The Late Mr. Shakespeare by Robert Nye reviewed by Dean Rinke

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The Late Mr. Shakespeare by Robert Nye.

Novel. 1998. Penguin (trade paperback), 400 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

I am not sure what drew me to this dense, apparently historical, novel purporting to be an insider's biography of the Great Bard, but whatever it was, it could not have prepared me for what I discovered.  This is a comic novel that immerses itself in the minutiae of the Elizabethan theatre, delivering an interesting and detailed history lesson as it amuses and enchants.

The narrator, whom we quickly learn not to trust too deeply, is an old man in plague-ravaged Restoration London, tortuously assembling his biography as he slides "off this mortal coil."  As a much younger man, Robert Reynolds, aka Pickleherring, had been a teen-aged cross-dressing member of Shakespeare's original band of thespians, and as such seems the perfect
insider to give fresh perspectives to timeless Shakespearean queries:  Did the Bard write his own plays?  What was his relationship with Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe?  Who was the celebrated Dark Lady of the love sonnets?
Yet the reader is constantly challenged to evaluate the nature and quality of the narrator's insights and motivations, making this Pickleherring a comic doppelganger of Charles Kinbote, the smarmy footnote-wielding aesthete in Nabokov's PALE FIRE.  But whereas Kinbote may or may not be a murderer, no such tragic fate awaits our gender-bending narrator.  His fate is comic,
and his gender confusion an artifact of his being compelled to play all the female roles when he was treading the boards.

This is an audaciously funny novel, one whose primary love is the rich language and sensitive humanity of Shakespeare's plays.  If you want a bare facts biography, seek out W. H. Rowse, but if your taste runs to well-imagined re-constructions of emotional realities, this irreverent novel is truer than its less daring counterparts.

Reviews by Deane Rink

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