Shakespeare Decoded and Deflowered

I just finished reading Peter Jensen’s Shakespeare’s Lovers: A Novel. Jensen is a poet and English instructor at Linn-Benton Community College, in Albany, Oregon. He also is a hard-core Shakespeare addict and the author of Secrets of the Sonnets and Shakespeare’s Name Code, two studies of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets that uncover code words and letters to reveal names of real people who are fictionalized in the writings, including Shakespeare’s lovers, his family members, contemporary royalty, fellow writers, and his patrons. You mean Romeo, Juliet, Venus, Adonis, and Lucrece were based on real people? Shakespeare’s Lovers brings those people to life in a way that Jensen imagines it might have been.

The book was difficult for me to understand but I loved it. It was difficult because, I have to admit, I never got Shakespeare. In my middle- and high-school years when my classmates and I were being introduced to the great writer’s plays, I couldn’t understand Olde English or embrace the need to learn it. Our teachers told us he was a great writer but didn’t exhibit gut-level enthusiasm or even provide us with an intellectual grounding in his times to awaken me from my Major League Baseball daydreams. I never was a fan of British history, laughed at the idea of monarchs (still do), and can’t keep the Henrys straight (except for Henry the Eighth, who got married to the widow next door after she had been  married seven times before).

By the time I got to an age where I wished I understood Shakespeare, I had already moved on to other stimulants and so I remained curious but ignorant. As an adult, the most I have embraced Shakespeare is while laughing uproariously as Mel Brooks recites “Highlights from Hamlet” in the World War II comedy To Be or Not to Be; or qvelling (Yiddish for “beaming with pride”) as my daughter sang “I Feel Pretty” as Maria in her fifth-grade production of West Side Story.

So that’s why Shakespeare’s Lovers was difficult. But I have to say, if it had been required reading back when, and if our teachers had provided the guidance that we needed, I’m sure I would have felt differently. Several times in the early chapters and then again later into the story, I turned to the Internet to look up a name or an event, just to see how close to the truth Jensen’s story was.

Shakespeare’s friend Henry Wriothesley? He was real, and maybe a gay lover. Feminist poet Aemelia Lanyer? Real also, as was the Jewish Bassano family from which she sprang. The failed coup d’etat led by the second Earl of Essex against Queen Elizabeth I the day after a revived Richard II played at the Globe Theatre? The Earl lost his head over that overambitious delusion of grandeur. Jensen nails it, including portraying Shakespeare’s decision to risk being seen as a conspirator not just so he could accept the extra-high actor’s payment—a side benefit—but also because he actually hoped it would help Henry and Essex since their followers requested it.

If you’re reluctant to confront Shakespeare, as I have always been, Shakespeare’s Lovers gives you a safe, fascinating way to enter his world. If you’re already an aficionado, you’ll be running back to your bookshelf before you’re halfway done.