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King of Shadows, Queen of Shakespeare: The Genius of Susan Cooper | Bard in Multimedia

By March 9, 2015 No Comments

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The term “multimedia” is now often assumed to refer exclusively to electronic media, but of course it actually just means “multiple media,” whether electronic or not. That is why Shakespeare is the ultimate “multimedia” artist, as his works have been adapted into every artistic medium, from music (such as the Shakespeare operas of Verdi) to visual art (such as the Shakespeare-inspired paintings of Fusili and Millais).

Shakespeare’s plays and poetry have also been adapted into other forms of literature and have even inspired other great works of literature. It was the Romantic poets at the end of the 18th century who first proclaimed Shakespeare as the great national poet of England and as Shakespeare’s fame spread and he was celebrated internationally by the likes of Goethe in Germany and Ostrovsky in Russia, he soon became regarded as the great global poet.

In the 20th century, Shakespeare inspired numerous writers, including Borges, the great Argentinian short-story writer and essayist, who is often regarded as the most singular 20th century writer for his extraordinary tales about lost civilisations, forgotten languages and imaginary universes. In his story, The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, Borges quite plausibly recounts an amazing and allegedly true story about the fall and rise of a supposed hero of the Irish Republican movement. When he is unmasked as a British traitor, he seeks a dignified death so as to preserve his own honour and protect the ideals of the revolution he had originally supported. Incredibly, the other nationalists lift the plot of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar almost wholesale and use that as the basis for their real-life assassination, which only becomes clear to historians much later. Borges also wrote the brilliant short essay on Shakespeare, Everything and Nothing, which is not only a remarkable imaginative response to Shakespeare’s life and work but also one of the most subtle and profound pieces of Shakespearean criticism ever written, establishing the mysterious but Protean nature of Shakespeare, the great creator.

There is even a large body of children’s literature inspired by, and occasionally adapting, Shakespeare, from the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare onwards. In my opinion, however, the most extraordinary children’s book written about Shakespeare is Susan Cooper’s 1999 novel, King of Shadows. King of Shadows is a genuine “must-read” for any Shakespearean and, even more importantly, their children (or indeed any other children). It is ostensibly a fantasy, but in many ways it gets to the truth of Shakespeare the man and artist more successfully than many other supposedly “serious” works of Shakespearean criticism.

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Susan Cooper will shortly celebrate her 80th birthday, having been born on 23 May 1935. Before becoming a full-time author, she worked as a journalist for The Sunday Times in London, at one point apparently working under Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond (a rare example of one great writer working under another great writer). While she was employed as a reporter, she wrote fiction in her spare time. Her first book Mandrake was science fiction rather than children’s fiction (sci-fi, as opposed to “chi-fi”), and it was published in 1964. However, she found her true subject matter with a series of children’s books known as The Dark is Rising sequence, which she wrote in America after emigrating there to marry Nicholas Grant, a Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Perhaps being distanced from her native England inspired Cooper to examine and write about its most distant, indeed its founding, myth – the King Arthur story. The hero of The Dark is Rising is a young boy, Will Stanton, who discovers on his 11th birthday that he is the true inheritor of Arthur’s spirit and must wage war for the forces of “the Light” against those of “the Dark.”

The five novels of The Dark is Rising sequence were written between 1965 and 1977, with the second novel (which gives the sequence its title) being published in 1973. They were immensely successful, both commercially and critically, selling in their tens of thousands and winning numerous awards, including the prestigious Newbery Medal in America, which was given to the fourth story, The Grey King, for its outstanding contribution to literature for children. They have come to be regarded as modern classics and have even seeped into popular culture. For example, The Dark is Rising inspired (and gave a title to) a classic single by one of the great rock bands of the past 20 years, Mercury Rev.

Inevitably, the novel The Dark is Rising was eventually filmed in 2005. Its producers, 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, had hoped that it would be the first of a franchise to rival the Harry Potter or Tolkien books. However, the film (called The Seeker in America and by the novel’s original title in Britain) was not a success and no further films were made. Cooper herself professed her unhappiness at the screen adaptation of her book, in particular the fact that the 11-year-old hero of her book, Will Stanton, was made into a young teenager, presumably to appeal to the “teen” audience. However, as Cooper publicly pointed out, the key to Will’s character is that he is only 11, and thus pre-pubescent; before his thoughts inevitably turn to girls, he is preoccupied with myths and stories.

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Cooper’s insistence on the importance of her hero’s age is telling because it is precisely her ability to write about the pre-pubescent mind, especially the male pre-pubescent mind, that makes King of Shadows so completely convincing and compelling. Its hero, Nat, is another pre-pubescent (at only nine, he is even younger than Will Stanton), and it is the fact that he is in this luminal stage between being a young child and a teenager that is absolutely central to the story and his superb characterisation.

Nat is a young boy who, at his tender age, has already suffered a lot. During the course of the novel, we learn that he had first lost his mother through illness and then, tragically, his father (who had been a semi-successful poet) to suicide, after he had been unable to cope with his grief. Sensitive but traumatised, Nat is naturally drawn towards the stage; it is only when he is performing that he forgets his own personal misfortune and feels liberated.

Obviously talented, particularly as a gymnast or tumbler, Nat is recruited by Arby, a theatre director and utterly devoted Shakespearean, who creates an American “company of boys” to take across the Atlantic to perform at the newly opened Globe theatre in London. (King of Shadows was published in 1999, only two years after the modern Globe was opened.)

It is in London that Nat’s story becomes both fantastic and fantastical. The opening of the book is extremely detailed about the way in which a new theatre company is created, with Nat just one of the boys whose lives are transformed by Arby’s enthusiasm and love of Shakespeare. However, after rehearsing for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he is due to play Puck, Nat is mysteriously taken ill. He is rushed to hospital where a young doctor informs a specialist in rare medicines: “You aren’t going to believe this, but I think we have a case of bubonic plague.”

Nat has not just contracted a medieval illness; he is somehow transported back to the 16th century, specifically the end of it, 1599, when the Globe is being opened for the first time. The beauty of the book, particularly for young readers (and I can attest to this personally, having read it to both of my eldest children, almost as a rite of passage, when they were about eight or nine) is that it is never made explicit how Nat has travelled back in time. Indeed, has he actually travelled back at all, or is he in some dreadful fever-dream or hallucination caused by his illness? Naturally, Nat himself is unsure, and that beautiful balance of uncertainty is maintained throughout the story. In fact, it is the key to the story, but not wanting to give away the ending (the purpose of this article is principally to encourage people, young and old, to read the book for themselves), I will not say any more about that here. Instead, I will concentrate on what I think are the two defining features of the book: the way that it illuminates, first, our understanding of Shakespeare’s work, particularly as a theatre actor or director, and, secondly, our understanding of what Shakespeare the man was probably like.

The work, first. Having somehow adjusted, as best he can, to being catapulted back in time, Nat discovers that he has somehow replaced another Nat, a boy of the same age (and apparently the same appearance) who had been especially recruited by Shakespeare’s company (specifically by his lead actor and the employer of many apprentices, Richard Burbage) to appear in a special performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is to be given for the Queen herself. What is so powerful about this central part of the book is that it shows how Nat’s preconceptions about Shakespearean theatre (which are the preconceptions of many modern readers and audience members) are often exposed as such by his directly experiencing the reality of the Elizabethan stage.

There are numerous examples, from Nat’s initial surprise at learning that the plays would have been performed during the day and not at night (no electricity then, of course), to his gradual understanding of how Elizabethan acting and stagecraft differed, often considerably, from modern interpretations of the plays. He marvels at the intricate, beautiful body-paint that is applied to him when he is preparing to be Puck; he is employed to help operate the trap-door in the middle of the stage through which actors often make their entrance or exit (at one point, duped by another boy who regards him as his rival, he is encouraged to open the trap-door at precisely the wrong moment); and he is also horrified by the close proximity of the Globe to the other “entertainments” on offer on the south bank of the Thames, notably the brothels and the bearpits.

As he assimilates Elizabethan stage practice, Nat becomes an infinitely better, and truer, Shakespearean actor. He learns how intimately involved with the plays the audiences are, by seeing how Burbage, Shakespeare himself and the other actors deliberately draw them into the action, even directly addressing them on occasion. It is this essential, unending interaction between audience and actors that is perhaps most surprising, even shocking, to Nat (and many modern readers). Rather than being cut off from the actors, with the audience maintaining a respectful, even reverential hush (as is often the case with modern Shakespeare productions), the audience is an integral part of the play: in turn chorus, additional character and even, on occasion, protagonist (especially when a “cutpurse” is apprehended during one performance). As Shakespeare says to Nat before he goes on stage for the first time: “Listen to it. All those voices which become one—the voice of that single great animal, the audience. The Leviathan. A very large and frightening animal – which we shall tame. Ironically, Shakespeare’s success as a playwright has been such that he may have “tamed” his audience too much: Nat sees for himself how Shakespeare had to win over his original audience.

Nat learns from Shakespeare, not only how to act but more importantly how to live, and to be exact how to live again after terrible loss. There is a perfect mirroring in the novel that is truly Shakespearean. Just as Shakespeare, the father of twins (which must have been incredibly rare in the 16th century, when so few children survived childbirth at all), one of whom lived and one of whom died, so often saw the world in its true duality – comedy/tragedy, pain/laughter, positive/negative (even yin and yang) – so Cooper quietly, beautifully, with wonderfully measured prose, tells the story of how a 20th century boy who has lost his father finds solace in the arms of a 16th century father who has lost his son.

Nat finds himself opening up to Shakespeare as he has never opened up to anyone else before, not even the aunt who had raised him after his parents’ death. It is this portrayal of a warm, kind, caring man, who intuitively understands others – even small, traumatised children – that is at the heart of Cooper’s portrayal of Shakespeare and it culminates in a wondrously tender scene in the house that Nat ends up sharing with Shakespeare. Trying to console not only Nat but himself, Shakespeare reads him a poem he has written recently. The poem, it turns out, is one of the greatest sonnets, Sonnet 116, which opens with the immortal lines: “Let me not to the marriage of true mind/Admit impediments.” As Shakespeare quietly explains to Nat, who, like most children (indeed most first-time readers or hearers of Shakespeare), is not entirely sure what all the words mean: “I have no picture of what may become of us after we are dead, Nat. But I do know thy father’s love for thee did not die with him, nor thine for him. Nor mine for my Hamnet – or for this lady. Love is love. An ever-fixed mark. Remember that and try to be comforted.” It is typical of Cooper’s brilliant understanding of the child’s mind, which is surely the key to her success as a children’s author, that she has Nat say to himself in response: “He said “fixed” as if it had two syllables. I remember that.” In this apparently casual line, she combines Shakespearean criticism, dramaturgy and true, beautiful writing.

Nat eventually returns to the 20th century, but the story does not end there. Far from it; in true Shakespearean style, the plot only thickens and deepens. Again, I do not want to give anything away, because I genuinely want others to enjoy this book as I and my older children have (and even just writing this, I cannot wait to read it to my youngest child, once she is old enough to appreciate it). However, I will say that magic figures prominently, and in that respect Cooper is truly Shakespearean to the end.

Shakespeare’s late plays, or romances, often explicitly featured magic, for example in the form of Prospero, the great magician, or even Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, who seemingly miraculously comes back to life after being thought dead for decades. And Cooper employs magic too; indeed, her magic is twofold. First, it is there in the sheer beauty of her writing, which in simple prose that even a child can understand brings to life the sights, sounds, smells and sheer sensations of Shakespeare’s London; as Nat says at one point, when he realises that Elizabethans drink ale all the time because there is no pure drinking water, most of Elizabethan England was “slightly buzzed” all the time. Secondly, and more importantly, there is magic in the intricate plotting by which the story is finally resolved and Nat’s importance to Shakespeare is finally revealed. Suffice to say that it is not just Shakespeare who saves Nat’s life; the relationship is truly reciprocal. And magic of the kind that has been largely lost, even forgotten, in the modern world is used to bring matters to a deeply satisfying conclusion.

Such is the strange beauty of Cooper’s ending to King of Shadows that I have to confess I only truly appreciated it on a third reading of the book. On the first two occasions that I read it, I felt that the ending was a disappointment, even a let-down, at the end of what was otherwise a great story. It was only on that crucial third reading, to my son last summer, that I belatedly realised that the ending was entirely appropriate and fitting – indeed, the only possible ending to such an apparently impossible story. It was my denseness as a reader that was to blame for this belated realisation, not the denseness of Cooper’s prose. In fact, her prose is anything but dense; it is as light, deft and ultimately glorious as Puck himself.

I have not read every children’s book about, or inspired by, Shakespeare that has been written, but of those I have – from the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare to modern-day Japanese manga comic-book versions of the plays – King of Shadows is far and away the best. That is because, like Shakespeare’s own writing, it is simultaneously utterly true to life (especially in its portrayal of the deepest emotions of loss and grief) and utterly magical.

King of Shadows can be purchased in almost all good bookstores, and further details, including about stage adaptations and audio versions of the book, can be found at the author’s own website.

 

Martin Keady

Author Martin Keady

I am a reporter and writer, whose credits include 1616 (or Shakespeare: The Last Year), a play about Shakespeare's last six months; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon; and The Final, a short film about football.

More posts by Martin Keady

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