King of Shadows by Susan Cooper


In honor of the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, here’s a book about him: King of Shadows by Susan Cooper. For fans of Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, brace yourself: King of Shadows bears no resemblance to any of her previous fantasies. For those of us who are also interested in Shakespeare (the man and the plays) and how they might have been presented in Elizabethan times, this is an interesting take on what it might be like to actually meet The Bard of Avon himself.

Nat Field, an orphan, finds escape in the world of the theater from the reality of his past. Not surprisingly, he is selected (among other kids) for a troupe which will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the newly renovated Globe Theater in London. He becomes ill one day, presumably overexitement combined with something he ate, and crawls into bed with an aspirin and his landlady’s hot water bottle….only to wake up four hundred years earlier on the verge of performing that selfsame role for The Bard Himself and Queen Elizabeth in the audience. He, or rather the boy native to the century whom he is replacing, is on loan from Saint Paul’s Boys, in London1, after the boy originally selected to play Puck proves unable to perform. Nat fits in reasonably well, largely through keeping his mouth shut about where he’s actually from and also with his innate acting skills gained through rehearsing the role of Puck in the twentieth century, thereby gaining respect from the temporal locals. Shakespeare takes an interest in this talented young boy, inquiring after his life and talents and interest in the stage, encouraging him to continue in the field. After a rousing performance of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream command performance before Shakespeare and the Queen in the original Globe, Nat falls asleep and slips home in his dreams, having reconciled somewhat to his life and losses in the modern day through the paternal interest of Shakespeare himself.

Clearly, Nat has replaced an existing person from 1599, but what about the family and friends he’s left behind? Well, his disappearance from his time is not noted, as the power which pulled him to the sixteenth century pulled the boy he was replacing forward to the twentieth. Neither the twentieth or the sixteenth century characters in the book realize there’s been a switch, as no one in either era who encounters the switched characters knows the Nathan Field from that time period as, not surprisingly, the hospital staff put the boy whom they believe to be Twentieth Century Nate into strictest isolation as soon as they realize he has bubonic plague (creditably fast given the comparative rarity of the disease today), prior to Sixteenth Century Nate being seen by anyone familiar with Twentieth Century Nate.

The modern Nat Field has been transposed, for want of a better word, with his counterpart Nat Field from the Elizabethan era for a very good reason: the Elizabethan Nat must not contact Shakespeare as the Elizabethan Nat, being in the contagious stage of plague, would have infected Shakespeare with same, and the near-inevitable outcome would have deprived theatergoers3 of another seventeen years worth of The Bard’s work—more than half his literary output and theater direction, and including many of the plays for which he is best known today. After a successful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream before the queen for one Nat and a successful round of antibiotics for the other, the two are as mysteriously returned to their original times as they were removed from them.

I’m a bit mixed on how to recommend this book.

On the plus side, there’s Susan Cooper’s writing. I may be biased as a result of rather liking the Dark is Rising series, but I do think she’s simply a better writer, capable of more plausible plots, than many of the authors being published as tween authors these days2. Unfortunately, that leaves me a little disappointed with King of Shadows compared to her other work. I’ll be fair and mention it’s not in any way Cooper’s fault that I kept confusing her protagonist, Nathan Field, with that of Michael Chabon’s Summerland, Nathan Feld.

Published when it was, there is a certain Shakespeare in Love air about this book, though that’s not necessarily a drawback; I can’t but admire someone who popularizes Shakespeare these days. I did quite like Cooper’s description of Elizabethan England; she balanced providing a complete description of Elizabeth’s London–smelly, dirty, malnourished, impoverished, routine child labor, and not even the most rudimentary of dental care–against turning kids off with WAY too much TMI. I loved her descriptions of staging and rehearsing play productions, both in the modern era and in the Elizabethan; I’m sure the nervous costume designer and irritable makeup artist on the Elizabethan end have their counterparts today.

I’ve got three main quibbles with the book.

     1) There’s no real explanation of how the switch was worked, or by whom, although there’s a strong suggestion that the modern character, Arby, short for Richard Babbage, and the Elizabethan character Master Dick Burbage, are in some way connected. Arby tells Nathan something to that effect at the end of the book, though he stops short of saying the two are one and the same person.

     2) I find it difficult to believe that a modern rural North Carolina/Appalachian accent would be sufficiently indistinguishable from an Elizabethan London accent that no one in the Elizabethan segment of the book would comment on it, though I’ll believe Cooper when she suggests they’re more strongly related than modern listeners might think. Surely, someone in 1599 London would have noticed that the 20th century Nat sounded odd. As a more concrete example of the problem I have accepting Cooper’s glossing over changes in pronunciation across four centuries and an ocean: the Nat from the past is brought from sixteenth century London forward 400 years into the future to the exact same spot geographically…will his accent and speech patterns be the same as that of modern hospital staff? How about if a resident of an American community extant in, say, 1700, were brought forward to the present day equivalent community—would they sound the same? Honestly? No, I didn’t think so.

     3a) I find the literary treatment of a case of bubonic plague in London in 1999 a bit hard to swallow. Not that there might BE a case of bubonic plague in London on the eve of the twenty-first century, mind—the disease is still most definitely extant in various parts of the world. No, it’s more that I couldn’t find evidence in the text that the modern day Nat had BEEN in any of the areas where the disease is likely to be found today during the incubation period of 2-5 days…and that’s who the doctors think they’re treating. Even the longest incubation period listed would still require an exposure almost immediately prior to his departure from the US.
     While I’m sure that the doctors at Guy’s Hospital are sharp enough to identify a case of bubonic plague when they see it (or rather, their laboratory technicians would be) and treat it appropriately when they realize what they’ve got to deal with, frankly modern doctors are about as likely to encounter cholera or polio. The fact that the physician at Guy’s Hospital calls an expert in tropical medicine would seem to indicate he’s aware of where the disease is likely to be found…and that’s not rural North Carolina. I know Cooper intended to concentrate on the modern Nate’s experience in Elizabethan London with Will Shakespeare rather than on modern medical investigation, but a bit of expansion on the modern subplot would have helped my willing suspension of disbelief. Even the addition of a couple of lines of dialogue would have helped—something along the lines of “But how did Nat get bubonic plague? has he been in an area where the disease is today endemic during the incubation period?” “I can’t explain that, Bob, but the test results are unequivocal.” if Cooper could have managed something while avoiding “CSI syndrome4“.

3b) More importantly, I’m not convinced that “preventing Shakespeare’s death from plague” was the most plausible of plot devices for the novel in question, though certainly a plausible health risk. In regards plausibility, Cooper could at least have had the modern boy with whom the Elizabethan boy swaps places live in one of the areas where plague is endemic today; there are several in the United States, though (getting back to complaint #1), not so much in the southeast. In some ways, I’d have preferred, say, inspiring Shakespeare to continue writing after the death of his son, Hamnet, by telling Shakespeare the esteem in which his works have been held until today. Though even that has pitfalls: one of the things I appreciated about the book is that Modern Nat had the sense to keep his yap shut about being from the twentieth century, and Elizabethan Nat’s surprise at modern England was explained by his rampant fever and resulting hallucinations. Admitting you’re from another century would most probably only convince someone you were raving.

Despite the lengthy digression into nit-picking, I did like the book a great deal. Even the lack of accounting for a case of bubonic plague where there was negligible chance of infection isn’t nearly the bad science I’ve seen in other recent YA and tween literature5. I’d suggest this as a eminently readable introduction for anyone about to start studying the Elizabethan era, in particular Shakespeare and his compatriots.

1remember, Southwark was NOT part of London at that point, it was a grubby dangerous dockyard
2not quite YA, I’d say, though at the high end of reading ability for grade school kids
3theatregoers too.
4in which fictional characters bring the action packed plot to a screeching halt while they explain to one another in language appropriate for a slightly dim lay audience concepts which they, as professionals in the field, might be expected to have considerable familiarity. Think two librarians explaining to one another the difference between the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress cataloguing systems.
5looks sternly at Across the Universe

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