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Friday, March 6, 2009

Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

Copyright: 2009
Pages: 384

I have to admire the courage it took for Karen Harper to take something as small as a discrepancy on William Shakespeare's marriage certificate and create an entire novel from it. Although the idea that Shakespeare had a mistress is not a new one, it is a fantastic literary premise sure to draw attention and potentially, criticism.

There are plenty of areas in which this novel does deliver and can be commended. First of all would be the clever way Harper weaves lines of Shakespeare's sonnets and plays into witty dialogue between the two main characters. I found it terribly romantic when Will would whisper things to Anne like 'Parting is such sweet sorrow.' That part of the novel certainly lived up to my expectations.

The other thing you can't fault Harper on is her ability to recreate a time and place in history. Even though she's used pure speculation for the basis of her novel, the world in which these characters inhabit is very distinctly Elizabethan England and all the little details she weaves into the story really add to the authenticity. It is clear she did her research. There are two scenes - a birth scene and a plague scene - that are particularly haunting and remind you of what it really would've been like to live in these times.

However for all its strength and ambition, Mistress Shakespeare doesn't quite manage to be all that it could've been. To me, the biggest cause of this was the character of Anne Whately. Although I did enjoy aspects of her life, she just really puts up with way too much rubbish from William Shakespeare to appeal to me. Reading the journey of her life with her, I somehow failed to make any real emotional connection to Anne. I understand the duplicity of her feelings for William Shakespeare and her motivations as a character but to be really honest, she just didn't do it for me. Maybe I wanted her to be more modern? This is probably unfair as Harper was staying true to women of the time but even in historicals, I'm used to reading heroines who give as good as they get.

The other thing was that William Shakespeare wasn't portrayed in this novel to be as brilliant as I wanted him to be. I know that he was just a man but I really wanted to see something special in him and I just didn't get it. He didn't seem different or even really quirky. Just another man unable to give the woman he loves what she wants.

I know there are many fans of Karen Harper out there and not having read any of her other work, I'm unable to tell you how this novel compares. I can see from her writing and research that she is probably a brilliant author but unfortunately I found Mistress Shakespeare to be forgettable.

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