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Literature / The Shakespeare Stealer

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The Shakespeare Stealer is a historical fiction novel released in 1999 by Gary Blackwood. The story stars Widge, a young scribe who is bought by a new master due to his training in writing “charactery”, a shorthand alphabet that allows him to transcribe words as fast they are being spoken. His new master, Simon Bass, has a special assignment for him: transcribe William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is being performed but whose script has not been printed. In this era of little copyright and communication, Bass will be able pass off the play as his own.

But complications emerge, as time runs short and Widge’s notebook is stolen. Trying to take it back, he uses the worst excuse he could in explaining why he’s backstage: he wants to be an actor. Shakespeare’s company thus takes him in, and Widge learns the fine arts of their trade while trying to reconcile performing with them and yet stealing their scripts in secret.

In the sequel, Shakespeare’s Scribe, Widge is now a regular member of the troupe, and has been with them for a year. But plague has been closing London’s theaters, so Shakespeare’s actors migrate to the country to continue acting in the towns. The Bard’s arm is broken in a riot, so Widge helps him transcribe his new play, Love’s Labor Won/All's Well That Ends Well. Meanwhile, he develops a rivalry with the troupe’s newest actor, Sal Pavy, who is usurping his parts and getting more praise.

But the biggest conflict comes when Widge starts tracking down the details of his parentage. He eventually comes across a man who claims to be his father, but has a tense relationship with the company. Doubts emerge about his truthfulness, and Widge again is faced about whether he should remain with the company.

The final book is Shakespeare's Spy. Tensions are high in the company. Queen Elizabeth is dying, the next ruler will be a Catholic who may despise plays, valuables are disappearing from the company's vault, and Widge is suspected thanks to being a former thief. He himself wonders if he can escape his shady past, especially after meeting a fortune teller who seems to tell him he can't. Yet he's attempting to do so, trying to court the Bard's daughter Judith and then writing his own play. Eventually it comes to that if he's not the actual thief, then perhaps he might be able to spy on the rival company and find the real thief.

Note: Spoilers hidden in one book will be unmarked in the sequel.

Tropes in The Shakespeare Stealer

  • Chekhov's Gun: Bloodbags, a sheep stomach filled with fake blood to simulate being killed when onstage.
  • Cross-Cast Role: In keeping with the time period, all of the actors playing female roles are young boys (except for Julia).
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Anti-Semitism is high in Elizabethan England, and Jews are thus forced to hide their ethnicity.
      Falconer: There are no Jews in England. Only former Jews.
    • Women are not allowed onstage, so all the female parts must be played by boys.
    • Distrust of Catholics is also common.
  • The Dragon: Falconer, who Simon Bass sends to supervise Widge. He turns out to be Bass himself in disguise.
  • Foreshadowing: Julian gets much angry than he should be when Widge and Sander playfully tackle him, because they might have discovered her disguise.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Simon Bass's "Falconer" disguise is made to look like a stereotypical Jew, to reward the troupe's racist perceptions of him.
  • The Mole: Widge is one within Shakespeare's troupe.
  • No Sense of Humor: Widge starts out as this, causing him to be confused by the constantly snarking actors.
  • Oh, Crap!: Mr Armin's face grows pale when he assesses Julian's injury, because he finds Suppressed Mammaries, to conceal her real gender.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. There's another Will in the company, Will Sly, who Widge briefly mistakes for Shakespeare.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Widge is stabbed and, while bleeding profusely, stays awake and standing for quite a long time, to his surprise. Only his bloodbag had been punctured.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Enforced with Widge, as his nickname is his only name. Also, Sander's full first name is Alexander, but it's only mentioned once, when meeting the Queen; otherwise, he's just Sander.
  • Recursive Crossdressing: Julia, a Sweet Polly Oliver, plays Ophelia in Hamlet and an unspecified female character in Love's Labour's Lost, and presumably other female roles as well. What's more, given Shakespeare's propensity for having female characters disguise themselves as men, it's entirely possible that another layer was added at times, though it's never expressly mentioned that she played any of those roles.
  • Sobriquet Sex Switch: Julian's real name is Julia.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Julian is actually a girl, disguised so she could be an actor.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: Mr. Heminges has a stutter in public, but onstage the acting spirit makes him able to speak normally.

Tropes in Shakespeare's Scribe

  • Appetite Equals Health: Widge, a former doctor's apprentice, examines a girl named Tetty who fears she's caught the plague. After a brief inspection for plague symptoms, finding none, Widge asks if she's lost her appetite. When she tells him she actually happens to be hungry right then, this reassures Widge (who then reassures her) that she's not plague-infected.
  • Ascended Extra: In The Shakespeare Stealer, Sam was one of the two most junior members of the company (known as "hopefuls"), only mentioned a few times and not given any dialogue. In Shakespeare's Scribe, he's become a fully-fledged apprentice and is a significant character.
  • Broken Bird: Sal Pavy was massively mistreated at Blackfriars, who forced him into ill-suited roles and almost destroyed his singing voice. They also had him caned every time he tried to run away, to the point that his scars coat his back.
  • Call-Back: Part of the reason Sam thinks Sal Pavy might be a girl in disguise is because he notices similarities between Sal's behavior and what he previously saw from Julia. It turns out he's right on the concept but wrong on the specifics; Sal is keeping a secret, but it's not about gender.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Widge and his friends speak favorable of Sal's performance at Blackfriar's. Later he's hired to their troupe.
  • Demoted to Extra: Sander, a major character in the first book, disappears after the first few chapters and only shows up briefly at the end as he dies. To a lesser degree, Mr. Pope and his housekeeper are this as well.
  • Historical In-Joke: The play Shakespeare dictates to Widge is initially called Love's Labour's Won after a supposed lost play by Shakespeare, but as it develops, a comment from Widge inspires him to rename it All's Well That Ends Well.
  • Insufferable Genius: Sal Pavy. Prodigy at acting, terrible teammate.
  • Method Acting:invoked Sal Pavy is noted by Mr. Armin to be such a good actor because he puts his own memories into the role. Widge learns to do the same in the acting duel at the end, remembering his troubles with his parents.
  • No Sense of Humor: Sal, but to a worse extent than Widge. Widge just didn't get the jokes. Sal finds them insulting.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Sal Pavy's full first name is Salthaniel, but, like Sander, he never uses it.
  • Signature Item Clue: Jamie Redshaw's distinctive cane is found with an empty treasury box, having been used to beat its guard. Subverted as it turns out it's no longer Jamie's cane; he had bet it in a card game a few days before the robbery and lost, and the real robber, knowing that Jamie and his cane were known to the troupe, probably left it as an intentional misdirect.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Sam suspects this of Sal Pavy, because he constantly refuses to sleep or bathe near them. It's actually to hide the scars on his back.
  • Throw It In: invoked A few of Widge's comments make it into Shakespeare's play, such as his quip about an answer that can fit all questions "must be an answer of most monstrous size". Most importantly, a saying he remembers from his hometown, "All's well that ends well", becomes the play's new title.

Tropes in Shakespeare's Spy

  • Been There, Shaped History: Shakespeare lets Widge try and finish a manuscript he's uninterested in finishing himself, which turns out to be Timon of Athens, a play which Shakespeare is believed to have collaborated on with an unknown author.
  • Bus Crash: Widge gets the news that Jamie Redshaw has died, some time after they last parted ways.
  • Chekhov's Gun: When brainstorming for a plot for his play, Widge briefly considers one where the child of a poor milkman finds out they're actually a child of royalty. He quickly discards it, thinking there's no good reason why a prince would give his child to a peasant couple. This turns out to be what happened to Julia.
  • Genre Shift: Widge compares Shakespeare's reaction to finding his daughter Judith's visiting the Globe Theater to this, saying his work and home life are kept so separate that it's as if a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream walked into Julius Caesar.
  • Inopportune Voice Cracking: Widge's voice starts to crack due to puberty. He notes that he's entering puberty pretty late, due to poor feeding in his previous homes contrasted by the better treatment of the troupe. He's rather unhappy to find it means he won't be able to play girls onstage anymore, as they were the parts he'd been accustomed to.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Julia expresses skepticism that English theatre will allow women to act onstage soon, saying too many Puritans would protest. Widge then jokes King James could have them shipped to the New World.
  • The Mole: The thief turns out to be Ned Shakespeare, William's irresponsible brother.
  • Not Afraid to Die: Sal Pavy. He decides that dying young makes him seem full of promise. Dying in adulthood, he would have been just another actor.
  • Prophecy Twist: Each time with Madame La Voisin's prophecies.
    • Sam is told he'll receive more money than he imagined. He tries to exploit this by buying a lottery ticket and betting for the highest prize. It ends up that his fine for supposedly losing a costume is less than he had thought it to be, meaning that he ends up with more money than he thought (or "imagined") he would have.
    • Widge is told he will come into a fortune. Meaning the Fortune theater where he spies.
    • Widge invokes this later when he is told he will tell a great many lies. He's dismayed at first because of his attempts to be more honest, but then he decides that what constitutes a lie is subjective and that he can embrace the prophecy (without giving up on his personal growth) by becoming a playwright.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Sal Pavy has his long blond hair cut off by thieves who want it to sell it to a wig maker. He's furious at Sam and Widge for not stepping in to stop it, though they point out that if they'd interfered, much worse could have happened to any or all of them than just losing hair.
  • Twisting the Prophecy: Widge and his friends meet a fortune teller who tells them prophecies about their lives, all of which become true in ways they didn't expect. At the end, Widge decides to visit her one last time, but becomes aghast when his fortune is that he "will tell a great many lies". Noticing his despair, the fortune teller urges him to not take the prophecy so literally, and Widge ultimately resolves to tell countless "lies", by becoming a playwright.

Alternative Title(s): Shakespeares Scribe, Shakespeares Spy