All the World’s a Stage Summary

Gretchen Woelfle

All the World’s a Stage

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All the World’s a Stage Summary

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All the World’s a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts (2011) by YA novelist Gretchen Woelfle follows the life of a twelve-year-old boy during Shakespeare’s time as he is forced to pickpocket from the audience. Woelfle’s work has received frequent critical praise for its in-depth research, memorable characters, and moral lessons. All the World’s a Stage was a finalist for the 2012 Pen Center USA Literary Award for Children’s Literature. The work is targeted toward children eight to twelve.

Instead of chapters, the story is told in acts and scenes, like a traditional play. The work also includes many illustrations of characters, maps of London, and plays in production by the English artist Thomas Cox. Themes in All the World’s a Stage include serendipity, love of art, and discovering and making one’s purpose.

Kit Buckles is a recently orphaned boy in 1590s London. He leaves the English countryside, like hundreds of other prepubescent boys, to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, his first encounter in London is with a group of pickpockets who charge him with stealing purses from the audience at the Theatre Playhouse where William Shakespeare happens to be presenting his work.

Reluctantly, Kit agrees to steal purses. But he is so entranced by Shakespeare’s play (whose real-life actors were called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) that he is caught attempting to steal. Someone cries out, “cutpurse!” the preferred Elizabethan word for pickpocket. This is the first time he has ever tried to steal something.

The theatre managers grant Kit a choice: he can go to jail or work off his punishment as a theater worker for the players. Kit knows that prison is terrible for young children and that there really are not any better opportunities for orphans in sixteenth-century London. So, Kit agrees to work as a stagehand and unbeknownst to him, acquires the chance of a lifetime. He will gain nightly access to plays by the greatest living playwright of all time and learn about some of the dramas that occur in each play’s production.

After each performance, Kit cleans the stage, carries messages, and occasionally stands in as an extra. With each role he takes on, Kit wonders what kind of career is right for him. Many of the scene subtitles list the occupations that Kit considers, e.g. “Messenger”; “Apprentice.”

Kit gains a firsthand glimpse into how Shakespeare works: the bard seems to find inspiration in absolutely everything, from songs sang by drunk men, to passing conversations he overhears in the crowded, dirty cobblestone streets. One day, Kit asks Shakespeare why he spends money on street posters and framed newspaper clippings. Shakespeare proclaims that “Everything is food for my plays.” He encourages Kit to find the meaning of his own life, which he compares to writing a play. “You are writing a play too, lad, the play of your life,” he says.

Kit meets a girl his own age named Molly. She sells apples around the theater, and the two bond over their love of theater and their similarly impoverished upbringing. Shakespeare is fond of Molly and admires her wit; he quotes her in several plays.

Kit sees how all the female roles are played by men and boys; at the time, it was considered unbefitting for a woman to act on the stage.

Kit and Molly have several conversations about Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. They get into an in-depth conversation about fate. In the first play, the young lovers seem fated to die, but in the second play, the protagonist says that if one’s fate is unsatisfactory, they can only look to themselves for blame and help. Kit and Molly discuss this conflict, and Kit wonders to what degree he is responsible for being an orphan, and if he will ever be able to live in a self-directed and self-sustaining manner.

One day, Kit learns that the landlord of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men plans to evict the theater group. It does not take long for Kit to join the subversive effort to steal the theater by moving it, piece by piece, to a new location. (This happened in real life).

The rebellion is an eventual success, and the troupe erects the Globe Theater on the south bank of the Thames river, which is now one of the most famous landmarks in London. During the night, all of the actors remove pieces of the theater, wood beam by wood beam and timber by timber, and carry it from the north bank to its new location.

Having built so many things for the theater troupe, Kit decides that he could make a living as a carpenter. He concludes that carpentry is “work that will satisfy my heart and my head.” Having seen Shakespeare build up his life with words, Kit figures he can take physical objects to build his own satisfying world. Kit completes his journey from a confused boy to a young man with a sense of the world and his place in it.