Nothing Like the Sun Summary
by Anthony Burgess

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Nothing Like the Sun Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Anthony Burgess’ novel provides a rich, deeply imaginative picture of the inner world of William Shakespeare. From the subtitle, “A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life,” one anticipates an attempt to resolve those various Shakespearean mysteries—Who was the narcissistic “young man” of the sonnets? Who was the Dark Lady? What was the relationship between the three?—and from Burgess’ dedication of his “farewell lecture” (this novel) to those students “who complained that Shakespeare had nothing to give to the East,” one finds even richer speculation on man in a mystic, fatal Eastern strain. The novel begins on a Good Friday in the late 1570’s. The stripling Will Shakespeare wanders Stratford, delivering gloves for his father, contemplating his destiny, and playing with language in his mind—metaphors, conceits, puns, all come tumbling forth. While the structure of the novel follows the known events of Shakespeare’s life, Burgess’ emphasis is on the intimate intertwining of Shakespeare’s love life and his creative, generative powers.

Perhaps the most significant love encounter in young Will’s life is that which leads him, unwilling, into early marriage. After an evening’s drunken frivolity on a May night, he awakes to find himself embraced by a strange older woman, the Anne whose male relatives will force him to marry. In Will’s parlance: “He was in a manner tricked, coney-caught, a court-dor to a cozening cotquean. So are all men, first gulls, later horned gulls, and so will ever be all men, amen.” Anne’s “Arden” looks, her gingery hair, milk-white skin, and sharp nose give Will an obsessive hatred for that sort of English prettiness, and he muses on darker goddesses. Unhappily married, quickly plunged into paternity, and unsuited to the glover’s craft, Will finds himself at a crossroads.

One road out of obscurity is pointed out during a chance meeting with a gentleman who, delighted with Will’s Latin learning, invites him to tutor his sons. While this episode in Will’s life concludes with a comedy of errors involving his master’s twin sons, it does clarify his goals: “I am, I think, a poet. I was, though briefly, a schoolmaster.” He tries law-clerking and learns history and French and a sublime insight: “This realm is ruled by words.... Words, pretences, fictions.” At last, goaded by intolerable demands from Anne, he escapes to London and the world of the theater.

Burgess picks up the rich golden thread of Shakespeare’s London life and weaves a picture of his new alliances and loves, growing mastery of stagecraft and playwriting, and success and patronage. At the same time, the sordid, decadent side of town and court are evoked: the decay of the Virgin Queen, the plots and machinations of Essex, the grisly execution of the Jew Lopez at Tyburn, a city racked with plague, deformity, and syphilis. In all this blackness, Shakespeare’s obsession with “The Dark Lady” grows. Burgess shows how closely Shakespeare’s loves link with his labors; his sonnets urging the young Southampton to marry (even as the author declares his love) make way for praise of his dark lady, and the overwhelming suspicion that the two are lovers through his introduction leads to anguished outpourings of poetry. In the theater, his vision, too, darkens. Finally, overtaken by venereal disease, Shakespeare speaks in first-person narrative in the epilogue and describes “the irony of a poet’s desperately wringing out the last of his sweetness while the corrosives closed in.” In the epilogue, too, comes the fusion of Burgess’ aims in the novel. He has Shakespeare answer the major question: “You wish to know how ventriloquial all this is, who is really speaking? This is no impersonation, ladies and gentlemen.” Burgess hints that Shakespeare’s illegitimate son by his dark mistress had been sent back to her Eastern homeland and that Shakespeare’s lineage lives on, perhaps in a form of...

(The entire section is 1,254 words.)