelligencers. A man so ill-used as I have been cannot do without them.' The thunder was silent; the smell of rain filled the air like an unborn sound. 'Players are well in their way. But still theirs is a loose, low, scrambling sort of life, even with some great noble's name clapped to them. And they sow idleness and fruitless dreaming. Now consider, is that fitting for John Shakespeare's son?' He spoke gently. He had a musical, even beautiful voice: that at least had not changed.

'You used to go to the play. When they first started coming —'

'That was before,' his father rapped. 'I was bailiff then. I was the one who granted them their licence. It was my duty to see the play, to make sure there was no foulness in it. Those were different times. I stood high – highest. Those times are stolen away.' He glanced around for his stick. It was for authority, not to lean on: bodily he was hale enough. But Will realised, as he took up the stick, that now he could probably wrest it from him or break it over his knee, because he was eighteen and fresh, and his father was a beaten, lurking man ... if he wanted to.

'The storm's dying,' Will said. As he passed his father the stick he felt, at its other end, a frustrated strength, and saw the snake. Hugh the maltster's son had found it after school, that last term before Will was plucked away, and caught it in a sack. You could feel the desperate muscle through the cloth. He met his father's eyes, and love and hate clove him in two like an apple.

'Well, leave go, then, sir.'

One more moment: Will let go. Thunder mumbled away northward, over Shottery. His father wiped his brow.

'Cooler,' Will said. 'I'll go sleep, I think, Father.'

'Wait. When the players come this summer, Will, I want you to consider. Consider who we are.' He touched the carved head of his stick to his lips. 'Our name.'

And it crowded into Will's head what he could not say: our name, no one gives a hang what we do any more – the town will as soon talk of a missing nail in the church door ... But that was one of those things to be ignored and pretended away, like a fear of thunderstorms.

'I hope I'm always mindful of it.'

'I hope so too. And that you will show it. No more skulking in tap-rooms with a set of beggarly players, hm? You are my son, my heir, and these things matter. You must learn what it is to be a man. I want your promise, now – and freely given. Naught of threat. You know your portion has never been aught but love.'

You can beat with love, Will thought. Nothing cuts more deep. 'You have my promise, Father,' he said. But he lied; and Will wondered if he were a wicked person or, rather, just how wicked he was.

He didn't sleep. Come the wet dawn he was watching at his bedroom window, as his father crossed the yard below to inspect the hanging hides. Heavy, measured, yet noticeably upright tread: at first glance one might suppose a drunk man trying to control himself. But no: Alderman Shakespeare, Burgess of Stratford, had walked thus in procession to the Guildhall, wearing his robes of office, preceded by constables with staves, followed by an adoring boy.

Will saw his own shadow around him on the floorboards, its limits, and thought: These shall be my borders, ever and ever.

* * *

The storm didn't wake her. She was already awake. Since the great change had come, she did much of her living in the night. And she paid little heed to the thunder. It was the tree, and the terrible mourning noise that began after it.

The night was her indulgence. In the night there was time and room to think and feel. Even to breathe.

'It's happened, and there's nothing to be done,' Bartholomew would say, during the day. 'When are you going to start living? God, that face.' A twitch of his great shoulders. 'Oh, that face of yours.' She would stiffen, going on with her spinning or kneading, and trying not to have a face.

Night properly began about midnight. She usually went to bed straight after supper – about the time Bartholomew picked up the jug and trudged down to the brew-house – and for a couple of exhausting hours would move through fantastically detailed dreams in which the great mistake, by all manner of splendid contrivances, was put right. Then she woke, dressed, and inhabited the sleeping house.

Sometimes she lit a taper, but usually touch led her surely. Her feet learned the wisdom of the floorboards, her hands skimmed the creaking panelling alert as a healer's. She didn't fear disturbing her stepbrothers or -sisters, but she had often afflicted herself with the image of Bartholomew looming from the darkness tousled and column-necked and blinking. He would want to know what the devil she was doing, creeping about the house in the middle of the night. He would want it explained. Her brother believed, perhaps rightly, that everything could be explained, and when that was done you folded it and laid it away in the chest.

'He doesn't hear us,' he had said when their father was near his end. 'So it's no manner of good talking to him.' Sighing, he had gone away, and she had resumed. She told her father about the bold fox that had come right up to the buttery door and grinned at her, about the summer visit of the players to Stratford, about Catherine's sprained ankle. Her father lay bony, drawing in fierce exacting breaths, his mouth stretching in odd shapes. Yes, he probably couldn't hear, but she was trying to make something of dying. Birth, she had concluded from observing family and neighbours, made a satisfying progress: from the first shadowy signs, to the undeniable greatness of the belly, to the solemn peril of the lying-in and then, with luck, the wonder of a new presence in the world. Dying was different. It went on like the desultory carrying away of lumber from an untenanted house. Eventually the thing was finished, but there was only an absence to show for it.

In the night, drifting from room to room, saluted here and there by the smell of beeswax or the ghost-shine of a copper vessel, she could cut through the bonds of time. Because all this would have been the same a year, two years ago: her father would simply have been asleep in his bed. But the illusion wavered whenever she approached the door at the end of the west passage.

That had been her father's bedchamber. Now Bartholomew and his wife slept there. Right and fitting: before the illness had twisted and blinded him her father had made his will and purposed the future, Bartholomew to be master of Hewlands Farm and head of the family. But there the change burned her. Only with delicate care had she found a spot far enough from the door for Bartholomew's snores to be unheard, near enough to awaken the sense of her father. She could stand there for long, sweet minutes. And it didn't matter that that was also the room where he had died.

'You keep holding fast to him,' Bartholomew had told her lately. 'You even want to hold fast to his death.' Yes, he understood her. Bartholomew didn't lack understanding. And she felt he was probably kinder than her. She had wanted to keep her father even when he was nothing but a staring gasp, propped up. 'In God's name, his life's naught but pain now. It's surely time to pull the bolster,' Bartholomew had said, raw and reasonable. And at last he had done it, too. With the farmer's brisk despatch he had tugged away the pillows, and their father's head had fallen back in a final tumble.

And then you went on. But it seemed to her afterwards that life was like a plank bridge with very few planks. Some of those steps looked impossible.

The night was her necessary shame. She knew it was a lie; and everywhere else she was particular about truth. When Bartholomew had found her dipping rushes the other day, and said, 'Margaret could very well do that, you know,' she should have made excuses. Should have said, 'Ah, but she isn't so handy as me – she doesn't let the fat cool long enough. These things need my attention for the house to be run fitly.' Instead she said: 'Yes, I know.' The truth of the situation bulked too large; she couldn't edge round it. Their stepmother was properly mistress of the farm, and her stepsisters could do the other womanly tasks – after all, she had trained them up herself – so in truth there was no role for her here. That was what Bartholomew was saying.

And here he didn't understand her. Yes, she was nearly twenty-six, and it was an age when most women were married or hurrying to marry: that was truth. But he supposed therefore that she must be desperate to find a husband. He had her wrong. Truthfully she said so, but his mind could not accommodate it.

'You mustn't think, you know, that because George Godden is a widower he's running to take the first wife he can get. Not he. He's a sober proper man, and when he does take a bride there will be all the esteem and respect she should desire.' Bartholomew went on probing, looking for the twinge of pride or doubt that would explain her refusal to consider his friend as her suitor. By the end he was floundering. 'And be assured, Anne, he likes your looks. He likes your looks extremely.'

At that she wanted to hide her head. She seldom saw her own face. Her stepmother had a looking-glass, but kept it close. Whenever she had seen herself reflected, she had wanted to avert her eyes as if from a glimpse of nakedness. There was Bartholomew's gold-and-ice fairness, but instead of that great thrust he made in the world, this face seemed ready for nothing. She knew she blushed easily, but it was alarming to see how the blood surged, and the way her features seemed made for the registering of small pains and gnawing questions.

'You have a burden,' her father had once said. 'Beauty.' But he was her father, and always kind. He would even have understood – she was sure of it – her secret marriage to the night.

But on this night, with storm rolling on the western hills, his presence was weak with her. She made a mistake and got too close to the bedchamber door, and heard not snores but urgent grunts and squeakings. She recovered from that by going to the kitchen and taking down her father's favourite cup and setting it by a dish and just for a moment creating him, sitting there, taking his modest supper ... But it was only a moment. The thought got in, before she could stop it, that soon he would be gone altogether. And quickly came another: that that was right, that was how it should be, and this was wrong.

The storm rescued her. As if it had made a giant stride it was suddenly here, the thunder cracking overhead, lightning making cold blue sketches of the room. Quietly she unbarred the back door and stood on the footworn threshold looking out across the yard to the meadows beyond. No rain yet, but it would sizzle when it came. Luckily the hay had been cut. She could just make out a blot in the top meadow – the sheep huddling together at the far end. When lightning struck the oak tree beyond the barn it took her a few moments to comprehend what had happened. There was something almost stealthy in what she saw, the downward flick of the assassin's knife, and then her eyeballs were aching with a hot scribble and her ears ringing at the noise, not so much a noise as an axe chopped into her hearing. She blinked and rubbed. Groaning and rending, the oak seemed to be giving monstrous birth. The riven part was breaking away in smoke and din.

The other noise reached her fitfully. It, too, seemed to make no sense: a deep moaning, long and loud beyond the possibility of human lungs. Yet it sounded so human that her heart clutched.

'God. Look at that.' Bartholomew was beside her.

'Yes, isn't it fearful? That's what woke me,' she said quickly. The moan rose again, beseeching. Bartholomew sighed. He had flung on breeches and stuffed his white bare feet into shoes, but he did not look ridiculous: he never could.

'I fear me that's the young brindle. The one that's with calf. Damn.' His jaw was tight. Plump drops of rain descended singly, each choosing a cobble. 'Go fetch the lantern, will you?' He went ducking towards the byre.

In the kitchen, while she fumbled with tinder and flint, her stepbrother John came yawning and wanting to know what went on. She gave him, perpetual eater, a gooseberry tart and sent him back to bed. Part of her still fretted simply at this invasion of the night. Yet she knew something had changed, and the screeching of the tree seemed to echo inside her.

In the byre Bartholomew was performing a soft, circling dance of caution round the brindled cow. She was standing oddly, head lowered, occasionally making a staggering half-turn, like a drunk man on a slope; and all the time she let out the terrible noise that was almost a wild voice. Blood dripped from her left forequarter.

'Hurt herself against the wall,' Bartholomew said softly. 'Ever a skittish beast. So, so ... Bring that nearer. Set it down there. Buggery.' He dodged as the cow flung her great sad head about. Rain pelted the roof. Cool air blew in, and the cow's snorting breath made steam-dragons in the lamplight. 'Ah, damn it. See her tail, see. She's going to miscarry. Shit on it.'

Anne said: 'The farrier. Perhaps —'

'Perhaps not. Who'll stir in a night like this? Besides ...' The brindle made a new, unthinkable noise, her neck swinging lithe and wrong, like an adder. Bartholomew scrambled backwards. 'Besides, I doubt his skill will avail. It's too soon, we'll get no live calf. Only hope she'll drop easy and it won't kill her.'

There were convulsions all along the cow's side, and under her tail a red gape shrank and grew. Anne stepped nearer. 'Brother, she suffers so —'

'Keep back, she's maddened. Oh, buggery. Never cared for this notion of a herd. Father's invention. Sheep for me, hardy, no troubles.' Lightning shuddered again, illustrating a few crisp moments of the cow's agony. The sound she was making suddenly changed. It became dry and dark and plain, not protest but accompaniment. From her palpating rear came a soft slither, and then it was on the ground.

Bartholomew delicately danced again. 'There, draw back, Anne, let her lick it. See. She'll tire. Phoo, stinks. Well, look, it couldn't live.'

Anne was on her knees. The folded, soft-limbed shape did not stir. She tried not to weep. Thunder sullenly slammed doors and stamped about overhead.

'So, so ... She's bleeding a little – only a little. She'll heal, God willing. I'll send to the farrier in the morning. Damn you, beast, be quiet now, you've dropped and it's done.' Bartholomew squatted on his haunches beside Anne: a glance. 'Ever the lady. I'll be sworn, no one would suppose you'd been bred up on a farm.'

'It ought to be horrible.' She fought with her voice. 'But look. It's beautiful.'


Excerpted from The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan. Copyright © 2012 Jude Morgan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. A King and No King (1582),
2. The Malcontent (1582),
3. The Triumph of Beauty (1582),
4. Love's Metamorphosis (1587),
5. The Faithful Shepherdess (1587–8),
6. When You See Me, You Know Me (1588–9),
7. A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1589–91),
8. The Bloody Brother (1591–2),
9. The Chances (1592),
10. A Woman Killed With Kindness (1592–4),
11. A Larum for London (1595–6),
12. The Broken Heart (1598–1601),
13. A Game at Chess (1603),
14. Revenger's Tragedy (1603),
Jude Morgan writes about The Secret Life of William Shakespeare,
An Interview with Jude Morgan,
The Secret Life of William Shakespeare,
Suggestions for Further Reading,
Sonnet XXXIV,
Sonnet LVII,
The Taste of Sorrow,
An Accomplished Woman,
A Little Folly,
Also by Jude Morgan,

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