Large chunks of Shakespearean text, an all boys theater program, Elizabethan England, and time travel by bubonic plague–my middle school self would not have responded enthusiastically to Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows. Fortunately, my present day self is a more diverse and adventurous reader.
Nathan Field is selected to play Puck in The Company of Boy’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. No-nonsense director Arby assembled his company of the boys from all over the US and arranged for them to perform in London at the Globe, a mere couple hundred feet away from the location of the original Globe–Shakespeare’s theatre. Nat throws himself wholeheartedly into acting, not just because Arby is demanding, but because when he plays Puck in London, he can remove himself far enough from Nat, the grieving orphan from South Carolina.
And like that, Cooper sets the stage for Nat to go to bed one night with the flu and awake the next day in London, 1599, having swapped places with another Nathan Field, an apprentice actor on loan from St. Paul’s to play Puck with the Chamberlain’s Men–Shakespeare’s acting company. Which Shakespeare acts in as well as writes for. For the record, he’s playing Oberon. What mischief is this?
Rather than get hung up on the technicalities and the likelihood of such a glitch-free time swap, Cooper draws readers in by bringing to life sixteenth century London and Shakespeare’s Globe. The difference in language, lack of proper sanitation, barbaric choices in popular entertainment, Nat’s confusion and his ability to adapt–we experience it all in vivid detail. Even the smells are viscerally putrid.
And then there is Nat’s unique friendship with William Shakespeare. Right away, Shakespeare is able to see Nat’s talent, his other-worldliness, and his deep grief. Meanwhile, Nat trusts Shakespeare implicitly and views him as a surrogate father figure. Through their relationship, Shakespeare helps Nat begin to address his bereavement and heartache. These weighty moments are written with complexity and finesse, without being overly sentimental or histrionic.
Still, all journeys come to an end, even the best ones, and Nat has no choice but to return to modern day London. However, there are still issues for Nat to work through and one last surprise waiting for him. As a reader, it was a delight to tag along for the ride.