King of Shadows
by Susan Cooper.
Heinemann New Windmills, 2001 (1999).
“… Love is not loveShakespeare, Sonnet 116
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken …”
Fiction – and especially fantasy – for children and young adults is often disparaged by a certain class of critic (who should know better) as being light, frivolous or somehow lacking in serious intent or, worse, literary worth. And yet the concerns of young people, their hopes and anxieties, are worth respectful consideration because they are the adults of tomorrow formed by childhood experiences.
So it is with Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, ostensibly a slight timeslip novel where a youngster finds themselves back four centuries in the past, about to perform at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. “Sheer fantasy” may be the verdict of the jaded reviewer, “wish fulfilment” the cynic’s assessment; but the author’s intentions are more than just an entertaining narrative – though it is that as well.
Nathan Field is part of a company of young American actors trained to perform some of Shakespeare’s plays in the newly-built replica Globe Theatre on Bankside in the late 20th century. But on the eve of rehearsals in London the youngster falls ill, and wakes to find himself another Nathan Field in a different London – in 1599.
Our protagonist is a talented orphan who has been chosen by an ex-pat British director called Arby to be part of a company performing at the new Globe Theatre in London. After weeks spent rehearsing in the US the young cast are lodged with various London families, but after the sudden onset of a fever Nathan wakes to find himself not in a Mrs Fisher’s house but in a house with no mod cons, under the wing of actor Richard Burbage. He barely has time to recover from culture shock and to adjust to realise he’s living in late Tudor England before he’s rehearsing tumbling, fencing and speeches in the original Globe, newly located to the south bank of the Thames.
With a thorough grounding in plays like Julius Caesar he has little problem with fitting in: despite being severely provoked by some bullying his Appalachian accent proves close enough to Elizabethan English to be acceptable, and his acting and stage skills are developed enough for him to cope with being thrown in the deep end with The Devil’s Revenge and, especially, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; this last involves the character of Puck, the role Arby had particularly chosen him for in 1999.
But ever in Nathan’s mind are questions: how had he been projected back four centuries? why had he been singled out? how was he ever going to get back to the late 20th century? what would happen when his loan as a supposed boy actor from London’s St Paul’s School came to an end? And we too have urgent questions: will he ever know of that other Nathan Field who in modern London is simultaneously being treated for bubonic plague, and what will happen if his namesake dies?
In King of Shadows Nathan tells his own story, allowing us to experience things from his perspective. The overpowering smells, the sights, the meals, the cruel entertainments, the lack of hygiene, all is vividly brought to life, along with Nathan’s fears of being taken for some kind of witch for the odd things he says and does. But this is no mere historical fantasy, a picaresque narrative told for its own sake: at its heart it’s about a parentless young boy who, though brought up by his Aunt Jen, crucially misses the relationship he never had with a father. Will he discover a form of this relationship either with Arby the US director, with Richard Burbage the Globe actor, or with William Shakespeare, who will play Oberon to his Robin Goodfellow?
Susan Cooper’s timeslip fantasy barely falters in conjuring up Nathan’s several lives, whether fresh from North Carolina in present-day London, or in Tudor Southwark. She’d clearly thoroughly grounded herself in research on Shakespeare’s friends, colleagues and acquaintances, on Elizabethan theatre practices, and indeed on Nathan Field, in truth a boy actor from St Paul’s School who continued acting into adulthood as well as writing dramas, whose portrait – painted around the time of Shakespeare’s death – can still be seen in Dulwich’s Picture Gallery. (The academic Andrew Gurr gets a namecheck at one point.) Should we be surprised that Cooper’s personal involvement in this tale of young Master Field may have been inspired by the author’s own mother, whose maiden name was also Field?
The heart of this novel is, without a shadow of a doubt, the parent-child relationship that Nathan develops with Will Shakespeare. The playwright’s own son, Hamnet, had died in 1596, seemingly at around the same age as our fictional Nathan Field. The relationship between Oberon and his servant Robin Goodfellow or Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written about the time of Hamnet’s death, perhaps represents Shakespeare’s fond feelings for his young son, endearments such as “My gentle Puck, come hither” intended to prefigure some of Prospero’s dialogues with the spirit Ariel in The Tempest.
There are a few more twists and turns in the story which would be remiss of me to reveal, but hero-worship of a father figure and hopes that such fondness is reciprocated are at its core. It’s why Sonnet 116 is key; its “ever-fixèd mark” is the beacon that ensures the sailing ship reaches safety in its haven, whatever the tempest throws at it, a symbol of the parental love that remains steadfast forever.
#RIPxvii, which runs through September and October this year, is an invitation to read these genres: mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, dark fantasy, supernatural, and Gothic
Coincidentally, scheduled as this is the day after the second Queen Elizabeth’s death, another long-lived monarch, the first Queen Bess, appears in this novel: the Tudor ruler was nearly 70 when she died in 1603