Cook (The Sidewalk Hilton, 1994, etc.; a.k.a. Bruce Alexander) lends his mystery skills to this self-portrait of a callow, bisexual, slightly homicidal young Shakespeare as an eager ingénue who manages to better himself without caring overmuch about those who fall by the wayside.
Things start with Will chatting away in his old age (52), prosperous and bored in Stratford, troubled only by an old village biddy. Speaking in an uninflected, unintrospective voice devoid of the brilliance and fury of the Bard, Old Will traces Young Will’s departure from sleepy Stratford after a dalliance with a male schoolteacher and an accidental-on-purpose pushing of his best friend into a raging river during an argument. Untroubled by conscience, though he is a closet Catholic, Will does hack work for a traveling troupe, hits London as a player with a knack for words and for finding patrons, falls in love with Christopher Marlowe, even moves in with him (and also steals characters from him—best here is the portrait of Will and Kit as young sodomites who, when they aren’t buggering or boozing, write and bluster in the same room). Will experiences the great events of his time—court intrigues, the Spanish Armada, persecution of Catholics, plague, the competition and growth of theater companies, even the murder of Marlowe (Will himself wields the dagger in this version)—all in a sort of absent-minded monotone that successfully humanizes the mysterious and elusive figure yet makes it impossible to associate him with the glories of Elizabethan English. That may actually have been Cook’s plan—to show Will as a vessel or conduit of his experiences—but the device leaves a dull and disappointing aftertaste.
Less compelling on Shakespeare himself than on his age; but in its evocation of the laissez-faire sexual and economic mores of Elizabethan society, Cook’s tale has the ring of psychological truth.