By Robert Nye

Arcade. 400 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Daniel McMahon

Those readers familiar with the British writer Robert Nye's Falstaff, Faust or, in particular, The Voyage of the Destiny (which purported to be the log of Sir Walter Raleigh's last trip) will recognize in his new novel, The Late Mr. Shakespeare, much of the same spirit that animated these earlier works: a fascination with manners sexual which is by turns erotic and obscene, both coarseness and lyricism in the prose, and a passion for language and its power to get at truth. Here, in this fictional biography, Nye also investigates art and its sources, its power, and its relationship to life.

The story is told by one Robert Reynolds, known throughout as Pickleherring, a member of Shakespeare's acting company now in his eighties but once the boy who played all the great female parts in Shakespeare's plays. He claims to have known almost all of Shakespeare's friends and enemies, interviewed many family members, and collected 100 boxes of material in preparation for writing this life. Nye, using Pickleherring's voice, incorporates into the novel the words and ideas of many great commentators on Shakespeare, including Coleridge, Eliot, Donne, Hazlitt and the great biographer S. Schoenbaum. Part of the intellectual pleasure of reading this novel lies in recognizing these allusions.

Nye invents or revives numerous stories regarding Shakespeare's life. In one sequence of chapters he speculates whether Shakespeare was a schoolteacher, went to sea, worked for or as a lawyer, or was in the army. He notes the number of Shakespearean references to or technical vocabulary drawn from each profession. There are knowing nods to the debate between the Oxfordians and the Stratfordians: Pickleherring claims that Shakespeare once told him that "he did not feel as though he had written his own words. He said that sometimes he felt as if his words had been written by someone else."

While these chapters are interesting -- as are those speculating on the identity of the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets, Shakespeare's relations with his patrons, his relationship with his father, and the nature of his marriage -- the real strength of the novel comes in sharp flashes of commentary about biography, art and imagination, and from its close reading of the plays and poems. About biography Pickleherring writes, "every attempt to find out the truth of another man's life, and to write his Life, throws light on the person who made the attempt, as much as on the man biographied." Also interesting is Pickleherring's idea that voyeurism and biography are related. A particular danger of literary biography is the attempt to find the writer's whole life in the work. As Pickleherring observes, "The fact is that if you take the work of a dramatist with such a wide range as Shakespeare then you can find within it items which when extracted could be used to prove anything."

Speculating on Shakespeare's imagination, Pickleherring asserts that "It was only by representing others that Shakespeare became himself. . . . And then even when he was gradually drawn on to write original plays of his own, he nearly always derived his subjects for those plays from histories and their substance from collections of prose tales written by others." Shakespeare's genius, according to Pickleherring, is to wholly inhabit each of the characters he writes about -- an observation Keats made and described in the term negative capability. The relationship between the sources and the imagination of any great artist can never be resolved, and it is amusing to watch Pickleherring decry the same strategies he practices.

Though one must often endure digressions about Pickleherring's life, the mind that gives the explication de texte of "The Phoenix and the Turtle" or offers observations on the use of Scottish words in "Macbeth" is a mind ferociously engaged with these texts (and the historical response to them) and offering genuine insight into them. Like all good criticism, it sends us back to the text with fresh eyes, for it is the art that lives, not the criticism. This critical sensibility is the strength of Nye's work, and the weakness, too. Pickleherring observes that he often feels that Shakespeare created him. Even if we do not go so far as Pickleherring or Harold Bloom in the assertion that Shakespeare made us, we might agree that our "minds are printed with his words and phrases" and that "it is not William Shakespeare who speaks in these plays and these poems. It is the English language speaking itself." No biography or debate about authorship, even such an extremely clever and inventive one as Robert Nye gives us in The Late Mr. Shakespeare, will substitute for the reading of the plays and poems.

Daniel McMahon is an English teacher and administrator at the Bullis School in Potomac.