The Other Shakespeare by Lea Rachel: Book Review

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The Other Shakespeare is a novel inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

As anyone who is familiar with A Room of One’s Own knows, it’s a nonfiction essay about women writers which introduces a fictional character named Judith Shakespeare, sister to William Shakespeare.

The essay argues that there are many women like Judith out there, women who have dreamed of becoming writers but had their dreams dashed by a society that is unreceptive to women writers.

The novel’s subject matter alone will be of interest to both Shakespeare fans and Woolf fans. Much like novels such as Grendel and March, which both build upon another writer’s character, The Other Shakespeare brings Judith Shakespeare to life in her own story. In doing so, the novel weaves together history, fiction and social issues in an interesting way.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the concept behind it. I also enjoyed Lea Rachel’s prose and felt it was quite impressive for a first novel, especially considering the difficulty of trying to make Old English easy to understand for modern readers.

My only complaint is that The Other Shakespeare is a bit heavy-handed at times. The author has a habit of spelling things out for the reader and I felt the novel could be improved if the point she was trying to make was a bit more subtle.

This is just a minor complaint though and I don’t feel it detracts too much from the novel as a whole.

The following is an excerpt from the book:

“Mary looked from the hornbook to her daughter and back again, and as realization dawned she asked softly, ‘Know your letters?’
Judith nodded and a long-taut spring snapped in Mary.
‘Useless child! Why do you do such things? Why do you insist on Latin and letters and stories of make-believe played in the forest? It’s inappropriate! ‘Tis isn’t right. You -‘ She advanced a step towards Judith, her fists clenched. ‘You put the boys up to this, didn’t you? You stole the hornbook from them, to add to your lists of sins.’ Mary’s eyes widened in understanding. ‘Asips, Asops, whatever it was called, that book of fables that disappeared last year, was that you too?’
Judith felt a sting of pleasure in righting this wrong at least.
‘Yay. It fell into the Avon. ‘Twas entirely my fault.’
‘This – it’s -‘ The words stumbled together as Mary fought to straighten them out. ”Tis awful. ‘Tis wrong. ‘Tis against the natural order of things. Why must you insist on putting on such airs?’ Mary turned and held her hands up to the rafters. She took a deep breath and declared, ‘It is true, there is an evil presence in this house.’
Judith felt a chill run up her spine. In spite of herself, she defended her actions. ‘Nuns can read.’
Mary turned to look at her daughter. ‘What are you going to do,’ she asked. ‘run off and join a nunnery?’
Judith didn’t answer and Mary crossed herself.
‘You don’t join a nunnery to read, child, you join because you love God.’
At that moment Judith desperately wished that she loved God as much as her mother did. Maybe then everything would be easier. Maybe then what she was supposed to do would be clear, her mixed up thoughts and mixed up desires would make sense. Judith wasn’t trying to upset her mother, she didn’t want to be a bad daughter, she just couldn’t help being who she was. She just couldn’t help wanting to read.”

The Other Shakespeare is Lea Rachel’s first novel. Her first published work was her personal memoir I Promise. Rachel is an economics professor at the University of Missouri.


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