Blackwood sets his tale of theatrical intrigue against the backdrop of Elizabethan London in 1601. With careful attention to details of the time, the author re-creates a swashbuckling world where men duel with swords if their honor is questioned, where females disguise themselves as males if they want a life on the theater stage, and where servants do not question the word of their masters.
The Globe Theatre is described from its whitewashed thatched roof to the backstage wings. The property room, where props are kept, and the tiring-room, where actors change clothes, provide the locations for action in this fast-paced novel.
Blackwood draws a complex word-picture (complete with sights, sounds, and smells) of London, from the street vendors to dimly lit taverns to the wherry-boats on the Thames River. He includes a panoramic view of the city from the tower of St. Paul's Cathedral and describes this world through the awed perspective of Widge, a country lad who has lived his first fourteen years in rural Yorkshire.
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Blackwood employs Widge as the narrator of the tale, a device that allows the main character and the reader (who like Widge has probably just been introduced to Elizabethan London) to look at the city through fresh, eager eyes. Sensory details abound, including the voices on the streets, the dankness of misty days, and the stench in the air.
Widge speaks in a Yorkshire accent. His words such as '"a" for "he" and "wis" for "think" might be off-putting for young readers. Some readers might find the dialect as challenging to break as the charactery code that Widge has learned. The Yorkshire words are defined in the text, so the careful reader should have no trouble figuring out what Widge is saying.
Blackwood places historical figures in his novel as well. Appearances by William Shakespeare and actors Richard Burbage, John Heminges, and others add authenticity to the theater world. Heminges even speaks with his trademark stutter. The language of the theater is bandied about, and the reader will figure out these terms along with Widge, who is also a newcomer to the theater world.
Blackwood utilizes elements of style that mimic Shakespeare at his best: word-play, witty repartee, and wry humor. Cliffhanging chapter endings make this volume a page-turner.
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An accurate portrayal of the life of an apprentice adds psychological depth to Blackwood's historical novel. Widge has been treated as a slave, a person to be owned by the master and to do his bidding, no matter what. Widge has had no ethical upbringing. He has had no positive role models to teach him what is right and what is wrong. What saves him is his own ability to consider and assess a situation and to act accordingly.
The role of women in Shakespeare's theatrical world is shown through Julia's quest to be a performer. It was believed at the time in England that the stage would corrupt a woman, so men played women's parts. Julia had to cross the Channel to France for an opportunity in the theater.
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Topics for Discussion
1. How did the main character get his name? What could it have been?
2. What is charactery? How many people had mastered it?
3. What landmark was the center of London? Is it still there?
4. Describe the audience at the Globe Theater. Why did people act as they did at the theater? How does this differ from how theater-goers act today?
5. Why did Falconer wear a disguise?
6. What part does the Thames River play in Widge's story? Relate the various times he crosses that river via wherryboats and bridges.
7. What type of costumes did players wear in Shakespeare's plays? Why were they put together in this fashion?
8. Which characters in this story are historical? What do historical characters add to the atmosphere of the book?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What sort of life could orphans expect in England in 1601? Was Widge's experience with masters unusual?
2. Research Shakespeare's life and write a short profile of the playwright.
3. Why were women not allowed to be actresses in Shakespeare's time? Are there jobs in present-day England that are not open to women?
4. Write a descriptive essay of a walk down the street in Shakespeare's London. What features would set London apart from other cities of this period?
5. This book is set near the end of Queen Elizabeth's long reign. Recount her accomplishments as a monarch.
6. Describe the publishing world in England in 1601. Why did playwrights not immediately publish their plays?
7. Swordplay is important in Shakespeare's plays and in the adventure in Blackwood's novel. Describe the different moves that Widge must learn for the play. What different moves did Nick and Mr. Armin use in real sword fights?
8. How important are role models for young people? Who were Widge's role models and how did they affect his ideas of right and wrong?
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Several of Blackwood's books depict a theme similar to The Shakespeare Stealer. a boy set down in unfamiliar territory who must learn to fend for himself. In Wild Timothy, a boy who prefers books to outdoor life is lost in the woods and must survive for several weeks on his own. The high school senior in The Dying Sun, used to warmth and the crowded city life of the year 2050, must undertake a journey to the frozen state of Missouri where winter is a way of life. In Beyond the Door, the main character discovers a parallel world and is placed in a life-or-death situation.
Although Blackwood relies on survival as a plot device, his main characters are always well developed, and they learn more about themselves and their abilities by overcoming physical threats.
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For Further Reference
Brabander, Jennifer M. Review. Horn Book Magazine 0uly/August, 1998): 483. The reviewer compares Blackwood's narrative to Shakespeare's style.
Margolis, Sally. Review. School Library Journal (June, 1998): 140. This reviewer calls Blackwood's work a "fast-moving historical novel that introduces an important era with casual familiarity."
Phelan, Carolyn. Review. Booklist (June 1 &15,1998): 1763. This reviewer believes the main character "makes a wonderful guide to London and the Globe, since everything is remarkable to his unjaded eyes."
Review. The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (June, 1998): 353. This reviewer notes Blackwood's careful use of Elizabethan and theatrical details.
Telgen, Diane. Something about the Author. Volume 72. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993. An interview with Blackwood is presented in which he discusses how characters and situation allow theme to surface in novels and plays.
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