06 December 2007

Half in the Shadows

Yesterday I started writing about my look back at Susan Cooper's King of Shadows after hearing her speak of the book's genesis in a story about gay love between Shakespeare and a young actor. When Cooper decided she was writing the boy Nat's story for young readers, what happened to the sexual themes?

The whole novel takes place among two theatrical troupes: a group of American boys recruited to perform Shakespeare's plays in the recreated Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare's own players in Elizabethan London. Not one person in either time is identified as gay. Arby, the flamboyant impresario who heads the boys' troupe, lives with a woman named Julia. The Elizabethan Nathan Field is said to have been known, like other theatrical professionals, for his "success with women."

I spotted only two moments in which characters mentioned heterodox notions of sexuality or gender. When a young member of the boys' troupe says his mother thinks the theater is dangerous, a sardonic teen answers, "She thought her beautiful little boy'd get attacked by nasty molesters?" Later, when Nat is in Elizabethan England, he gets angry at a street-toughened older teen calling him "little lass."

However, unlike other boy actors in both the modern and Elizabethan scenes, Nat is never assigned a female role. Nat says he has no interest in playing "lovey-dovey roles," and Shakespeare agrees that he's "not a romantic beauty." What's more, there is not a word in the modern scenes about the implications of boys dressing as women: no teasing, no arguments, no comments at all. Instead, one of the loudest themes in the book, introduced on page 2 and repeated often afterwards, is the idea of a theatrical troupe as a "family."

Cooper passes up other opportunities to address ideas of homosexuality. Shakespeare gives Nat a copy of his sonnet beginning "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments." This is usually identified as one of the batch dedicated to a "fair [male] youth." However, Cooper's Shakespeare says he wrote it "for a woman."

Shakespeare tells Nat to read that sonnet as about "thee and thy father," which illuminates how Cooper eventually restructured her characters' relationship in what turned out to be "a children's story." She had originally planned to write about Shakespeare's homosexual love for a young player, but in the finished book Shakespeare is Nat's surrogate father and Nat is the playwright's replacement son.

This becomes clear in the scene beginning on page 73, when Nat dissolves in tears before the playwright and reveals his father's suicide for the first time. Shakespeare in turn talks about losing his son Hamnet, who was about Nat's age. It turns out that Nat's father was a writer, too. Shakespeare later speaks of visiting his wife and surviving children at Stratford. In this context, when the playwright moves the young player into his rooms for more rehearsal, that comes across as Nat regaining something of his life with his father (his mother had died years earlier) rather than as a potentially romantic relationship.

Well, at least from one side. Even though Shakespeare shows only paternal fondness for Nat, the boy develops some sort of crush on the playwright. "I'll never leave you. I want to act with you forever," Nat thinks, and later asks to be Shakespeare's apprentice. Nat misses the man terribly when he returns to the 20th century. And although he never identifies his feelings as romantic love, he comes to sees his portrayal of Puck alongside Shakespeare's Oberon as a "spirit in love with his master."

Thus, while the William Shakespeare in King of Shadows doesn't appear to be gay or bisexual, it's certainly possibly to read Nat as at the start of realizing his homosexuality. Of course, that mix of filial and romantic love can be disquieting, especially in a young boy--hence the explicit emphasis on finding a family.

Earlier I quoted an interview Cooper gave to a British newspaper in 2000, in which she mentioned the genesis of King of Shadows in the love between Shakespeare and a young player. Perhaps she said the same to American journalists, but as the book was coming out in 1999 she emphasized a different inspiration in an interview with Publishers Weekly:
About 10 years ago, I had a flicker of an idea that I would like to write about a boy who is acting at the new Globe and finds himself going back in time to act at Shakespeare's Globe. But I thought, "Oh, God, all that research!" I had just finished The Boggart, and the [main character] hadn't quite left my head, so instead of doing my Elizabethan boy, I wrote a sequel. But the Elizabethan boy didn't leave my head either. So then I did bite the bullet.
Though some readers have latterly wondered about Cooper's Shakespeare being gay, the book's earliest reviewers picked up its clear theme of Nat finding a replacement family rather than its misty whiffs of romance. Publishers Weekly said "Shakespeare [is] cast as a wise, intuitive father figure," and Library Journal spoke of the playwright and Nat's "father/son relationship."

Seeing Cooper shift her story from a love story to a tale of rebuilding a family makes sense when we consider her oeuvre. In her books, families are sources of stability and strength, not tension and anger. She writes little about romantic love and sexual attraction; as she described in her Cambridge Forum presentation, that's one reason she likes writing about pre-adolescent kids. (The recent movie The Seeker was particularly un-Cooperish because the screenwriter gave Will Stanton a teenage crush and a treacherous sibling. We can find such things in Diana Wynne Jones's novels, but not in The Dark Is Rising.)

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