Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard

Shakespeare’s illegitimate daughter, housekeeper Aerlene Ward, asks in her old age, “Am I then to write, ‘That day they went to the playhouse,’ and leave it so? Is the reader not entitled to a little more, even it if is not exactly what happened?”

Giller Prize-winning author Richard B. Wright seems to be winking at us with those questions, inviting us to enjoy the story without getting too caught up in what is historical fact or fiction.

The sights, sounds and smells of London and the playhouses during Elizabethan, and later Cromwell’s, England make a living backdrop for the love story between Shakespeare and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ward, a passionate young widow from the country, and the story of the conception of their daughter, Aerlene.

Lizzie encounters Mary Pinder, a wise woman of the London streets who takes her under her wing and later introduces Lizzie to Shakespeare.

Just as men performed women’s stage roles during Shakespeare’s time, Mary dresses as a man to escort Lizzie to the playhouse. The reader can almost hear the bawdy jokes and smell the ale in Wright’s description of the raucous and vulgar audience.

Through Lizzie’s eyes, we see Shakespeare as a young player for the Queen before he has made a name for himself. We see him struggling with his envy of playwright Christopher Marlowe, the ego and disdain of dramatist Robert Greene and the competitive world of the stage.

Wright playfully constructs scenarios and conversations that reveal Shakespeare’s brooding on death, chance and fortune, themes that would later make their way into his plays.

After Lizzie’s death, Aerlene looks for traces of her father in his plays and the streets of London. She encounters dramatist William Davenant, Shakespeare’s historically alleged bastard, in another wink by Wright to the reader.

Aerlene searches her father’s plays for clues to who he is, what he believes and possible messages about her own conception. Wright inserts well-chosen passages from Shakespeare’s plays with a light touch and connects them directly to Aerlene’s situation.

This allows everyone, not just scholars of Shakespeare, to enjoy Lizzie and Aerlene’s stories of love and discovery.

The story is a bit slow to start, but Lizzie’s escapades in her country village and London help to move it along. By the second part of the book, Aerlene’s adventures tracking down her father keep the pace tight, making for a fun imagining of what life might have been like for Shakespeare’s bastard.

Published in Volume 65, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 7, 2010)

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