Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 5, 2011

Mr Shakespeare’s Bastard (2010), by Richard B. Wright

Mr Shakespeare’s Bastard is the latest offering from Richard B. Wright, who won the Giller Prize for Clara Callan in 2001.  ANZ LitLovers read and enjoyed that in 2005, and Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard shares the same kind of deceptive tone: this tale about Shakespeare’s illegitimate daughter seems slight and inconclusive but it’s seductively revealing about lives in another lifetime, with perhaps also a message for our own.  For the sub-text of this book is that whether a fatherless child identifies a man as her own parent with DNA or a lofty forehead, he may not want the relationship or even acknowledge it, and the way to handle that, is with dignity.  

Today, one suspects, any offspring discovering a celebrity parent would make haste to claim the accompanying fame and reward, but Linny does no such thing.  There was no fame or reward to be had, only mutual embarrassment and hurt for Shakespeare’s existing family.

The ultimate celebrity, the greatest poet and playwright in history, was then the darling only of the masses who flocked to the Globe Theatre.  Women were precluded from going to playhouses for fear of the rabble (for whom the bawdy bits are now said to be written), and those with puritanical religious beliefs (including Linny’s Aunt) thought such plays to be the work of the devil.  (As the story ends Shakespeare has been invited to perform before Queen Elizabeth I but this would have been a private performance.)

Nevertheless, Linny is consumed by curiosity.  She shares the same obsession with identity as some of our own age, and she wants to see the man whose stories she discovered with her mother.   For Linny and her mother, despite their lowly station, can read, and one of the gentle threads in this novel is the waste of this fine intelligence in the grand Elizabethan era, when one woman was demonstrating her capabilities to the world while the rest – whatever their class – were confined to stultifying domestic duties of one sort or another. 

The interest in this novel lies in how Linny – in an age when women could only travel about with the permission of the men in their lives – might achieve her dream of meeting Shakespeare.  Blinded by cataracts like John Milton, she tells this story to her amanuensis Charlotte in the last weeks of her life.  Scholars will know how much of the portrait of Shakespeare is a confection or not; in a book so clearly signalled as a fictional recreation of an aspect of his little-known life it hardly matters. 

It’s easy reading; I finished it in an evening. 

Author: Richard B. Wright
Title: Mr Shakespeare’s Bastard
Publisher: Harper Collins 4th Estate 2010
ISBN: 9780732292409
Source: Loan from a friend, thanks Carol!


  1. That’s an interesting concept and it sounds like a good read. Beryl Bainbridge did something similar in According to Queenie which focuses on Hester Thrale, Dr Johnson’s mistress. I think these fictional recreations are very worthwhile so long as the author has done her research properly.


  2. Whoopee doo, I got this for my birthday. Now, I just have to find time to read it. Will read your post properly then!


    • If you enjoyed Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, (which I did, very much), then I think you would like this too, Sue.


      • Oh good … cos I did like that one. I also have Clara Callan in my TBR pile and have been wanting to read it for a while.


  3. Just finished the book. Who the heck was “Nicky” in Linny’s dream at the end?


    • Hello ‘historyfiction’ and welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers:)
      I’m sorry, I read it too long ago to be able to answer your question, and I don’t have the book any more to look it up.
      If you belong to GoodReads, you could try asking other readers there? There’s bound to be someone who will know, or maybe have written a review which mentions it.
      Good luck, I know how frustrating it can be!


      • Thanks Lisa. I did try googling for an answer but wasn’t successful. Silly writer slipping a character in like that :) I’ll check out Goodreads. Thanks!


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