Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess and Shakespeare

This resource examines some of the ways in which Anthony Burgess thought about and wrote about one of his greatest inspirations.

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Burgess’s identification with Shakespeare:

Do I show off? Does Shakespeare show off?

Anthony Burgess, was not shy of comparisons with the great playwright he so admired. In several of his works, he sought out and even invented links between himself and William Shakespeare or, as he would have it, between the Shakespeare of Manchester and the burgess of Stratford. With an often striking disregard for evidence but a keen eye for fictional affinities, Burgess found parallels in accent, sexual desire and minor ailments as well as an ancestral link with one of Shakespeare’s troupe of actors.

Burgess’s name allowed him to claim a tenuous, oft-repeated and almost certainly imagined connection with Shakespeare. Jack Wilson was one of the company of players to which Shakespeare belonged, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. (Jack being what Oscar Wilde’s Gwendolen would call dismissively ‘a notorious domesticity for John’.) Through some mistake of printing or transcription, Jack Wilson’s real name is inserted into the First Folio’s version of Much Ado About Nothing rather than that of his character, Balthazar. A stage direction in the second act reads, ‘Enter Prince, Leonato and Jacke Wilson’. Somehow, to Burgess’s advantage, Wilson’s strikingly English name escaped the notice of the printers of this Sicilian comedy.

Burgess was still known as John Wilson when a student at Manchester University and published his guide to English literature under the name of John Burgess Wilson. By 1993 when he published his fictional version of Christopher Marlowe’s life, A Dead Man in Deptford, he was firmly established as Anthony Burgess but the name, and therefore the historical link to Shakespeare, had not deserted him. He reveals in the book’s closing pages that Jack Wilson has been the narrator of the novel all along. ‘My own name you will find, if you care to look, in the folio of Black Will’s plays, put out by his friends, Heming and Condell in 1623. In the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing, by some inadvertency, I enter with Leonato and others under my own identity and not, as it should be, the guise of Balthasar to sing to ladies that they sigh no more’.

Burgess’s biographer, Andrew Biswell, suggests that ‘his anxiousness to claim grand ancestors might profitably be compared with Shakespeare’s own attempts to acquire the trappings of gentility.’ This was an anxiety of which Burgess was himself aware. The turn of phrase in his autobiography – ‘I have always wished to believe that the Jacke Wilson of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was one of the family’ – makes it clear that his assertion of the link between them is the expression of desire rather than of fact. And in a lecture to American students, Burgess was refreshingly honest about the motivation behind his craft. ‘Shakespeare wrote plays to make money, to become a gentleman; I write novels to the same end.’ Biswell recounts Burgess’s reflection on travelling first class to Singapore in 1954, ‘For the first time in my life, I became a gentleman’. A travel upgrade was to Burgess what the acquisition of a coat of arms was to Shakespeare.

That first class ticket would have seemed an unlikely dream for the boy brought up in the tougher suburbs of inter-war Manchester. But Burgess’s hometown – the accents and dialects of which he was expert in – provided him with another link to Shakespeare. In his American lecture he recites the First Player’s speech from Hamlet in the accent he deduces would have been Shakespeare’s. It is – as he describes – a mixture of modern American, Dublin and Lancashire. He insists that his own native vowel sounds were present in Shakespeare’s ‘voice’. Bewailing the difficulties of impressing employers in the first part of the twentieth century when your vowels are flat, Burgess says that ‘history cut no ice when my generation sought jobs outside the native province’. This seemed doubly unfair to him when ‘Shakespeare pronounced ‘love’ like a Lancastrian’.

When challenged by a student to justify his conclusions about the Elizabethan Midlands accent, Burgess says, rather vaguely, ‘you’ll have to take it on trust for the moment’. But it is clear that careful work went into his linguistic analysis, as evidenced by the chapter on Shakespeare’s English in A Mouthful of Air. David Crystal — an expert on Shakespeare’s language who has coached Globe Theatre actors in the ‘Original Pronunciation’ of the plays — visited the Anthony Burgess Foundation and listened to a recording of Burgess reading Shakespeare. He felt that Burgess was ‘about eighty percent’ accurate in his reconstruction of Shakespearean English. Burgess may have gone looking for the Lancastrian in Shakespeare but it seems it was there to be found.

It is possible therefore that Burgess and Shakespeare pronounced the word ‘love’ in the same way. The objects of their love may also have been similar. In As You Like It, Phoebe is deeply offended by Rosalind-as-Ganymede criticising her hair and eyes for being black. In Sonnet 127 we are told that ‘in the old age black was not counted fair’. In his autobiography, Burgess writes that ‘for me the feminine ideal has always been Mediterranean. I understand very well the desperation that Shakespeare felt for the dark lady’. He is thinking here of his second wife Liana, a black-haired Italian. In Nothing Like The Sun, Fatima (the Dark Lady of the Sonnets) is identified as being from Malaya, a country of which Burgess claimed sufficient knowledge to assert that ‘a Malay female body, musky, shapely, golden-brown, was always a delight’.

It is clear that Burgess drew on his own travels and experience when fictionalising Shakespeare’s life. Having spent time with syphilis patients during the Second World War, he intuits that a change in Shakespeare’s style was prompted by contracting the disease. And even in more minor ailments, he finds correspondences. Biswell points out that ‘in his Shakespeare biography, he speculates at one point that the middle-aged playwright might have suffered from “Burger’s arterial blockage”. There is no evidence at all to support this suggestion, but Burgess happened to be afflicted by the same condition when he was writing the book, and simply transposed it on to his biographical subject’. Burgess also suggests that Shakespeare shared his short-sightedness: ‘Being myopic myself, I suspect that Shakespeare was myopic. He sees the minutiae of the natural world, as well as the writing on the human face, with the excessive clarity of one who peers.’

Burgess peers into the life of Shakespeare seeking connections with his own. He hopes to see Shakespeare in his own reflection, as the fictional poet Enderby does in Burgess’s late novel, Enderby’s Dark Lady. His conclusions are often speculative, but always revealing. He often begins on shaky ground (as with his word-play on the Shakespeare of Manchester and the burgess of Stratford — it was Shakespeare’s father who held that municipal title among others not Shakespeare himself), but carries readers along with the cleverness of his inventions.

Victoria Brazier