The Foundation

Burgess and Shakespeare

Throughout his career, Anthony Burgess was fascinated by the writing and life of William Shakespeare. Explore these pages to find out about the influence of Shakespeare on Anthony Burgess, and the insights Burgess brings to our reading of his work.

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Nothing Like The Sun:

Act 1 An introductionAct 2 The book in depth Act iii The Elizabethan EnglishAct 4 A Burgess readingUse the links at the top of the page to switch section

Act 1 An introduction

N othing Like The Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life was published in 1964 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

Beginning with Shakespeare’s early life, the novel follows Will as he grows up both romantically and artistically. Written in a version of Elizabethan English, it is wildly inventive, full of bawdy humour and references to Shakespeare’s poems, plays and the texture of its historical setting.

Burgess described writing the novel as ‘the hardest I had ever undertaken’. The language is dense and allusive, and the style – consciously modelled on Joyce’s Ulysses, with streams of consciousness and wordplay – is rich and challenging. Yet the energy and extravagance of the novel are exhilarating and the whole is profound, engrossing, and ultimately hugely rewarding. Nothing Like The Sun is one of Burgess’s most fully realised creative engagements with Shakespeare, an inspiration that continued to the end of his life.

Read more about Nothing Like The Sun in these articles by Victoria Brazier, exploring Burgess’s writing of the novel and his distinctive approach to his use of language within it — as a well as reading from Anthony Burgess himself.

Join Rob Spence and Andrew Biswell for an extended discussion of the novel in our podcast.

Get thee to: An introduction | The book in depth | The Elizabethan English | A Burgess reading | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 2 The book in depth

Victoria Brazier explores the background and contexts of Burgess’s Shakespearean novel.
In May 1963 Anthony Burgess reviewed – not entirely favourably – Henrietta Buckmaster’s book, All of the Living: A Novel of One Year in the Life of Shakespeare. Her novel was, he thought, unlikely to be the only one of its kind: ‘With the quartercentury looming, many of our foolhardiest novelists must be busy preparing fictional libels on the Bard’.

Burgess was by this point already at work on his own fictionalised biography of Shakespeare. The process of bringing that work on to paper and into print, however, was a difficult one, as is demonstrated by the title of his article about it, ‘Genesis and Headache’. He describes the work as a labour of tortured love, a ‘ghastly but fascinating task’ that by January 1963 he could put off no longer. The work was ‘almost haemorrhoidally agonizing’ but if it were to be done 1964 was the time to do it. Burgess ‘would never find a more appropriate publishing date’.

The title of the novel comes from the first line of Sonnet 130, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. The sonnet is both an unusual love poem and a comment on the style of love poetry written by Shakespeare’s precursors and peers. Shakespeare refuses to give in to the hyperbolic imagery other poets indulge in. His mistress’s lips are not like coral, her cheeks are not the colour of roses, her breath does not smell of perfume and her gait is not that of a goddess. And yet she is ‘as rare/ As any she belied with false compare’.

In his biography of Burgess, Andrew Biswell suggests that the title of the novel ‘is intended as a warning. It implies, with a fair degree of humility, that the fakeries of Burgess’s language are a dim candle in comparison with the brighter Shakespearean sun’. Humility is not a trait we readily associate with Burgess, however, and the very construction of Nothing Like the Sun allowed him to compare himself to Shakespeare. Burgess imposed a structure governed by strict mathematical rules: ‘I planned Nothing Like the Sun as a binary movement with a brief epilogue. Part I was to deal with Shakespeare’s puberty and end with his departure for London. Part II, the more complex and the longer, would be about the mature, but not senescent, Shakespeare and end with the shock of syphilis’. Parts I and II would both consist of ten chapters; those in the second part would be double the length of those in the first. These constraints were, to Burgess, like those of a sonnet and ‘it was the shape of a poem – monstrously enlarged – that I wanted for my novel’.

That novel was not simply an experiment in form, however. Nothing Like the Sun was a challenge of research, imagination and language. Burgess sought to tell the story of Shakespeare’s life, pinning his own theories onto his extensive reading, in a language which was both authentically Elizabethan and appealing to the modern ear. Nothing Like the Sun opens with a young WS (as he is known throughout the novel) at home in Stratford-upon-Avon. WS is desperate to escape the confines of a domestic life in which he is distracted from great thoughts by being called in for tea. He hears the ‘world, the wide world crying and calling like a cat to be let in, scratching like spaniels’. We see him trapped into marriage with the older and possibly already pregnant Anne Hathaway, indentured as a tutor to the sons of a Gloucestershire magistrate, become a lawyer’s clerk, a father, an actor, a writer and a lover.

The subtitle of the novel – ‘A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life’ – implies that the last is the most important to Burgess. WS becomes the lover of both Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, and an exotic beauty. Burgess finds clues in their names, or rather the letters of their names, to identify them as the Fair Youth and Dark Lady of the sonnets. Southampton’s initials reversed make him Mr WH, the mysterious patron to whom the sonnets are dedicated. In Sonnet 147, Burgess ‘found her name acrostically presented, or very nearly’. The letters F T M A H make Fatimah the Dark Lady, the rare mistress, of Burgess’s Shakespeare. She whips him into a fever of love and gives him the lover’s disease, syphilis. Burgess had ‘noticed that Shakespeare’s most superb creations came during a time when, to judge from the imagery of his plays, he was preoccupied with disease – disease in the body, in the spirit, and in the State.’ The novel shows Shakespeare discovering the mark of syphilis, a red sore on his penis, and descending into a near madness which impacts upon his imagination and writing style.

Many of the details of WS’s life are, as Burgess admitted, pure fantasy. There was indeed ‘no documentary justification’ for making Richard Shakespeare limp or Gilbert ‘epileptic, moronic, and afflicted with religious mania’. But Burgess’s flights of fancy are underpinned by serious research and a near-obsession with Shakespeare and his world. His explanations of the gaps and inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s life are always interesting even if of varying plausibility. His fiction fills the gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare’s life, explaining why there is an entry in an episcopal register about a marriage licence for ‘Wm Shaxpere et Annam Whateley’, where Shakespeare went in his ‘lost years’, to whom the sonnets were written and what killed him.

Burgess creates memorable characters in Shakespeare’s life who inspire the characters of his plays. WS’s sister Anne calls their brother Richard – who limps – ‘bristly boar!’. The boar featured in the arms of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. The same brother, years later, cuckolds WS. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became Richard III. Similarly, the boy heroines of the comedies are prompted by both Annes. Anne Whateley has ‘long white hands and foot high-arching, gentle low pipe like a boy’s voice’; Anne Hathaway dresses up as a page for titillation. But it is Cleopatra who dominates the imagery of the novel. The ‘Avon glowed like Nilus and bobbed with watersnakes’; ‘in a bed of gold that seemed to float like a ship…, Master WH lay on satin cushions’; WS and WH travel down the Thames on a ‘barge new-painted with cloth-of-gold’. All roads, for Burgess and for WS, lead to the East.

More interesting, perhaps, is the way in which most of the characters appear to be inspired by that of WS himself. He is Romeo when tortured by unrequited lust, Polonius when he says ‘I do not myself borrow, therefore I may not lend’. Qualifying that statement he becomes Shylock, ‘save… perhaps on interest of a crown in a pound and a pound of flesh for the mortgage’. He is Hermione in the forgiveness he extends to his wife and brother, standing ‘above, blessing, forgiving, with lips untwisted in bitterness, brow all alabaster-smooth, a statue’. Fatimah tends to WS’s headache with a handkerchief like the one which Othello gives to Desdemona, albeit embroidered with spots rather than strawberries. Burgess’s WS is all of the characters he will write.

Burgess frequently sought to find or invent similarities between himself and Shakespeare. He goes a step further in Nothing Like the Sun, giving himself, or a version of himself, a role in the novel. The story has a framing device, that of a farewell lecture delivered in Malaysia by one Mr Burgess to his ‘special students’ . This connection to the East made Burgess’s Dark Lady a very personal invention. He wanted her ‘to come from the East – a woman like one of [those] I had been hotly attracted to during my time as a colonial civil servant’. Burgess understood ‘very well the desperation that Shakespeare felt for the dark lady.’

The lecturer becomes progressively drunker during the lecture, drinking the samsu his students have bought him as a farewell gift. Burgess himself ‘had lectured on Shakespeare in the Far East, sometimes when not altogether sober’. In the final pages of the novel, the characters of the lecturer and the playwright become merged. The Epilogue is written in the first person but not, Burgess says, directly that of WS. It is WS ‘trying to speak through the mediumistic ‘control’ of the story-teller or lecturer, who was myself’. In his biography of Shakespeare, Burgess claims ‘the right of every Shakespeare lover who has ever lived to paint his own portrait of the man’. Burgess paints himself into that portrait.

Get thee to: An introduction | The book in depth | The Elizabethan English | A Burgess reading | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 3 The Elizabethan English

The English of Nothing Like The Sun, as explored by Victoria Brazier.

When, in 1963, Anthony Burgess finally started work on the novel he had long planned to write, a challenge lay ahead of him. There was never any doubt in his mind that his fictional biography of Shakespeare should be written in a language that was, if not exactly that of the late sixteenth century, then an ‘approximation to Elizabethan English’. In his essay on the writing of Nothing Like the Sun, ‘Genesis and Headache’, Burgess describes the fear that any attempt at such an approximation could fail, that it might become jarring or even comic to the modern ear, or diminish the authenticity of his characters.

Burgess’s task was to find ‘a kind of Elizabethan protected from sneerers and carpers by a sort of built-in irony’. The framing device he hit upon – that of an increasingly drunk Mr Burgess giving a farewell lecture to his students in the Far East – gave Burgess that protection. The first reviewers (generally a disappointment to Burgess) paid little heed to this aspect of the novel and failed ‘to notice the author’s personal monograms sewn into the fabric of the work’. And, although readers ever since have delighted in pointing out apparent anachronisms, the true protection from ‘sneerers and carpers’ comes from the skill and style with which Burgess accomplishes his task. Having spent much of his life reading books from and about the Elizabethan era, Burgess manages to create an authentic-seeming but fresh-feeling language. Nothing Like the Sun is by a writer incredibly well-versed in Shakespeare, who takes great pleasure in finding and employing unusual words from the period and allows his own dialect and the style of his contemporaries to influence and invigorate his work.

At first, Burgess attempted to write the novel in the first-person, as Shakespeare himself. He wrote an entire chapter in this fashion. The request to read that chapter for a radio programme about novelists’ work in progress may have been a great help for Burgess. When he heard the recording, he knew immediately that the style was a mistake: it sounded ‘like an impersonation and hence insincere’. He shifted the narration into the third person and continued with his work. And in this work, Burgess felt that he was aided by his native tongue. He had an aversion , provoked by the novels of Walter Scott and his ilk, to ‘the embarrassment of thou and thee’. But the Lancashire of his youth still used a version of those archaic pronouns and these he felt he could employ. In 1930s Manchester you might hear the question ‘Where’s tha going, lad?’ answered by ‘I’m coming back with thee to thy place’. This old-fashioned manner of address gave Burgess a style that was at once authentic and personal.

Burgess inspecting a manuscriptBurgess’s twentieth century reading also clearly had a part to play in the creation of that style. Kenneth Toomey in Earthly Powers professes to ‘like Jim Joyce but not his demented experiments with language’. In Nothing Like the Sun, Burgess borrows the theory that Anne Hathaway cuckolded her husband with his brother, Richard, from Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses. And he embarks upon his own experiment with language, clearly influenced by Joyce and other modernist writers. This is particularly marked when WS is drunk: ‘Drink, then. Down it among the titbrained molligolliards of country copulatives, of a beastly sort, all, their browned pickers a-clutch of their spilliwilly potkins, filthy from handling of spade and harrow, cheesy from udder new-milked, slash mouths agape at some merry tale.’

This merges Shakespearean and Joycean English to make a new language redolent of both the era it is writing about and that it is written in. Burgess claimed that that new language, however, contained only one new word. He twice uses the word ‘spurgeoning’ to describe the movement of the River Avon under the Clopton Bridge. This neologism ‘derived from the name of Caroline Spurgeon, a modern scholar, who, in her work on Shakespeare’s imagery, noted that he introduced the peculiar behaviour of the Avon under that bridge as a simile in ‘The Rape of Lucrece’.’ Burgess said that all other words were found in ‘Elizabethan chapbooks, pamphlets, and Shakespeare’s own plays’. A casual reader, even one with the OED at hand, might suspect that ‘spurgeoning’ is not the only invention of Burgess’s.

There are several striking direct quotations from Shakespeare worked into the text. WS is ‘mewling and puking’ after a heavy drinking session, as Jacques’s infant is in his ‘All the World’s a Stage’ speech. Waking to find himself semi-naked in the arms of an unknown woman, WS uses Lear’s dying words, ‘Never never never never never’. Words employed so poignantly in the great tragedy are put into the mouth of a hungover man. That woman, however, turns out to be Anne Hathaway. That drunken night is the first step on the path to his marriage and, indirectly, to London and to the Globe.

Burgess also uses lines of Shakespeare’s actual sonnets. Disappointed with Venus and Adonis, WS steals himself to finish the dedication, knowing that he ‘cannot waste [his] life in longing for this man’s art and that man’s scope’. Southampton, his patron and lover, has ‘power to hurt and he would do it’. It is as if the words of the sonnets are swirling around in his mind, gradually coalescing to create phrases, sentences and quatrains. We even see WS as a critic of his own work, mocking his overwhelming lust for Fatimah while highlighting his clever use of alliteration: ‘Take this sonnet, also, of the perils of lust (hark to the dog’s panting: had, having and in quest to have)’.

Nothing Like the Sun tells of the early writing of The Comedy of Errors and is explicit about the inspiration for The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet: ‘If a poor Jew doctor remains their posthumous villain, why then… they shall have a Jew and set in Machiavellian Italy withal; and Italy will do for this warring families play (well, there is Brooke’s poor poem as a base) which is also of Harry’s friends the Danvers brothers and their war with the Lings. Aye, Montague will come into it, which is a name for the Southamptons.’ Other plays are suggested by words and half phrases dropped into the text. WS’s ‘spaniel’s eyes’ are reminiscent of Helena, Demetrius’s ‘spaniel’.

Southampton, dismissive of WS’s anxiety, suggests a future title, ‘You are making a great ado about very little’. The young WS is certain that a willow (associated with the suicide of Ophelia and the murder of Desdemona) is ‘right for death’. When WS’s brother Richard chases their sister Anne, she looks ‘back at her little pursuer, crying, ‘Boar, boar, bristly boar!’’. Hence Burgess hints at what may be the most famous stage direction ever written, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’.

Using the words Shakespeare wrote and putting words into Shakespeare’s mouth, Burgess displays a mastery of Shakespeare’s work and of his language. Nothing Like the Sun was of course not the first novel in which Burgess had attempted to create a new linguistic style. The language of the droogs in A Clockwork Orange is one of its most distinctive and successful features. In his biography of Burgess, Andrew Biswell points out that drafts of A Clockwork Orange show that the Nadsat was reworked to make it more ‘Shakespearean’. Burgess changed the line ‘Aha, I know what you want, I think’ to ‘Aha, I know what thou wantest, I thinkest’. This rather clunky use of ‘rakish mock Elizabethan’ was exactly what Burgess tried to avoid in Nothing Like the Sun. He succeeded; and he even succeeded in working a snippet of Nadsat into the novel: ‘thereto will be added for good measure a good measure, nay a treasure of good measures, viddy or skiddy lissit a jig, aye, a jig’.

Get thee to: An introduction | The book in depth | The Elizabethan English | A Burgess reading | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 4 A Burgess reading

Listen to Anthony Burgess read part of his novel Nothing Like The Sun.

Get thee to: An introduction | The book in depth | The Elizabethan English | A Burgess reading | Another Shakespeare section (see links at top of page)

Act 1 An introductionAct 2 The book in depth Act iii The Elizabethan EnglishAct 4 A Burgess readingUse the links at the top of the page to switch section