What would it be like?

Happy Birthday Will

We know a lot about William Shakespeare. We have the text of most all of his plays, we have baptismal records, a will, and other legal documents, and we also have attacks, criticism and praise of his works by his contemporary playwrights. We can infer from these much of what he thought about the world. But because what he wrote is spoken by characters in his plays and poems, we have very scant evidence about his own personality. Much scholarly ink is used to interpret his works, especially his sonnets, to find out what sort of person he really was. In addition to the scholarship applied to this task there is also the imaginative works of other authors, who have used him as a character in their own books.

Here are three that imagine answers to the question, what would it be like to work for William Shakespeare? Start by imagining yourself as a young actor getting ready for a performance.

Wicked Will     Wicked Will / Bailey MacDonald

On the way into the town of Stratford-on-Avon in 1576, the acting troupe Lord Edgewell’s Men pick up a local guide, twelve-year old Will Shakespeare. Thomas Pryne, at fourteen the youngest player with the company, can’t stand him. Will is anxious, curious and asks questions, questions, questions. Thomas has some family troubles that shouldn’t be shares with some chatty kid. “He might be nothing more than a rude county boy, but already I could tell he loved his books and his tales and words, words, words. Still I judged him book-wise and world-ignorant, though I felt quite sure that my uncle would tell me the boy had no harm in him at all.”

Things become more serious after they arrive in town and the dead body is dragged out of the Avon. It’s the body of a cantankerous landowner who’s quarreled with Thomas’s uncle on their way into town. He’s also the father of two identical twin brothers, and there is a report of a missing will that would favor one over the other of them. This is the wicked will of the title. One or the other of the brothers are suspect, but when part of Thomas’s uncle broken walking stick is discovered along the riverbank caked with blood suspicion falls on him. Young Will thinks that this is an excellent time to play detective and enlists the reluctant Thomas to be his assistant.

King of Shadows     King of Shadows / Susan Cooper
Nat Field is one of the two dozen in the American Company of Boys, all of them actors under the age of eighteen and all of them hand picked by producer and director Arby to travel to London to put on two of Shakespeare’s plays at the newly reconstructed Globe theater in 1999. Nate is excited when they arrive in England. He just wishes Arby wasn’t so driven and didn’t drive his actors so hard. But the night before he’s set to debut as Puck in "A Midsummer's Night Dream" disaster strikes. He get sick, really, really sick. He goes to sleep and wakes up in the morning about four centuries earlier. He’s still in London, and a strange new fellow named Harry greets him by name, and says he’s glad he’s better, he was afraid that he’d had the plague. Nat still has his part in the play. Harry’s glad he didn’t forget his lines. But the production is not at the new Globe, it’s at the original, and Nat finds himself working for the play's author.

The Shakespeare Stealer     The Shakespeare Stealer / Gary Blackwood

Widge is delighted when Dr. Bright takes him away from the orphanage in Yorkshire at age seven to be his apprentice. Vain, melancholy and unaffectionate Dr. Bright educates Widge to read and write in English, Latin, and a kind of shorthand of Dr. Bright’s invention called “charactery,” and then sells his apprenticeship to a brooding, gruff, mysterious, silent, and deadly stranger when Widge is fourteen. Eventually Widge comes to know him as Falconer. Without hesitation Falconer marches Widge off south. They travel day and night, Falconer warning Widge to keep quiet, and also cutting the throats of a few cutpurses along the way who attempt to waylay them. Eventually they arrive in Leicester, and Widge meets his new master, Simon Bass. Mr. Bass explains his new duties to him. He’s to travel to London.

“…When you go to London, you will attend a performance of a play called The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. You will copy it in Dr. Bright’s ‘charactery’ and you will deliver it to me.”

“… I am a man of business, Widge, and one of my more profitable ventures is a company of players. They are not so successful as the Lord Chamberlain’s of the Admiral’s Men, by they do a respectable business here in the Midlands. As they have no competent poet of their own they make do with hand-me-downs, so well used as to be threadbare. If they could sage a current work, by a poet of some reputation, they could double their box.”

So, accompanied by Falconer, Widge sets off to London to capture a copy of the play. He puts the penny Falconer supplies him with, in the admission box at the Globe, and joins the crowd of groundlings in front of the stage. His transcription goes well, until he gets caught up in the play, and forgets to write down some parts. The next day, to save a penny—they were worth a lot more then—he sneaks in backstage to listen to the lines. Unfortunately he’s discovered . So he makes up a lie. He tells the theater company that he desperately wants to be a player and has run away from his master in the hope of joining them. To his surprise, they take him in. Now he must act the part of a player until he gets an opportunity to complete his copy of the script, or steal the copy owned by the company.