Fictionalising Fact: Anthony Burgess and Shakespeare

Anthony Burgess in his Chiswick home

During the years 1963 to 1968 Anthony Burgess was living in Chiswick, West London. He moved there with his first wife Lynne the year after A Clockwork Orange was published, and stayed there for five years, writing 6 novels, 3 books of criticism and several translations. A few months after Lynne’s death in March 1968, Burgess left West London and England for good.

This period was a time of great creativity for Burgess. He wrote several novels, including his biographical novel about Shakespeare Nothing Like the Sun[1], thriller Tremor of Intent and the comic sequel Enderby Outside. He was also composing piano music at this time, and in 1968 he wrote the script, lyrics and music for an unmade Hollywood musical about Shakespeare, under the working title ‘The Bawdy Bard’.  

1964 was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, and Burgess’s major contribution was the publication of his novel Nothing Like the Sun. He’d rushed to finish it the previous autumn it so it could be published in April 1964 to coincide with the Shakespeare anniversary; and he wanted to be in London to promote the novel.  

Nothing Like the Sun is a fictional biography of Shakespeare. So its plot derives from the known historical facts about Shakespeare’s life and work: his Stratford social and family context; his parentage, marriage and children; his success as a poet and playwright; his connection with the Earl of Southampton; his participation in the business side of the London theatres; his death in Stratford in 1616. In his autobiography Burgess wrote:

I had been reading pretty widely, ever since my student days, in books about Shakespeare, in Elizabethan documents, in scholarly background history. I had taken a lot of notes feverishly, making a chronological table which related the known facts of Shakespearean biography to the wider events of the time.[2] 

But you can’t make a novel with this set of facts. So Burgess used invention, speculation, imagination, fantasy and a biographical interpretation of Shakespeare’s own works to fill out a fictional life for him, partly by providing answers to all the questions thrown up by the facts. Why are there two names in the records of Shakespeare’s marriage? Why did a 17th century anecdote claim that Shakespeare had been ‘a schoolmaster in the country’? How did Shakespeare find his way from Stratford to London, and enter the theatre as a professional writer? Burgess weaves stories to account for the problems in the documentary record, in much the same way as Shakespeare’s biographers do. Because the facts don’t make sense unless you embroider them.

The main source for the story of Shakespeare’s life in Nothing Like the Sun is however Shakespeare’s own writing, his plays and poems, especially the Sonnets, which do seem to tell a story about the poet’s love affairs, first with a man, the ‘fair friend’, then with a woman, the ‘dark lady’. In the novel Shakespeare has a full-blown affair with the Earl of Southampton, and is infected with syphilis by the ‘Dark Lady’, who is a black woman from Malaya, named Fatimah. Shakespeare encounters her first in a Bristol brothel, and then later as a London lady. On a visit home to Stratford Shakespeare finds that his wife is having an affair with his brother.  In this scenario much of Shakespeare’s work becomes autobiographical: the ‘fair friend;’ and ‘dark lady’ of the Sonnets are identified; all the emotions in the Sonnets, lust and love, heterosexual and homosexual, sexual disgust, jealousy, are explained; and even the story of sexual betrayal in Hamlet becomes Shakespeare’s own story (as it is in James Joyce’s Ulysses).  Of course there’s no real evidence for any of this; but it makes good fiction.

Burgess is doing two things here. He’s writing a historical novel about Shakespeare’s life, though its one that’s full of invention, speculation, imagination as well as historical fact. In other words, it’s a historical novel. He’s also writing a Shakespeare biography, but from the inside out: searching out the inner truth of experience that can attempt to explain the documentary facts.

In 1970 Burgess published an illustrated biography, Shakespeare, that simply inverted the novel, working from the outside in, foregrounding documentary and historical records and pushing interpretation into the same fictional territory as that explored in the novel.[3] In one sense Burgess’s literary biography and his novel mirror one another, since in Shakespeare the life illustrates the plays and poems, while in Nothing Like the Sun the plays and poems illuminate the life. Burgess distinguished between the two texts by calling the novel ‘deliberate invention’ by contrast with the ‘painfully amassed factuality’ of the biography. In my view, not so you’d notice. But then ‘deliberate invention’ has always been the business of Shakespeare biography, though its practitioners tend to deny it, and claim the authority of historical record. By starting with factual fiction and moving on to fictionalised fact, Burgess really blew the lid off the whole Shakespeare biography enterprise.

In between the novel and the biography there lies another work, this time one that was never published or performed. In early 1968, Burgess flew to Hollywood to discuss what he hoped would be a film script for his first major motion picture.  Nothing Like the Sun had been noticed in Hollywood, and this project was to be an offshoot of that, a life of Shakespeare that would also be a film musical. From its inception, the project had two titles, Will!, the title Burgess preferred, and The Bawdy Bard, the title preferred by Hollywood. 

1960’s Hollywood was riding a wave of very successful British musicals, like My Fair Lady and Camelot, and historical blockbusters like A Lion in Winter and A Man for All Seasons. Warner Brothers Seven Arts was eager to create a similar success with Burgess’s Shakespeare. In You’ve Had Your Time, Burgess describes how he warmed to former actor, now producer William Conrad, who, he noted, was ‘a true actor, in that he knew Shakespeare’ (143), and they became friends. Burgess was however amused but put off by Conrad’s improvisation of a song for the movie that began To be or not to be in love with you,/ To spend my life hand in glove with you (143). This pretty much sums up his experience of this project.

The film was to be a major studio project involving millions of dollars.[4] A successful film would make Burgess’s name as a marketable Hollywood script writer, a valuable credential since he was also working on a script for a film production of Enderby, and hoped to see other books become film projects. (YHYT 185)  He wrote about twenty songs (both music and lyrics) that were recorded with full orchestration by Warner Brothers, but he was nevertheless concerned that the story was damaged by the songs, that Shakespeare’s genius was diminished by the imposition of the standard lyrics of the 1960’s musical, no matter how good the lyrics and music might be. Later he described the whole enterprise as ‘ghastly.

The film was to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had directed All about Eve, a film Burgess ‘considered a masterpiece’ (YHYT 186). Mankiewicz had directed the acclaimed Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando as well as a film version of Guys and Dolls. Mankiewicz needed a big successful movie after the flop of Cleopatra. He’d had already made some casting decisions – Maggie Smith as Anne, her husband Robert Stephens as Will, James Mason as Philip Henslowe, Peter Ustinov as Ben Jonson, Jessica Tandy as Queen Elizabeth. No decision was made about the Dark Lady, although Burgess somewhat facetiously suggested Diana Ross (YHYT 157)

There is only one manuscript of Burgess’s screenplay of Will or the Bawdy Bard, Burgess’s papers at the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas. The manuscript  includes all the lyrics that were later cut when Mankiewicz decided, somewhat to Burgess’s relief, that the film was not to be a musical (YHYT 185).  Burgess’s doubts about the screenplay and the project in general were reinforced by a growing sense he had that the film would never be made. ‘Desperately trying to finish the script, I yet knew that it was not going to reach the screen’ (YHYT 190). His premonition proved correct: Warner Brothers was being sold and even though studio executives supported the project, all existing enterprises were scrapped when the new regime started’, as Burgess explained in an interview.  In 1969, Burgess  contracted to write the ‘brief biography of Shakespeare which should be sumptuously illustrated’ so that he would not waste the research he had done for the film (YHYT 109). This is his ‘coffee table’ book, called simply Shakespeare, published in 1970.

Would Will! have been as successful as Shakespeare in Love if it had been made? Who knows. In any case the screenplay eventually found a home in Burgess’s final Enderby novel, Enderby’s Dark Lady, or No End to Enderby.[5] This is a hilarious satire in which Mr Enderby, who has published a short story about  Shakespeare, the Gunpowder Plot and the King James Bible – the story appears at the beginning of the novel – is travelling to Indiana to produce a stage musical on the life of Shakespeare. Burgess recycles the whole process of his involvement in the unmade film. The lyrics and the plot of the musical that Enderby creates in Indiana are all straight from Will!, and the story of the stage production satirises Burgess’s own experience in Hollywood and with Americans. But there’s also a love story for Enderby as he falls for April Elgar, a black singer rather like Diana Ross, who is to play the Dark Lady in this stage production.  

You get a sense from all this of what an innovative writer Burgess was. Between 1963 and 1968 he revolutionised Shakespeare biography, bringing together fact and fiction as no-one else had ever done. He made a significant contribution to the historical novel, opening the way for that double perspective, simultaneously ancient and modern, that characterises the form today. And he wrote a musical version of Shakespeare’s life, unluckily never produced, that was a precursor of the hugely successful and influential Shakespeare in Love.

I’ve found Burgess’s work on Shakespeare immensely inspiring and influential. In my Nine Lives of William Shakespeare I was able to bring together fact and fiction in a similarly original way.[6] Nine Lives of William Shakespeare accepts that Shakespeare’s lives are multiple and discontinuous, and yet are facets of a single life. It speculates freely about Shakespeare’s life, but admits that the exercise is one of speculation. Half of the book deals in historical facts, showing how much and how little we know about Shakespeare; and showing how these facts have been interpreted and embroidered by biographers. The other half is fiction. Each chapter gives the facts and their interpretation, then adds a fictional component. Some are historical stories; some reflect on Shakespeare’s ‘afterlife’: his reputation, his mythology.  Other fictions quit the territory of biography proper, in those cases where the historical record  actually contains very little evidence. I’ve followed Burgess in resorting to fiction to write about the legends of ‘Shakespeare in love’ with the Earl of Southampton and the ‘Dark Lady of the Sonnets’, since there is virtually no evidence at all. Hence it seems legitimate for a fictional commentary to take the form of invention. Which is why people might be surprised to find in the book characters like Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Ernest Hemingway and so on. Roger Lewis, another biographer of Burgess, reviewing the book in the Daily Mail, called Nine Lives ‘the best and most enjoyably imaginative book based on Shakespeare since Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun’.

And my novel Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare Vampire Hunter[7] begins with what is virtually a plagiarism of Anthony Burgess’s work. I mentioned the short story on Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot that appears at the beginning of Enderby’s Dark Lady: it’s supposed to be the work that gets him noticed in America, just as Nothing Like the Sun got Burgess noticed in Hollywood. In Burgess’s fantasy it’s actually Ben Jonson who pretends to be part of the Plot, but he’s really acting as a government informer. I’ve taken the germ of the story and played it quite differently, with Shakespeare himself becoming one of the key conspirators in the Plot, indeed its architect. Some of my scenes, such as Shakespeare meeting with Robert Cecil, are stolen from Burgess.  Roger Lewis wrote of this book: ‘It’s as if Hilary Mantel, Anthony Burgess and Bram Stoker got together at a diabolical writers’ conference and after a few too many bottles in the witching hours came up with the rollicking manuscript’.

Making Shakespeare a vampire hunter isn’t perhaps the sort of thing that Anthony Burgess himself would have thought of attempting. But who knows? Enderby’s Dark Lady concludes with another, loosely related, short story called ‘The Muse’. The mode of this tale is science fiction. It’s the 23rd century, and people can travel round in time and space, navigating by the use of musical instruments. But Time is ‘plastic’ and ‘curved’ and ‘warped’, there are innumerable parallel universes, and you can’t be sure where you’re going to end up. A literary historian called Paley is trying to get to Shakespeare’s time, taking a copy of the First Folio with him. He finds Shakespeare writing, laboriously and painfully, plays we’ve never heard of. Paley is then arrested as a madman, and Shakespeare left with the book, which he starts to copy out:

            The Merchant of Venice. A Comedy

            Then on he went, not blotting a line.

Apparently all Shakespeare’s good plays have been smuggled from the future in the same way. So here Burgess uses sci-fi fantasy to explore the intricate and complex ways in which we reach out to history and to the writing of the past. How do we engage with the past without taking our own baggage with us? Do we not, when reading literature of the past, make up a lot of what we supposedly find?  


[1] Anthony Burgess, Nothing Like the Sun: a story of Shakespeare’s Love Life (London: Heinemann, 1964).

[2]  ‘Genesis and Headache’, in Afterwords: Novelists on their Novels, edited by Thomas M. McCormack (NY: Harper, 1968), 28-47.

[3] Anthony Burgess, Shakespeare (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970. New edition London: Folio Society, 2015).  

[4] See Kay Smith, ‘Burgess and Will!: Anthony Burgess’s Cinematic Presentation of Shakespearean Biography’, Anthony Burgess Newsletter 4 (August 2001), 32-53.

[5] Anthony Burgess, Enderby’s Dark Lady: or, No End to Enderby (London: Hutchinson, 1984).

[6] Graham Holderness, Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Bloomsbury/Arden Shakespeare, 2011).

[7] Graham Holderness, Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare Vampire Hunter (London: Top Hat Books, 2015).

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