Susan Cooper

King Of Shadows

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King Of Shadows Summary

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King of Shadows is a historical young adult novel written by Susan Cooper. The book, which was published in 1999, tells the story of an orphaned boy who participates in the production of a Shakespeare play with an elite theater company in London. One night after he falls ill with what appears to be the bubonic plague, he falls asleep and travels back in time to the Elizabethan Age. There, he meets the real-life Shakespeare and comes to terms with the loss of his parents. The book was a finalist for both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and it was adapted for the stage by the New York State Theater Institute in 2005.

Nathan Field is a young teenager being raised by his aunt after the death of both his parents. His mother died of cancer when he was young, and his father later committed suicide out of grief. At his aunt’s suggestion, Nathan takes up theater as a way to escape from the tragedy of his childhood. Nathan is recruited by a local all-boys acting company to play the role of Puck in a stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s historic Globe Theater. Arby, the director, asks the boys to play theater games in order to learn to trust each other. One day during rehearsal in London, Nathan falls ill with what appears to be the bubonic plague and is admitted to the hospital.

After going to bed in hopes of sleeping off the illness, Nathan dreams that he is tossed high above Earth and then pulled back. He wakes up the next morning to discover that he had traveled 400 years back in time. It is the year 1599 in London, and Shakespeare is getting ready to stage the very first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the original Globe Theater. Nathan is thrilled to meet the famous playwright, who has always been one of his idols. He discovers that in this world, he is a student at St. Paul’s School and has been chosen to play the role of Puck in this production. He trains with Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and meets the other actors in the production.

Roper, one of the other boy actors, gives Nathan a hard time because he is jealous of the latter’s privileged status as a St. Paul’s student. He takes Nathan to watch a bear fight. The spilling of the bear’s blood during the fight makes Nathan think about his father’s suicide, and he runs away in tears. Roper mocks him for being a wimp. Later while rehearsing with Shakespeare, Nathan breaks down crying and explains to the playwright that he lost both his parents. Shakespeare comforts his young apprentice and offers to let him move into his house to live with him. Nathan happily accepts the offer and begins to see Shakespeare as the loving father figure he never had.

While Nathan is staying at Shakespeare’s house, a lord visits Shakespeare and tries to convince him to cancel the play. Shakespeare refuses, and the lord leaves. The playwright confides to Nathan that Queen Elizabeth is planning to attend the production in secret. Because the Queen just had the popular Earl of Essex executed, the political climate is tense and her safety is in danger. At a rehearsal, Roper chokes on an apple and Nathan saves his life by performing the Heimlich Maneuver, which had not yet been invented in Shakespeare’s day. The other actors begin to look on Nathan with suspicion after the incident, believing him to be a witch. Shakespeare gives Nathan a poem about the power of love, and tells Nathan that his father did love him, despite his act of suicide.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Nathan’s aunt flies to London to visit him in the hospital. The nurse on duty tells her that he should be discharged soon, but expresses concern because he appears to be disoriented and is speaking with Elizabethan vocabulary. In 1599, the day of the big performance arrives and the Queen attends. The production goes off without a hitch, with everyone playing their roles to perfection, including Nathan. Shakespeare decides to dress up the character of Queen Hippolyta to look like Elizabeth. Both the audience and the Queen love the idea and applaud. At the end of the play, the Queen comes to meet all of the players and invites them to perform at her palace the following month.

Nathan is afraid to go back to St. Paul’s School, worried they will discover that he is an impostor. He asks Shakespeare if he could stay in the company instead of returning to school. The playwright tells him he should go back to school for the time being, but promises him a place in his company when he graduates. Nathan goes to sleep again, and wakes up back in the hospital and in the present day. Although he had made a full recovery, Nathan is bitterly disappointed to be separated from Shakespeare just as he was getting to know him. Feeling like he had just lost another father figure, Nathan gets into an argument with his director, Arby, at rehearsal and runs away in tears after Arby criticizes Shakespeare.

Nathan tells his friends, Gil and Rachel, about his trip back in time to 1599. After doing some research, the three of them discover that Nathan switched places with another boy named Nathan Field who lived in Shakespeare’s day and contracted the bubonic plague. Arby–who is possibly the reincarnation of Richard Burbage, an adult actor in Shakespeare’s company–later explains to Nathan that he was chosen for the play so that he could swap places with the Elizabethan-era Nathan and prevent him from transmitting the disease to Shakespeare. Nathan is satisfied upon realizing the role he played in protecting the playwright. He finally comes to terms with his parents’ deaths.

The main themes of the novel are family, parental love, grief, loss, identity, disguise, and impersonation. Nathan is deeply shaken by the loss of his parents, particularly his father’s suicide, and immerses himself in theater as an outlet for his pain and grief. His journey back in time helps him find a surrogate father in Shakespeare and begin to forgive his own father for abandoning him when he needed him most. At the end of the novel, Nathan’s realization that he saved his surrogate father from death allows him to finally make peace with the fact that he couldn’t do the same for his actual father.