What does it feel like to be seized body and soul by sudden fear or desire? To steal power, submit to power, relinquish power? To tumble for the first time with the love of your life? To mourn a father? Lose a child? Betray someone's trust, or have yours betrayed? Or, finally, to be able to acknowledge your own hunger, your own mortality, your insatiable lust for living?William Shakespeare answers these questions again and again, in play after play, always with stupendous insight. The Bard shows us the human being exactly as it lives and suffers and rejoices, under ever – familiar circumstances, however dramatically enhanced. To be so well – versed in humanity, Shakespeare must have been one hell of a human being – or not, but such a contradiction would only intensify the mystery. That's why it's so tantalizing to have so few scraps of evidence about what sort of person dear old Will really was.
To British author Christopher Rush, these scraps – along with the plays and poems themselves, which he taught for 30 years – are all the stuff he needs to perform his own feat of Shakespearean magic. Just as Will summons into thrilling reality hunchbacked Richard, ill – used Othello and fat Falstaff, Rush brings to startling life Shakespeare himself – or rather, "brings to death," for the pages of Will are spoken by Will himself, on his deathbed, consigning his final will to his lawyer. Above all, it is the sheer chutzpah of Rush's enterprise – the detailing of Shakespeare's life and work from Shakespeare's own mouth, from before the cradle to beyond the grave – that elevates his story into its authentic globe, where the ultimate human heart is revealed. Here's the rare rendering of an artist in which art is not reduced by biography, but enlarged by it; where sex and death are not the caricatured obsessions of the poet, but his boundless and worthy themes. But take warning, reader: the London of the Elizabethan Age is rough trade, the theatre lying hard by the whorehouse and execution ground. Christopher Rush gives it all to us with uncensored glee and unfeigned horror.
Michael Alec Rose is a professor at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.