Ever wonder what it might be like to tread the boards with the Bard himself?
There’ve been a number of books imagining just that, ranging from brilliant to excruciating; this one’s a decent entry in the tween/teen group.
Widge, an orphan, has been apprenticed to one Timothy Bright, a physician–such as they were in Elizabethan England. Bright, who has developed a form of shorthand, teaches it to Widge (short for ‘pigwidgeon’) in order that Widge may take down his every word for the ages. As it turns out, Widge is snapped up by the master of an acting troupe nearby in Yorkshire, who sends him south to London to take down the script for Shakespeare’s latest play, Hamlet, without being caught. An accurate complete version of any of Shakespeare’s plays well ahead of the other imitators is worth a year’s take to the competing acting troupes, but in a day when few people could do more than write their own names, Widge’s ability to transcribe the play as it’s being performed is nothing less than miraculous.
Unfortunately, he gets caught up in the action on stage he’s viewing as an audience member when he first attends, and misses chunks of dialogue surrounding the climactic dueling scene…and when he sneaks back in backstage two days later to jot down the rest, he is not only caught by actors and crew waiting in the wings, but loses his precious shorthand copy of the play itself to a pickpocket.
He gets caught up more literally a couple of days later when he is brought before Hemings, Burbage and Shakespeare himself, and they decide to take him into their training program. At first dubious, Widge regards this new position as simply preferable to life with the frightening Falconer, assistant to their master, Bass. But Widge becomes drawn into the life of an apprentice actor to the point of sympathizing wholly with Shakespeare and the Globe troupe, and their constant danger of being pirated by just such as his new master, Bass…a former performer in the Globe troupe and now one of its keenest competitors. Widge gradually comes to regard the troupe as the family that he never had, as he begins to understand the love of performance that fires all the members’ blood as one man. (Yes, men. There’s a side plot of a girl with similar wishes who is unmasked and forced away to the more usual job as maid, though that ends happily with her emigration to France, where women were permitted on stage.)
On the whole it’s not brilliant writing, but certainly more plausible plotting than Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, at least if one skips lightly over stenography being used as an excuse to introduce the protagonist to the primary plot device. Cooper used two: a) a boy ostensibly from the late twentieth century coming down with bubonic plague, having not been in an area where it’s endemic during the incubation period and b) residents of Elizabethan-era London thinking Modern Nat’s South Carolina accent was temporally local to them.
I can see that some kids would find this attractive in its own right, but possibly more as something to be incorporated into a middle school segment on Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Blackwood touches on a range of issues of the time, without belaboring the point or digressing (aside from that shorthand kluge) too far into mere Device: apprenticeship to a profession, treatment of orphans, spoken accents, theater goers and stagecraft of the time, and so on.