The splendor and squalor of Elizabethan England come sharply into focus in this saga of a talented, troubled actor's search for himself: a first from Renaissance specialist Cowell. Young Nicholas Cooke was a promising student in Canterbury until his father was hung as a thief and his mother turned to prostitution. Nicholas's rage at this cruel fate costs him his dream of advancing to study at Cambridge and forces him to flee to London, where a chance encounter with Christopher Marlowe near St. Paul's leads to lusty infatuation. In time, the playwright brings the younger man to a company of struggling actors for a proper introduction to the theater, with Nick becoming a reluctant but dutiful apprentice to John Heminges, Shakespeare's friend and associate. As years pass he learns the trade well, in spite of his inner conflicts--not least of which is an unrequited love for his master's sweet young wife; after a brief, passionate encounter with her, he decamps for the glory of war against the Irish rebels, but finds it a misguided, gruesome business from which he barely escapes alive. Welcomed as the prodigal returned, he marries (reluctantly) Heminges's daughter and becomes an actor of the first rank at the Globe, only to fall victim once more to his unsettled nature, abandoning his career to pursue a long-suppressed desire to become a priest. Failure at this ruins his marriage but leaves him free at last to go to Cambridge, where he studies medicine and returns to London a physician. When a sympathetic bishop makes him a priest, he finally gains his heart's ease--and the respect of all who knew him. Seething and turbulent: Cowell's debut is a moving picaresque- -as well as a detailed portrait of Shakespearean England--and a delight to read.