William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TWENTY-TWO: Weigh the Enemy More Mighty Than He Seems
Two full days came and went before I met Ambassador and Madame Coulibaly. Lady Kadiatu had taken them to Casa Corisco while I quarantined myself in my lodging, nursing the shock of the return to London of Emmanuel and the woman posing as his wife. The shock manifested itself in the form of frequent runs to the back shed. And it was as I was returning from one such run on the morning of day three that they dropped in on me for the first time.
“Amina told us we’d find you here,” said Emmanuel after introducing Felicia to me as his “Anglo-Venetian travelling companion”.
I showed the couple into my room, made them as comfortable as I possibly could, and immediately asked Emmanuel the question at the forefront of my thoughts: “Will you continue writing plays for the Chamberlain’s Men?”
“Why not? It’s how best I entertain myself.” He had come in clutching a manuscript. Tossing it on the table, he added: “I wrote that during my sojourn in Jerusalem.”
“The Second Part of the Historie of King Henrie the Fourth.” I read the title twice – once silently, and then out loud – before telling my friend about the limbo our company was in at the time: we hadn’t a playhouse of our own.
One of the disputes Cuthbert and Richard Burbage inherited from their father was with Giles Allen, the landlord of The Theatre. Shortly before their father died, Giles refused on several occasions to renew the family’s lease, telling them he wanted to use the building for more lucrative purposes. But Richard and Cuthbert were just as insistent on extending their contract. Hoping that Giles and Cuthbert would have reached an agreement by the time we returned to London, I therefore suggested, on the day in August 1597 that I sold part two of Henry the Fourth to the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants, that Richard and I take the history on a tour.
But the negotiators were still wrangling when we came back from our tour. As a result, we opened the year 1598 with performances in private homes of one of the comedies Emmanuel had written during his student days. He had named it Love’s Labour’s Won. But Oxford changed the title to Much Ado About Nothing before our first production.
At the end of our third performance of Much Ado, Will Kempe, who was playing Dogberry, pulled me aside and whispered: “Message for you. From your brother.”
We were in the Grand Hall of Essex House on the Strand. I followed Will to a spot where a large candle was burning.
“Behind me,” he whispered again. When I stood behind him, he opened his hands. Gilbert had written in his left palm: “Move to a different city”. And in his right: “Lie low”.
I didn’t wait around to find out what danger my life was in. Nor did I look for new lodgings in London, but headed straight for Rufford Hall in Lancashire – a bastion of Roman Catholicism more fortified than Hoghton Tower.
I hid in Lancashire until the spring before Edmund, in whom I had confided my destination, arrived to inform me about what had transpired.
The Earl of Southampton had been furious, as had Her Majesty, after a certain Lady Pamela Willoughby told them that the earl’s betrothed, Lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Vernon, and I were lovers. By the time Edmund arrived with the news, Southampton had left for a mission to Paris, his betrothed having assured him and the queen that the Willoughby rumour was groundless.
I returned to London at the end of May only to be confronted with an embarrassing situation of a different kind. Someone had stolen the full original text of our Love’s Labour’s Lost and sold it. The comedy had been published with my name on the cover as the author and it was selling faster than Virginia tobacco. However, the publisher would pay neither me nor the Chamberlain’s Servants. Not a farthing.
I went to Richard’s house to discuss the matter with him. But his thoughts were fixedly elsewhere on the evening of my visit.
“What shall we do?” I asked after suggesting three actions we could take against the publisher of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
“We shall open the Globe with Julius Caesar.”
The Globe was the name Cuthbert had given the new home of our company. One winter night, while I was in hiding at Rufford Hall, he and Richard had settled their disagreement with Giles in a manner only the Burbages could. They had dismantled The Theatre, the entire playhouse, and transported its timber across the icy river from Shoreditch to Southwark. And with their old pieces of wood they had constructed a new playhouse.
“Julius Caesar shall be followed by The History of Henry the Fifth,” Richard announced, sounding as if he were making a prophecy rather than a recommendation.
Henry the Fifth and Julius Caesar were the latest plays I had sold to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. We opened the Globe with neither. The first play to be staged in our new theatre was Ben Jonson’s comedy Everyman in His Humour.
With Richard and me swapping the leading roles, Ben’s comedy enjoyed a successful run in the spring of 1599. So did Henry the Fifth, in spite of our expunging from the original history every line which the Master of the Revels deemed to be a veiled praise of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.
Julius Caesar was banned.
The first two times Richard and I went to register Julius Caesar, the Stationer’s Registrar wouldn’t talk to us. On our third visit he struck an inquisitor’s pose and, as if addressing a gaggle of heretics, he asked: “My Lord Chamberlain’s Men, are you in the business of entertaining the public or inciting rebellions?”
I said: “Entertaining the public, my lord.” Richard asked more loudly: “What rebellions?”
“Master Shakspere!” The registrar puffed his chest as far out as he could without landing on his back, and nearly split the counter in two as he slammed both fists on his copy of our manuscript. “This is pernicious bombast. Not entertainment. What you have here is treasonable treachery.” He spat the words out with all the venom in his saliva. “If you don’t want to take up permanent residence in the Tower, you better burn Julius Caesar or sail posthaste to Rome and settle there.”
“My lord, would you mind hearing us out?” Richard pleaded.
“Show yourselves out!” The registrar pointed to the door. “Go and bury your Caesar in the Tiber. And see to it that no word of his assassination finds its way into the ear of anybody who is disloyal to the queen.”
“Like Robert Devereux,” Richard mumbled under his breath as we walked out.
When he stopped and turned around to bite his thumb at the registrar, I said: “Richard, watch where you mention the earl’s name.”
Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, was a popular Catholic sympathizer. Paradox of paradoxes, the soldierly courtier was also Queen Elizabeth’s favourite in the fifteen nineties. Despite his being a divisive figure in her court, or perhaps for that very reason, she appointed him the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland shortly after reading Richard the Second.
Her Majesty’s appointment – “exile” was what many called it at the time – had the opposite effect of what she had evidently hoped to accomplish. The tide of adulation on which Devereux rode out of London swelled nation-wide while he soldiered in Ireland. His supporters, of whom I was among the staunchest, expected him to quash the Irish Rebellion in 1599 and return home a hero. We dreamt of the day when he would enter London at the head of a triumphal procession and ascend the throne.
Devereux could easily have been the Bolingbroke of our generation. Queen Elizabeth knew it, and was haunted by the idea. She had stomach cramps whenever she mumbled the names of Bolingbroke and King Richard, something she was said to do not infrequently. No doubt then that the thought of what Brutus did to Caesar would have stopped her heart.
That was the background against which Julius Caesar followed Richard the Second into the dustbins of the Stationer’s Registrar and Her Majesty’s Master of the Revels seventeen years ago. And no printer has dared touch the Roman play to this day.
In spite of the ban, we did stage Julius Caesar once. Nearly half of it. On a dare.
Sometime in the autumn that Essex was dispatched to Ireland, Cuthbert Burbage dared his brother to produce Julius Caesar at the Globe before an audience of no fewer than twenty spectators. Richard took up the challenge. Without mentioning the play by name, he wrote to two dozen trustworthy potential guests, inviting them to come and hear “Master Shakspere’s latest tragedy for what might be the only time it is going to be performed during the reign of our sitting monarch.”
One afternoon about a month later, costumed as Brutus and smeared with Caesar’s blood, I was just about to start my exculpatory oration to the citizens of Rome when three men in uniform marched onto the stage. With both hands, the first clamped my shoulders from behind and announced that he was arresting me in the name of Her Royal Majesty. Taking one of my wrists each, the other two pulled me off to a waiting carriage.
Before I knew it, I was facing Sir Francis Bacon, the Lord Chief Justice of England – in my blood-stained toga. Sir Francis had been sitting in the coach. He stepped down. Appearing not to be the least bit surprised at my unsightly habiliments, he whisked a sheet of paper out of his pocket, thrust it at me, and asked: “Did you write that?” His teeth were clenched so tight that I thought the question had emanated from the back of his head.
My Roman face sprouted beads of sweat as I stared at a copy of a sonnet I had written the week before and distributed to a dozen of my friends. To give myself time to think, I mopped my brows deliberately, held the sheet close to my eyes and pretended to read for a while.
“Did you write that?” repeated the intelligencer.
“My lord, this poem is signed WH. My initials are WS.”
“Tell me something I don’t already know, Master Shakspere.”
“I can see why one would conclude that this sonnet came from my pen. The hand is much like mine.”
“As is the idiom. If you wrote it, be on your guard. It’s obvious that the title, Sonnet 66, refers to the queen’s age. And she herself has deciphered the vile observations about her encoded in those lines. She would like to interview the author.”
“It isn’t me Her Majesty is going to put on the rack, my lord.” Emboldened by my superior height, I glared down at Sir Francis and handed the poem back to him. “You should be looking for WH.”
“We are. Rest assured we are.”
His lordship climbed back in the carriage and ordered his driver to take him to Whitehall Palace.
I headed for Oxford House.
The Earl of Oxford had been in the audience when Julius Caesar was discontinued, and he had earlier told me to see him after the performance. We arrived at Oxford House almost at the same time.
“Tell Giovanni to get you a change of clothes,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t feel at ease talking with bloodstained Brutus.”
After the footman helped me into a less frightening outfit, I joined the earl in his library. Giving me a manuscript he had been thumbing through, he said: “Emmanuel was working on that during his last Christmas in Salamanca – when I sent him my request for a series of English histories. It’s more digestible fare than the assassination of Julius Caesar. See what you and Richard can do with it this Christmas season.”
The play Oxford gave me that evening was a comedy which Emmanuel had entitled Twelfth Night. When I sold it to Richard three days later, he and I were at the Mermaid.
“Our reviser couldn’t come up with a more striking title this time,” I said, taking a sip of ale. “Can you suggest one?”
“Twelfth Night.” Richard paused, looked at me, smiled, and mumbled: “Or What You Will.”
We staged the comedy for the first time at Chateau Tunkara on New Year’s Day. At the end of the banquet which followed our performance, Lady Kadiatu and her guests talked mostly about Robert Devereux’s disgraceful return to London the previous September. They all had nothing but negative opinions to voice. And voice them they did.
Amina had brought John and Lidia Noelle to the party to see me play Duke Orsino. On our way back to Casa Corisco after the gossipy conversation, she asked me if anything was the matter.
“You said not a word all evening.”
“I had not a word to say – not knowing, as everybody else seemed to be sure they did, what transpired in Ireland.”
A couple of weeks later, I learned the truth from the Earl of Essex himself.
In defiance of Queen Elizabeth’s orders that he not communicate with anyone, be it in person or by correspondence, I visited Essex at the Tower once in mid-January of 1600. That’s when he told me how, instead of beating the Irish rebels, as had been requested of him, he had in good conscience negotiated peace terms with their leader Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone.
Upon hearing that his enemies at court were ruining his reputation for signing a peace treaty with Hugh O’Neill, the earl had returned to England, against Queen Elizabeth’s express instructions, to clear his name.
“Is it true that you broke into her bedchamber while she was in the all together?”
“I did. I can’t stomach ceremonies!”
“It isn’t for me to counsel you on matters of policy, my lord. But I’d suggest that you be more cautious in your future dealings with her.”
“What future dealings? I deputize for her and fight for England, and how does she reward me? She has me locked up here. Bess won’t let even my wife and children come and visit me. Nor will she answer my letters. No, I shall have no more dealings with her.”
“Is there anything I can do to help secure your release?”
“Rally my friends and make them wear her down with petitions on my behalf.”
I took the earl at his word. The very next day, I invited a handful of Essex supporters to meet at the Tabard Inn and formulate concrete actions that could be taken to set him free.
But our meeting was a disaster. Sir Edward Baynham, whom I asked to chair it, arrived at the tavern early enough to get drunk before the proceedings began. Halfway into our topics for discussion, he toppled off the stool he had been perching on. We let him lie on the floor for a while. When he regained consciousness, he staggered to the front door, and out.
Some thirty minutes later, Sir Edward was ushered back into the tavern by a watchman who inquired officiously: “Does anyone here know this lout? I caught him urinating on a statue of Her Majesty.”
“Unhand me, scurvy knave!” Sir Edward tapped a finger on his captor’s aquiline nose. “I know you. You sleep under the queen’s bed. You’re the toad trying to sell England to the Diegos. Let go of me, I say.”
Unable to extricate himself from the stronger man’s grip, Sir Edward shot a thick lump of spit smack between his eyes.
The officer slapped him on both cheeks and kicked him hard in the groins. Sir Edward’s nephew, Lionel, grabbed the stool his uncle had been occupying and smashed it on the watchman’s head.
“Madam!” cried the officer, pointing a half-raised finger at the landlady. He held onto a table for a while, then collapsed on the floor, both hands clamped on his bleeding head. “These premises are closed this instant,” he muttered. “You serve another drink to any of these men, and you and your husband shall both eat tomorrow’s breakfast in a prison dungeon.”
We dispersed straight away.
However, before our meeting was interrupted, those of us who gathered at the Tabard Inn that afternoon with the intention of putting up a fight for the Earl of Essex had agreed that Richard and I should paint portraits of him. The portraits were to be hung in select locations all over London.
We did so the following couple of months. And, as we had hoped, our paintings elicited the sympathy of Robert Devereux’s followers. But they also enraged his adversaries – so much so that Parliament passed a law in the summer banning the circulation of portraits.
Ben Jonson, another staunch supporter of Essex, defied the law. He painted six identical portraits of the Countess of Southampton with my face in miniature on her sleeves, and sent one of his paintings each to Richard and me and to the earls of Essex, Oxford and Southampton.
Late one night, Ben himself dropped off the last Southampton portrait on the steps of Whitehall Palace. It was part of a package which also contained a copy of Julius Caesar and an unsigned letter addressed to “His Royal Majesty King Henry the Ninth of England.”
Ben and I went over his copy of the letter the next morning. He had written it, he said, to make “the king” aware that he knew why Christopher Marlowe had been murdered seven years earlier. “Master Marlowe had stumbled on the burial site of Princess Elizabeth. The powers that be had him cut down when they discovered that he was writing a history about the impostor now sitting on the throne of England.”
Before government agents silenced their ungovernable collaborator for good, Ben’s letter concluded, he had informed the writer of this missive that Anne Boleyn’s daughter died of plague in Richmond Castle at the age of three. Knowing that King Henry the Eighth didn’t give second thoughts to chopping off the heads of bearers of bad news, Princess Elizabeth’s nurse, Jane Belgrave, resolved not to inform his majesty about the princess’s demise. Instead, she raised as Princess Elizabeth a redheaded boy born in the vicinity of Richmond Castle who, by no coincidence, had been christened Henry. Fortunately for the nurse, her substitute, believed in Richmond to be one of the king’s bastard children, was only three weeks older and bore some resemblance to Queen Anne’s deceased child.
Her Royal Majesty personally acknowledged receipt of Ben’s package. While visiting Oxford University one morning just before Christmas, she requested to hear the play then on everyone’s lips: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
When she visited the university, we were staging Hamlet on alternate afternoons at Cambridge and Oxford. On the said morning, while a few of us were preparing for our next Oxford production, I asked Henry Condell, who was playing Claudius, where Richard had gone.
“The queen sent for him. Perhaps she wants to see Hamlet here before the command performance.”
Our leading actor’s name was no sooner out of my mouth than I saw him wading through a sea of snow in our direction. Some ten minutes later, stomping his boots by my side without raising his head to look at any of us, he asked: “Does anybody here know where Jonson is?”
“I know where he’s likely to be.”
Richard’s glare told me he wished I hadn’t been the one who answered his question. “Find him as soon as you can,” he said, walking away from me. “And when you do, tell him you have orders from the queen for him to play Caesar at Richmond Palace.”
“On the ides of March sixteen hundred and one. Those were her exact words.”
Copyright: Raphael Soné