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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt - 'Mad Blood Stirring' by Simon Mayo

'Mad Blood Stirring.' Simon Mayo. 2019.
'Mad Blood Stirring.' Simon Mayo. 2019.

Inspired by a real-life story, Simon Mayo’s novel Mad Blood Stirring, which happens to begin on New Year’s Eve, centers on a Shakespeare performance by African American prisoners of war—in Dartmoor prison in England in 1815. Although the treaty which ended the War of 1812 has been signed, American sailors of both races who are imprisoned there have not yet been freed.

The black sailors, segregated by race into their own section, are led by a man known as “King Dick.” In addition to gambling and listening to sermons, they perform plays, including works by Shakespeare. In the following excerpt, a white American sailor, Joe Hill, visits his African American friend Habakkuk “Habs” Snow, and learns about a possible part for him in a forthcoming play.

At the front of the cockloft, the hymn died away and Pastor Simon climbed on to a makeshift pulpit made of two card tables. Every man present immediately seemed to realize they had something else to do; conversations sprang up, packs of cards appeared, and dice rolled. The pastor tried to speak above the hubbub.

‘The preacher is popular, then,’ said Joe.

‘He has only a few things to say,’ said Habs. ‘We’re in prison with him—we heard ’em before.’

‘Church and gambling at the same time? The folks at the Baptist Union back home would rather be struck down by Satan Himself,’ said Joe.

‘Well, Pastor Simon runs the church and King Dick runs the gamblin’,’ said Habs. ‘Though, if he wanted, I think the King could have the church, too.’

As if he’d heard their talk, King Dick had climbed on to the pulpit. His head now nearly touching the ceiling, he stood with his eyes and arms wide. He was clearly waiting for silence, and he had it within seconds. The talking died down, the cards and the dice were pocketed. All eyes were on stage.

The King held out his club then swept it in an arc. ‘How poor are they that have not patience!’ he called, staring around his audience.

Joe’s eyes narrowed. ‘What wound did ever heal but by degrees?’ he whispered.

Then, as if an echo from the stage, the King thundered, ‘What wound did ever heal but by degrees?’

Joe dropped his head, sliding down the wall. Habs followed him to the floor.

‘But this is Shakespeare,’ Joe said.

‘The Dartmoor Amateur Dramatic Society,’ said Habs. ‘They’re the King’s shows. He runs everything anyways, but the theatre? That’s what he really loves.’

‘That line,’ said Joe. ‘That line was Iago’s. From Othello.’

‘It was,’ said Habs, ‘and it was my line.’

‘You put on a production of Othello here?’ Joe failed to keep the disbelief out of his voice. ‘You played Iago?’

Habs looked intently at his new friend, then jumped up, offering Joe his hand, the one with H.O.L.D. tattooed on the fingers.

‘Come,’ said Habs. ‘Close haul.’


[…] Excerpt – Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo […]

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