© Gary Blackwood, illustration © Gregg Call.
A few years ago I bought and read Blackwood’s “The Shakespeare Stealer,” and found it excellent, so when I saw this sequel recently, I bought it as well. It’s just as good. Young Widge, an orphan, has found a place as an actor with the company “Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” the troupe that included William Shakespeare as playwright and actor, their London theater being The Globe. Widge is a junior member, and his part is usually to play the young women in the plays, since actual girls and women were not allowed in the acting companies of the time. The company has taken him in despite his troubled past, which included being set up by a former master to steal the plays of Shakespeare for another acting company. He has friends among the others players, and lives in the home of one with some other orphans. All that is about to change, though. The Bubonic Plague is spreading through England, and in London all public gatherings have been banned, so the company plans to go on the road to northern towns where they might still find audiences.
The trip north does not go so well. In some places they are also banned from performing, often violently, they’re attacked by thieves, and running out of money. Shakespeare is supposed to be writing a new play for Queen Elizabeth (and the company), and when he breaks his writing arm in a tussle with local lawmen, Widge is drafted to be his scribe, writing out the words Will dictates. Widge is particularly suited for this, as he was taught a kind of shorthand by that devious former master. Before long Widge is even making suggestions and additions to the play, something he enjoys despite the late hours it requires.
A new character appears in Widge’s life, Jamie Redshaw, a former soldier and now a gambler who presents Widge with evidence that he’s the boy’s father. Widge is wonderstruck by this, having never expected to find a living parent, and Jamie is able to fill in some of the boy’s missing background. But is he to be trusted? Some of the company don’t think so, and trouble follows; trouble that will end in robbery and attempted murder, forcing Widge to flee for his own life.
Gary Blackwood is American, and bucks the trend that favors British writers doing the best job with British historical subjects. Every aspect of this one rings true, from the language and dialects, to the settings and characters. The life of an actor in Elizabethan England is very well handled and feels quite authentic. The historical background and the literary connections all work well without getting in the way of the drama and excitement. There’s a third book in this series I’ll be looking for in the future, this one is highly recommended, as is the first.