“Will” by Christopher Rush

The tagline for Christopher Rush’s Will is “After 400 years, Shakespeare breaks his silence.” Rush imagines Shakespeare on his death bed, dictating his will to his lawyer. In between bequests, he tells the lawyer the story of his life. At first, the conceit felt artificial, but compared to what? Two star-crossed lovers in Verona? Mysterious shipwrecks? It bothered me initially, but it made sense for a playwright’s telling of his own story, and was further shored up by an elaboration near the end of the book.

What can you say? What can you do, when you’re sick and tired, and your lawyer is pawing the floorboards like a little black bull? You get down to it, of course, just as he directs….

But for you, my masters, my shadows, my audience, my charmed circle, for you it’s different. Desire, not business is your theme. Huddle up then, come close, forget [the lawyer], and tell me what you’d like to hear. A speech of quality, no doubt, before this humdrum legalese? I can do you anything, gentle friends, any exit peiece you care to name–tomorrow and tomorrow, never never never, ripeness is all, the rest is silence. The simplest words worked best, put into the mouths of doomed and dying mortals, words that made even the groundlings stop scratching, stand still and wet their cheeks, like trees bedashed with rain.

Rush takes the impressive risk of ventriloquizing Shakespeare and spins the few hard facts about his life into a sprawling 460-page tale, by turns harrowing, hilarious, bawdy, and heartbreaking.
Will is an exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, imagination of Shakespeare’s entire life. Rush notes in the acknowledgments that the book grew underground for nearly fifty years; given its scope I’m not surprised. It offers hints and ideas to answer questions scholars have been arguing for centuries. It’s filled with possible inspirations and influences for his famous plays and poems, many of which are lovingly quoted and contextualized. This is an impressive idea, well executed, that fans of Shakespeare’s plays will likely appreciate and enjoy.

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