My new historical novel, His Dark Lady, is set at the court of Elizabeth I, and amongst other storylines traces the relationship between William Shakespeare and his "Dark Lady of the Sonnets". In my account, Lucy Morgan takes on that role, a young African singer and court lady. Her character was introduced in The Queen's Secret, where she met William at the age of eleven, and her story will conclude in book three.
Was Shakespeare a 'love-rat' or just an over-imaginative poet?
When writing His Dark Lady, I was very aware of my own attitude towards this relationship between Shakespeare and Lucy Morgan. Shakespeare married very young, before coming to London to make his way as an actor. By the time he meets Lucy again, he already has a child. His wife, Anne Hathaway, is back in his home town of Stratford, living with his parents, and probably never joined her husband in London. Indeed, she may only ever have seen him during his theatrical touring visits to Warwickshire.
Some might consider that his love sonnets are wholly imaginary constructs, with no reference to the poet's life whatsoever. That Shakespeare 'made it all up', in other words, in a spirit of sensationalism or possibly harking back to the medieval traditions of courtly love. But if you reject that as unlikely - and certainly a fictionalised account of his life must address the torrid love affairs mentioned in his sonnets at some point - it only leaves us with the hard cold truth of adultery.
Given the above, it became impossible for me to portray Shakespeare in His Dark Lady as anything but what the tabloids call a 'love-rat'.
His Dark Lady is set in Stratford and at the court of Elizabeth I.
Yet despite his adultery, I do feel some sympathy for Shakespeare. He married at eighteen - very young indeed by Tudor standards - probably because he had made his older bride Anne Hathaway pregnant; the two of them were then welded together for life by this reckless act. It must have been a very common problem, the Tudor equivalent of a shotgun marriage. And men in this position - who led freer lives than their wives - may well have been tempted to conduct affairs outside their marriages, knowing they were safe enough from most social censure.
While we must strive, as historical novelists, to look at our characters through the eyes of their age, it is in some cases very difficult not to pass a more twenty-first century judgement on certain behaviours, as we do when we look at Henry VIII's barbaric and unjust treatment of his wives. So Shakespeare's infidelity becomes a terrible weight on his love for Lucy Morgan, a weight which even he must feel in this story, as a sensitive man, and which colours their love from the start.
As for Lucy herself, she goes into this affair blinded by love, refusing to suspect that William may already be married. For Lucy to have been aware of his married state from the beginning - and still have entered into an adulterous affair with him - would have gone against her very nature, which is honest above all else.
Lucy's faults are innocence and sexual inexperience. But Shakespeare's faults are those of the love-rat, the married man who lies to the woman he desires in his desperation to seize a little happiness.
Unfortunately for Lucy, the 'other woman' usually comes out the loser in these extramarital affairs. Especially when the woman in question is one of Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting, whose punishments for the unchaste maid at court were notoriously harsh ...
Read more about HIS DARK LADY.