What if, during the mysterious “Lost Years” of Shakespeare (1586–1592), Will met up with one Symington “Tuck” Smythe, also on the road to London to make his fortune, and the two, between draughts, were set upon by Black Billy the Highwayman? And what if, once they finally joined Dick Burbage’s theater company, they were assigned—before they could prove their respective mettle as dramatist and thespian—to dogsbody work, unsaddling and cosseting the playgoers’ horses and carriages? Journeyman Hawke (author of numerous SF novels in and out of the Star Trek series) amusingly trots out most of the Shakespearean excesses—switched identities, twins and triplets, shipwrecks, ale by the tankard, epithets from “You knave! You worm!” to “You miserable cur dog!”—and adds a lady in distress, sweet Elizabeth Darcie, whose father, a backer of Burbage’s theater, wants to marry her off to titled Anthony Gresham. (Both parties demur, but then, to Elizabeth’s distress, Gresham unchivalrously changes his mind.) Meanwhile, poor Will is mistaken for Kit Marlowe, whom somebody wants to kill, and the highwayman Black Billy is revealed as Kit’s patron, Sir William Worley, undercover agent for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. All will be resolved at The Toad and the Badger, where the principal players retire to celebrate a fine performance by everyone but Tuck, who has missed his cue.
Warring theater companies, familial chicanery, villains by the yard, and Will and Tuck as bumbling heroes—it all provides a good-natured romp for audiences who wish they’d made a sequel to Shakespeare in Love.