I Was Cleopatra

Written by Dennis Abrams
Review by Kristen McDermott

Abrams, author of numerous biographies and nonfiction books for young readers, has created a detailed guide to Shakespeare’s world and theater in the form of a fictional first-person memoir by one of the boy actors in The King’s Men.

John Rice, who played the roles of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic heroines, is thirteen when his story begins in the year 1603, and he narrates his coming-of-age at the Globe in the voice of a modern-day Shakespeare teacher hoping to enliven the facts and events of 17th-century London for his students. This would be very helpful to young readers who have no prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays or history, but those who pick up this book hoping for a more personal reflection on his times and art will be disappointed. The boy actors were amazingly talented artists who themselves occupied a complex identity, neither fully female nor male, both onstage and off. As a piece of LGBTQ history, there’s rich material available, but Abrams doesn’t create a character vivid enough to convey the doubts and elation of a young person searching for his own place in a hostile world. John’s brief liaison with King James I, for example, is the only incident in which the narrator’s conflicted emotions are given attention—but this happens in the final pages of the novel. Instead, Abrams relies on descriptive passages paraphrased from the historical sources, along with lengthy verses from the plays, and even has Shakespeare deliver a classroom lecture on Macbeth to poor John. It’s a real shame, because Abrams’ knowledge of the setting and the plays is clearly deep and rich. As fiction, however, there’s little here to attract even the most devoted young fan of the Bard—but one half-penny-worth of story to a vast deal of history.