William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TWENTY: Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
After the Earl of Oxford told me that I would have to write a drama for Queen Elizabeth’s entertainment, a full ten minutes must have gone by before he and I spoke to each other again. In the agonizing silence, I clasped my hands and laid them on the table. With my head bowed and eyes shut tight, I prayed that Emmanuel wouldn’t settle in Timbuktu; that he would return home before I was shocked with another such request.
Oxford interrupted my prayers, saying: “I told Her Majesty about Hamnet’s death. I also let her know you had an important transaction to attend to in Stratford. But she’s already heard that you’re back in London. I’d suggest you give yourself at most fifteen days.”
“Two weeks? I am not Emmanuel Jenkins.”
“Professor Manuel Lopez.” A wry smile froze on the earl’s lips as John opened the door and said: “Good night, my lord. Good night, Father.”
We rejoined the rest of the company. After seeing John to his bed, checking up on Amina and Lidia in the nursery, and asking Michael and Kadiatu to stay a while longer, I walked Oxford and Countess Elizabeth to their carriage.
When I bowed and said good night, the earl rubbed a rolled-up sheaf of papers against my neck, as if knighting me, and whispered: “That should go a long way in helping you accomplish your task. Move the scenes from Genoa to England. Replace the Italian names with those in Henry the Fourth. E presto!”
I thanked Oxford and dashed back into the house. Kadiatu and Michael were sleeping in each other’s arms. They stayed the night and had breakfast with us the following morning before returning home.
Once they left, I sat down and examined the play Oxford had given me, paying close attention to his accompanying notes. It was a farce he had written during one of his sojourns in Florence some twenty years back.
The earl had gone to the trouble of compiling two parallel lists for me: one of the characters in Henry the Fourth; and another of possible matches in his script. My real challenge, however, was not naming our dramatis personae. It was making them sound like my collaborator’s creations. To solve that problem, Oxford suggested that I write the bulk of my comedy in prose. It would be easier to imitate, he pointed out, than poetry of Emmanuel’s calibre.
I wrote feverishly for ten days running. The minute I put my pen down for the last time, I sent my draft to Oxford House.
On day thirteen, the draft came back with far fewer comments than I had expected. And when the earl and I met again on the fifteenth day, he surprised me further.
“Your dialogues are excellent,” he said laughing. “My only recommendation would be that you change your title.”
“The Eastcheap Afaire.” Bursting with pride, I fingered the words on my cover.
“That sounds too much like the name of a political scandal. Remember whom we’re trying to amuse.”
“What name would you suggest, my lord?”
“Move the setting from Eastcheap to Windsor and change the title to The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
I couldn’t have written The Merry Wives of Windsor at a more propitious time.
James Burbage passed away in January 1597. For most of the rest of that year, Richard and his brother Cuthbert were engaged in settling contentious financial transactions their father had been negotiating just before his death. I therefore led the Lord Chamberlain’s Men almost single-handedly throughout the spring of 1597 – a spring which, as luck would have it, was dotted with numerous celebrations.
For the first time, my London family and I celebrated both Easter and the Muhammadan feast of Eid-al-Fitr. I turned thirty-three in April; and Amina thirty-two in June. The two of us also privately drank a toast to mark the conclusion of the “important transaction” Oxford had in mind when he excused my absence to Queen Elizabeth the previous Christmas season: my purchasing of one of the two largest houses in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Of the public celebrations which took place that spring, two stand out prominently in my mind even as I pen these paragraphs: the Order of the Garter festival and the party Michael threw at the end of Ramadan.
The ceremony in which Her Majesty awarded knighthoods in 1597 was held at Whitehall Palace in the early afternoon of the twenty-third of April. When it was over, as part of the festivities, the Chamberlain’s Men staged the opening performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor at court.
Like a mischievous boy who had succeeded in carrying out a dangerous prank, Oxford was grinning when he told me at the end of the play: “Going by the ear-splitting laughter and applause, I dare say you have out-Lopezed Lopez.”
“I’d say we came close to doing so, my lord.” Had we been somewhere not so awe-inspiring at that moment, I would have guffawed at my own feigned modesty. But we were standing by a pillar in the Great Chamber of Whitehall Palace. The pillar hid Oxford from the view of many in the hall, including Queen Elizabeth. He gestured for me to move closer to him. I took a step forward.
“This may be the day,” he whispered. “Did you bring your scimitar?”
“My brother has it. He’s standing about ten paces to your right.”
The earl glanced at Edmund. Edmund acknowledged the glance with an almost imperceptible nod, and then sidled closer to us.
I continued: “And Kadiatu has taught me my measures. She says the zeybeck is a Turkish dance.”
“It’s the queen’s latest addition to her list of exotic dances. I think she would have elected dancing as a profession were she not of royal blood.” Oxford leaned forward, his face nearly touching mine, and asked: “Is she still sitting?”
“She is. She’s beckoning to one of her ladies-in-waiting – Elizabeth Vernon.”
“Well and good. Don’t leave the chamber before she does. That means you could be standing here for a good while. Some of today’s honourees are still around. So we have a few more obeisances to go before the evening is over. Good luck!”
“Thank you, my lord.”
Oxford went and stood beside the Earl of Southampton. I stepped in his spot by the pillar and started thinking about the day’s honourees. Two of them were of particular interest to me: Michael Tunkara, my friend and business adviser; and George Carey, the new Lord Chamberlain. George Carey’s award was no surprise. Michael’s intrigued me. Queen Elizabeth didn’t knight men just for accumulating wealth, no matter how enormous. And no son of an immigrant had ever before been so honoured by the English crown. Sir Michael Musa Abdul Tunkara. Who would have imagined it?
I couldn’t wait to meet Sir Michael and Lady Kadiatu. But wait I had to. For six curiosity-piquing weeks.
In the meantime, I had death-defying missions to accomplish. And the most immediate trick had to be performed right there in the Great Chamber.
Master John Arden, another of my mother’s cousins, was imprisoned for fourteen years after being caught attending Holy Mass. While in prison, he met a formidable Jesuit: Reverend John Gerard. With gear supplied by Nicholas Owen, an irrepressible crypto-Catholic famous in the underground for building undiscoverable priest holes, the two men broke out of the Tower of London.
Nicholas hid the escapees in his house for nine days, at the end of which he delivered them to Gilbert, who cooped them up in the garret of GS & Co while I was writing The Merry Wives of Windsor.
On the eve of the Order of the Garter ceremonies, Nicholas instructed me to take the two escaped convicts to Whitehall the next day and introduce them to Sir John Fortescue as mesdames Lachance and Bonnefoi, two dressmakers from France interested in English fashion. Sir John was Her Majesty’s Master of the Wardrobe. Though Protestant, he sympathized with Catholics, and helped us whenever, as he himself put it, he could bend the law without breaking it.
Shortly after Oxford left Edmund and me, I went and introduced the two “French ladies” to Sir John.
Nicholas had told me that all three men spoke French fluently and that the priest and my mother’s cousin were consummate actors. They proved him right on both counts. I felt like an intruder when, a few minutes after introducing them, I interrupted their chatter by asking Master Arden, who was Madame Lachance: “So, how long do you ladies plan to stay in England?”
That was Sir John’s cue to invite “the ladies” to his home. Enfolding each of them in his arms, he said: “Madame Lachance, Madame Bonnefoi, I hope you like our country enough to stay and work in London for a year at least. To begin with, why don’t you come and spend this night with me and my family. That way, I can bring you straight back here tomorrow morning to study some of our queen’s finest robes.”
Madame Bonnefoi nodded while Madame Lachance curtsied and replied: “Mais oui, milord.”
Sir John whisked his namesakes off, one on each arm. I breathed a sigh of relief and prayed that the next few days would be just as successful. After their formal visit to Whitehall, he was to escort them to Blackfriars, where one of his cousins, yet another John, and his wife Ellen lived. From Blackfriars, they were to be conveyed to the harbour and concealed in a Moroccan cargo ship which was then being rigged to sail for Bordeaux.
As I stood visualizing the escapees’ movements, a firm, broad hand clasped my left shoulder from behind. I slapped my thigh where a sword should have been hanging. Realizing my error, I reached for the scimitar in Edmund’s hand and was about to draw when a familiar voice called softly: “Master Shakspere.” I threw the weapon back to my brother and turned around in a cold sweat.
Henry Wriothesley, the ever-endearing Earl of Southampton, smiled and said: “Her Majesty has inquired about you.”
Edmund tapped the scabbard of the scimitar. I winked and stretched out my hand. He stood beside me as I girded myself with the Persian weapon.
Queen Elizabeth hadn’t yet vacated the chair from which she had heard The Merry Wives. Laying his hand on my back, the earl gave me a slight push forward as a signal for us to approach the royal presence. When we got close enough for the queen to see that we were headed her way, Southampton coughed. We stopped and bowed. While he backed away, I took half a dozen paces forward. Then, gripping the hilt of my sword with one hand, I got down on both knees. With the other hand, I took the longest, most slender, best-manicured set of fingers ever extended to me. All five were decorated with rings. I kissed the middle one and, for one spine-tingling second, the most powerful woman in all of Europe gave my coarse palm a tender squeeze.
My head was ten thousand leagues up in the clouds when I heard her say: “It gives us immense pleasure to meet you at last, Master Shakspere. Arise.”
The hall whirled around me as I rose and said barely audibly: “It is a great honour, your majesty…”
“We have been apprised of your son’s demise. Do accept our condolences. And our thanks for going to the trouble of entertaining us despite your recent loss.”
“Nothing pleases us, the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants, more than serving your majesty.”
“We’ve also heard that today is your birthday. How have you been celebrating it?”
“So far, by playing Justice Shallow to entertain your royal highness.”
“You’re a rara avis, Master Shakspere. We know of no other man or woman who was born on Saint George’s Day.”
“Neither do I, my lady. Save Saint George himself. Perhaps.”
“Perhaps. We may never know. But here’s something we know for sure.” The queen glanced behind her, and Maid-of-honour Elizabeth Vernon stepped forward with a wrapped box.
“Unwrap it,” said Her Majesty as Elizabeth handed me the box. “Open it.”
I did. The box contained an exquisite red turban. I thanked the queen, raised my gift up high, and everyone nearby clapped. As I bent down to put it back in the box, she asked: “How about trying it on for us to see?”
While I unwound the lengthy piece of silk, Queen Elizabeth got up and walked past me. By the time I finished covering my head, she was standing in the centre of the stage. From her elevated position, she smiled down on me, congratulated me on my handsome Turkish look, and said: “It has been our dream of late to dance with an Ottoman prince. Would you mind indulging the whim of one of your ardent admirers?”
I adjusted my scimitar, fastened my sword belt a notch tighter, hopped on the stage, and bowed.
Queen Elizabeth flung her arms up in the air, and the court musicians struck a Turkish tune. She lifted her dress ever so coyly, bent her right knee and raised her leg high. I responded by spreading my arms out as if in flight, bending my left knee and raising my leg just as high.
Like two birds in a mating ritual, we skipped around each other, towards each other, away from each other, and back again. Now on this foot. Then the other.
We were at it, both of us with youthful vigour, for thirty minutes or longer before slowing down to a halt. I bowed and thanked Her Royal Majesty one more time. She plugged both ears with her thumbs while I basked in the applause from the gathering that had turned into an audience. After the cheering died down, she said: “On the contrary, it is we who owe you a debt of gratitude – for services rendered. And those still to be rendered. We hope you will write the chronicles of our reign. If you do, make sure you mention this, the night we danced the zeybek for the first time.”
As I stepped back to begin my exit, Her Majesty called: “Master Shakspere!” I halted. “Tell us, where did you learn to tie the turban with such dexterity?”
“And without the benefit of a looking glass,” Sir Francis Bacon said, chuckling. Edmund informed me later that he had been watching me like a hawk while the queen and I danced.
I turned and addressed myself to the Lord Chief Justice of England: “My lord, I have friends from foreign parts here in London. They teach me their customs and I teach them ours.”
Her Majesty grabbed my shoulders and wheeled me around. My knees knocked as I realized that I had turned my back on her while speaking to Sir Francis. Arms akimbo and legs spread far apart, she said: “In that case, we commend you for being a brilliant scholar and advise you to keep on learning. We look forward to seeing more of your work. Except Richard the Second.”
Queen Elizabeth walked to the edge of the stage and stood facing our audience while I trembled behind her. As if cautioning an assembly of troops in a battlefield, she repeated loudly: “Except Richard the Second!” When Her Royal Majesty swung around to face me again, the outer layer of the paint on her face cracked. She bounced off the stage and marched out of the hall, her ladies-in-waiting barely able to keep up with her.
Copyright: Raphael Soné