Published by Penguin Books, March 2015, 360 pages, £8.99
What would it be like to run into a twenty-six year old William Shakespeare? Whether you have studied him for years or adore two lines from Romeo and Juliet, this book is suited for anyone curious about the man who owns the biggest share in English literary education. Its gorgeously detailed and rich in history. Chapin has it all down: dialect, food, architecture, politics, people, publications…
Its 1590, rural Lancashire, and I can practically smell the dry fields from the first paragraph. Katherine is a smart, no-nonsense and highly educated widow. At thirty-one she is content to just carry on her existence reading and helping family members. No one has been able to match her affinity with the written word. Until she meets Will; a new school master with rumours swarming about him. They say he’s just a glove-makers son. He’s also a player (actor), a writer and a keen philanderer. They say he’s married to a woman much older than him. He flits in and out between Stratford, London and other parts of the country entertaining and playing favours to potential patrons.
Katherine meets a rude, charming and handsome man she immediately recoils from. Chapin draws him up in a way that’s not lame and obvious. He’s definitely honey-tongued, witty..weird compared to the average 16th century man, everything you might imagine him to be. There are also neat and subtle references to plays which wink at you; three ‘witches’ that arrive on their way to imprisonment, a Twelfth Night festival, and Katherine herself as the untamed ‘Shrew’.
Their mutual passion for poetry draw Katherine and Will dangerously close. She becomes his writing partner for ‘Venus and Adonis’, which became a highly successful narrative poem. I would recommend reading it if you haven’t before. The playful contrasts and sumptuous eroticism of the piece appears woven in Katherine and Will’s relationship. I was enticed line by line.
Unfortunately, the heat that builds up between them slows down 60% through. You are offered distraction in the form of family and political dramas while Elizabeth I is undergoing a crack-down of Catholicism. Paranoia, suspicions and accusations are flying around in all directions and the family gets torn part as a result of them. And then, Will ends up a bit of an ass. He is a player of all sorts and at the end of the day a social climber. Chapin is not afraid to portray him negatively and exposes him simply as a manipulative user. Like Katherine, I was captivated and wooed, but ultimately to feel the heart-break when the ink turns sour.