"You know wayward women are harshly punished."
"I shall not be wayward! I shall be--Alexander. Johnny says he's the grandest conqueror the world has ever seen."
Chapter II, The Secret Player
As Bill Bryson says in his book Shakespeare, The World as Stage, we know very little about the boys who played women in Shakespeare's plays. They had to have been terrific actors, given the demands of the female roles, from Juliet who takes the initiative with Romeo to those powerful queens Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, with plenty of spunky gals in between, some of whom disguise themselves as boys.
In The Secret Player, I suggest that one of those boys, listed in the 1623 First Folio as 'one of the principal actors in these plays', was, in truth, a girl. Edmond Malone hypothesized in the 18th century that Cooke originated Shakespeare's principal female roles. I drafted the book long before 'Shakespeare in Love' came out; obviously Norman and Stoppard played with a similar idea in their screenplay.
Cooke's story assumes that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by the man himself, not the Earl of Oxford, Mary Sidney Herbert, a posthumous Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon nor Queen Elizabeth. The mystery lies with the boy players. We have a handful of names and some records as to who went on to become hired men (Alexander Cooke among them, eventually a share-holder in Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men). But we know very little about them; their lives intrigued me, particularly if one was born female.
Two other sorts of questions caught my imagination at the start. How did Shakespeare create such a rare collection of female characters, utterly unlike those in the plays of his contemporaries? He must have had friendships with unusual women other than his wife Anne Hathaway, who was apparently illiterate and, according to the lore, spent their marriage minding the home fires in Stratford Upon Avon, or any random mistress he might have had in London.
Secondly: what were the possibilities for a spirited girl in that era who couldn't bear falling into the expected feminine role? A village girl in particular, neither high-born nor wealthy.
And so Kate Collins was born, the girl who eventually becomes Alexander Cooke, actor. As with every project, this initial idea led me on unexpected paths relating to gender, sex, and the theatre of the times. Many of these became part of the story and of my subsequent writing projects, but also the basis of ongoing reflections and research which I shall offer here from time to time.
For example: what was the extent of literacy and education for girls in Elizabethan England? What women besides the Queen exceeded the limitations placed upon them? How much choice did a girl have in a husband? What were the laws relating to marriage? How common was pre-marital or extra-marital sex and under what circumstances? What was the sexual situation for boy stage players? What connection did women have to the theatre?
And a big one in the case of Alexander Cooke: might a girl who passed as a boy ever find the love of a man she dreams of--as a woman? What sorts of sexual complications will she run into on the way?