Nothing Like the Sun (1964) by Anthony Burgess

A creative look at the life of William Shakespeare

Statue_Of_Shakespeare.jpg
Statue of Shakespeare (1874) in Leicester Square, London, by Giovanni Fontana. "Statue Of Shakespeare" by Lonpicman - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_Of_Shakespeare.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Statue_Of_Shakespeare.jpg

Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun (1964) is a highly fascinating, albeit fictional, re-telling of Shakespeare’s love life. In 234 pages, Burgess manages to introduce his reader to a young Shakespeare developing into manhood and clumsily fumbling his way through his first sexual escapade with a woman, through Shakespeare’s long, famed (and contested) romance with Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and, ultimately, to Shakespeare’s final days, the establishment of The Globe theater, and Shakespeare’s romance with “The Dark Lady.”  

Burgess has a command for language. It is difficult not to be impressed and a little awed by his skill as a story-teller and an imagist. While, in typical fashion, he does tend to break-off at points of leisurely prose into something more Gertrude Steine-like (stream of consciousness, for example), for the most part he keeps this novel in finely tuned form. This will be nothing new for readers of his best known work, A Clockwork Orange (1962).

There is an exceptional arc to this story, which carries the reader from Shakespeare’s boyhood, to his death, with common characters interacting regularly and to an end result. Even the minor characters, such as Wriothesley’s secretary, are well-established and easily identifiable, once they have been described. 

Readers might also appreciate the references to other historical figures of the time and how they affected Shakespeare’s life and works. Christopher Marlowe, Lord Burghley, Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I, and “The University Wits” (Robert Greene, John Lyly, Thomas Nashe and George Peele) all appear in or are referenced throughout the novel.

Their works (as well as works of the Classicists – Ovid, Virgil; and the early dramatists – Seneca, etc) are clearly defined in relation to their impact on Shakespeare’s own designs and interpretations. This is highly informative and simultaneously entertaining.

Many will enjoy being reminded of how these playwrights competed and worked together, of how Shakespeare was inspired, and by whom, and of how politics and the time period played an important role in the successes and failures of the players (Greene, for instance, died sickly and shamed; Marlowe hunted down as an atheist; Ben Jonson’s imprisoned for treasonous writing, and Nashe having escaped from England for the same).

 

That being said, Burgess takes much creative, though well-researched, license with Shakespeare’s life and the details of his relationship with various people. For instance, while many scholars believe “The Rival Poet” of “The Fair Youth” sonnets to be either Chapman or Marlowe due to circumstances of fame, stature, and wealth (ego, essentially), Burgess breaks from the traditional interpretation of “The Rival Poet” to explore the possibility that Chapman was, in fact, a rival for Henry Wriothesley’s attention and affection and, for this reason, Shakespeare became jealous and critical of Chapman. 

Similarly, the ultimately under-established relationships between Shakespeare and Wriothesley, Shakespeare and “The Dark Lady” (or Lucy, in this novel), and Shakespeare and his wife, are all largely fictional. While the novel’s general details, including historical happenings, political and religious tensions, and rivalries between the poets and the players are all well envisioned, readers must be careful not to mistake these details for fact. 

The story is well written and enjoyable. It is also a fascinating glimpse at history of this particularly time period.  Burgess reminds the reader of many of the fears and prejudices of the time, and seems to be more critical of Elizabeth I than Shakespeare himself was.

 It is easy to appreciate Burgess’s cleverness and subtlety, but also his openness and candor in terms of sexuality and taboo relationships. 

Ultimately, Burgess wants to open the reader’s mind to the possibilities of what could have happened but is not often explored. We might compare Nothing Like the Sun to others in the “creative nonfiction” genre, such as Irving Stone’s Lust for Life (1934). When we do, we must concede the latter to be more honest to the facts as we know them, whereas the former is a bit more adventurous in scope. Overall, Nothing Like the Sun is a highly informative, enjoyable read offering an interesting and valid perspective on Shakespeare’s life and times.