Richard B. Wright’s Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard: A Review

by Nadine Bachan

Published at 2010-11-22

In September, The Editing Company adopted two authors at the Word On The Street Festival, Sheila Heti and Richard B. Wright. As thanks for our sponsorship, we were generously given copies of each author’s latest book: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Richard B. Wright’s Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard. After moving to our new office, I was finally able to sit down and finish reading the latter.
Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard is the fictional story of Aerlene Ward, the eponymous character. By way of internal monologue and the recitation of her memoirs, Aerlene tells both her own story and the story of her mother, Elizabeth, whose brief romance with the famous poet is just one of the novel’s focal points. From the first page, we are plunged into their gritty and, as we soon learn, often-unforgiving world.
The tale is, in essence, a history lesson on the life and times of countrymen and women of the not-so-merry ole’ England of the late-1500s to mid-1600s. Through the recollections of both women, Wright becomes a literary tour guide. From the provocative topics of religious observance and sexual exploits, to the particulars of what people ate in public houses and the types of clothing they wore (there is a marked emphasis on the fit and quality of men’s doublets and topcoats), Wright is extremely thorough in detail.
I was impressed by the authenticity of voice in this novel. Aerlene’s words seem remarkably loyal to the dialect and style of writing from the time. This is a credit to Mr. Wright’s obviously intensive research and study of the era.
Does the writing suffer because of this commitment to historical facts? At times, yes. At several points thorough the story, the drag of details becomes tiresome. I found it hard to believe that anyone, while recounting the story of her or his life, would focus on and make reference to such minutiae. Through Aerlene’s voice, Wright does admit to this overt specificity, but his recognition of it did not persuade me to deem it any less cumbersome.
This is a sad story and, unlike the famous playwright’s tales—which are defined by great drama and deep romance—the heartbreak of this tale lies in its sheer realism. Herein, we find a true tragedy: one family’s all-too-real struggle to find a bit of joy in the vast disappointments of life. And that is just as affecting as any play William Shakespeare had ever penned.