I should begin by saying that I know very little about Shakespeare or Elizabethan England, so Burgess could have gotten away with almost anything - but, to the extent that one can sense historical rightness, this book felt right. It begins with WS (as he is called throughout) in his adolescence, delivering gloves for his father as his family deals with declining fortunes. He is seduced by a much older woman, gets her pregnant, and is forced to marry.
All of this is beautifully told in a mixture of Elizabethan and modern English. The dialogue in particular is wonderfully handled. None of the people quite came alive for me as complete people - Anne Hathaway and WS's family were vivid but generally creatures of a single characteristic - but Burgess's recreation of the physical and linguistic life of the era was a real delight. The bulk of the book occurs in London after WS has left. He writes his first so-so plays (Titus, The Comedy of Errors) and meets Henry Wriothesley, a spoiled but charming aristocrat, who becomes his patron and occasional lover.
The plot from this point on largely concerns the triangle sketched out in the Sonnets: the pure love with the young man (which WS realizes is not so pure at all) and the degraded lust he feels for the Dark Lady. The Dark Lady is probably the book's biggest problem - she doesn't feel at all real, although there are some beautiful pieces of writing about the texture and look of her skin. Aside from lust and a desire to sleep her way into the aristocracy, she has no real personality. Burgess imagines her as a transplant from the East Indies, a Muslim with a Christian name - Lucy/Fatimah - but aside from giving her a speech pattern (she has a hard time pronouncing certain letter combinations) he makes little effort at deeper characterization.
But the center of this novel is not really a particular person - not even Shakespeare's consciousness felt very alive for me, although what artist would be capable of capturing it? - but the chaotic vibrant world that could give birth to his art. Here is a passage describing WS leaving London as the plague descends:
He left behind a manner of a necropolis. The city baked in its corruption; flies crawled over the sleeping lips of a child; the rats twitched their whiskers at an old dead woman (shrunk to five stone) that lay among lice in a heap of rancid rags; the bells tolled all day for the plague-stricken; cold ale tasted as warm as a posset; the flesher shooed flies off with both hands before chopping his stinking beef; heaps of shit festered and heaved in the heat; tattered villains broke into houses where man, woman, child lay panting and calling feebly for water and, mocking their distress, stole what they had a mind to; the city grew a head, glowing over limbs of towers and houses in the rat-scurrying night, and its face was drawn, its eyes sunken, it vomited foul living matter down to ooze over the cobbles, in its delirium it cried Jesus Jesus.
Riots of apprentices, publics executions, the heads on spikes lining the bridges -- all are just as vividly rendered. I think the book is at its best when it takes detours away from the love triangle; its weakest section is actually in first person and deals with the beginning of the romance with the Dark Lady. I admire the audacity of trying to write as Shakespeare, but it leads to passages that are basically just pedestrian retreads of the material in the sonnets: "For love is one word but many things; love is a unity only in the word. With her I can find the beast's heaven which is the angel's hell; with him, the body's hunger now able to be set aside, there is that most desirable of sorts of love, that which Plato did hymn."
Something about 1st person also restricts Burgess's imagination, I think; he starts making scholarly points and ticking off developments like any dreary biopic: "So I started a play on Troilus and Cressida in disgust that man should be born in baseness and nastiness and my sickness found me a new language for its expression - jerking harsh words, a delirium of coinages and grotesque fusions." Um, indeed WS. (I had a brief flashback to Ray: "Ray, what you've created here is a completely innovative fusion of gospel and blues!") But there is, thankfully, very little of this.
The book ends rather suddenly - an almost mystical passage heralding the flowering of the genius that allowed Shakespeare to write his greatest plays - and then a last scene on his deathbed. I'm not sure it entirely works, but Burgess writes so well that he can pull off almost anything he wants. This book doesn't quite hold together, but just entering its world and reading its sentences was enough to me. A wonderful companion, especially for someone reading the plays.