William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
NINETEEN: The Time is Out of Joint
For nearly six months after the wedding day, Amina, John and I enjoyed the most peaceful time of our lives together in my LCR (London Conjugal Residence, as Amina sometimes called her house). The respite was welcome to me in particular because it came on the heels of a fraught trial which brought me close to the gallows.
The trial was that of Jesuit poet Robert Southwell and me, his presumed accomplice.
Father Robert, a distant cousin of mine, had been captured while saying Mass. After languishing in the Tower for three years, he was tried in 1595 and found guilty of high treason for serving the Countess of Arundel as her chaplain. He was hanged, drawn and quartered.
At the beginning of the poet’s trial, Gilbert received a summons addressed to me. Apparently, some intelligencer had hinted to Queen Elizabeth that I could have written An Humble Supplication to Her Maiestie, the widely-circulated petition which triggered the court hearings. Father Robert had enumerated in it the atrocities meted out to him and other Catholic priests by their torturers.
Secretary of State William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, was our prosecutor. He charged me with aiding and abating a papist missionary’s entry into England, and with assisting Lord Vaux – an avowed priest smuggler – in sheltering the said missionary upon his return to London in 1586. Lord Burghley made no mention of An Humble Supplication. But he further charged me with authoring Consolation for Catholics, an even more controversial pamphlet anonymously published four years after the supplication.
To my utter surprise, I was defended by the one counsel in the whole kingdom under whose umbrella I wouldn’t have taken shelter on the rainiest of rainy days: Sir Francis Bacon.
I must have been more astounded than anyone else in attendance when, on the last day of my hearings, Sir Francis addressed Lord Burghley thus: “I can vouch that the suspect was abroad and not in communication with Reverend Robert Southwell between 1586, when the late priest came back to England, and 1590, by which time Consolation for Catholics had already been in circulation for nearly a year. However, because another matter crucial to Her Majesty’s safety, a matter in which the suspect might be implicated, is currently under investigation, his whereabouts during the time frame in question can be divulged neither to this assembly nor at this juncture. Unless Her Majesty’s Secretary of State is in possession of proof irrefutable that Consolation for Catholics issued from the quill of Master Shakspere here present, I plead that he be let go.”
I was let go.
Richard Burbage had sat by my side throughout the proceedings. On the afternoon they ended, he took me to the Mermaid. As we sat down in the tavern, he raised his left arm, slipped his hand under it and said: “Thank Heaven I didn’t have to use you. God send me no need of you.”
To which I replied: “Bless Heaven you didn’t burst your entrails. What could you have done with that?”
“Besides hurting myself?” Richard bared his rows of inky teeth, half smiling, half frowning. He had concealed an unsheathed dagger in his armpit every time he attended the trial. Laying it on the table, he said: “I believe that come-hither signal was for you.”
The signal came from Mistress Pym. She had winked in our direction. She winked at us a second time before walking behind Richard to a table on his far right, where Edward Alleyn and another three of the Admiral’s men were sitting.
Richard followed her briefly with his eyes, pulled his chair forward, and whispered: “She has a message for you – of a delicate nature, she told me. I’ve said nothing to you about it all this time because I imagined you were on your way to Traitor’s Gate.” He sheathed the dagger and slipped it into his jerkin.
“She’s coming our way,” I said, waving at her.
“Let’s hope she bears some more good tidings.”
Mistress Pym stopped at our table while retracing her steps to the kitchen. After exchanging a few pleasantries with us, she invited me to follow her outside.
“There was a foreign gent here,” the hostess scratched her head and adjusted her peruke, “two or three weeks ago, what said he was from Portiggle.” I pulled the door of the tavern closed. She resumed: “He won’t give me his name nor no other informishin about himself, but told me your friend Monica…”
“That’s what I thought he said – by mistake loike. Monifa told this sailor fella (I think he was a sailor) to tell me to tell you as how she and her travelling compani-in was about to leave Lisbom to go on two pilgrimageries. To Messa or Megga…”
“And then to Jeroslim. And as how they was going to live in Mali when they’s done seeing the Orient.”
“Thank you most kindly.” I tendered the hostess a penny. But she won’t accept it.
“All part of my service to our lord of Oxford.” She opened the door, tapped my shoulder, pulled me back and said: “Sir, I’m not one to poke my nose where it don’t belong.”
“That makes two of us.”
“But where’s this country called Mali?”
“I’d love to tell you about it, my dear lady. But here comes your landlord.”
The morning after that drinking escapade, I was in no state to see anyone. I spent the entire day in my room nursing a monumental headache. Only after the alcoholic fog in my brain had lifted the following day did it dawn on me that Monifa’s message could have been a hint for me to expect a play from Lisbon.
Instead of walking straight to Oxford House, which would have been the logical thing to do, I ran, first to GS & Co, and from there to Chateau Tunkara. Neither Gilbert nor Michael and Kadiatu had heard from Monifa or Emmanuel since the arrival of Richard the Second.
But the earl had. Giovanni, his footman, didn’t waste anytime greeting me when I arrived at Oxford House. Opening the door, he said: “His lordship’s in the library.”
I was expected. Antonia had been sent to fetch me, and she had ridden to my lodging and back while I visited Gilbert and the Tunkaras. “He’s not in a good mood today,” she warned me as I entered the library.
Ensconced in a dim corner of the hall that was the main part of his library, the gaunt Earl of Oxford looked nearly twice as old as his forty-five years. He was poring over a manuscript and seemed not to have heard me enter. Two others lay on the floor beside him. After a short while, he muttered: “This one is rather sketchy.” Then, squinting at me, he inquired: “Have you read Diana Enamorada?”
“The name doesn’t ring a bell, my lord.”
“Diana Enamorada is a story by the Portuguese author Jorge de Montemayor. I sent Emmanuel a copy of it when he was in Salamanca. This play is based loosely on the tale.” Oxford yawned as he lifted the top one of the scripts on the floor and handed it to me. “He must have written that some seven years back and hasn’t done anything to adapt it to our present circumstances. The actions can be easily construed as taking place here in London. But the play contains no controversial matter. Fortunately.”
I remember reading the title of the not-so-welcome piece out loud in the form of a question, as if introducing a pair of outsiders to a gathering of an exclusive society: “The Two Gentlemen of Verona?”
The earl repeated the title and nodded. “See what you and Richard can do with them. The play’s a comedy. You could stage it in a few homes first – to gauge how it will be received in playhouses. Southampton’s would be a good place to start. He lost his stepfather yesterday, and may want to entertain his guests after the funeral.”
Using his toes, Oxford slid towards me the manuscript that was still lying on the floor. “Richard is expecting that one. Tell him it’s the Hoby version.” I picked it up. He explained himself.
Sir Edward Hoby, a member of Parliament, had requested that the Chamberlain’s Men produce Richard the Second at his residence on a yet-to-be-specified date. The Secretary of State, Oxford himself and two other members of the Privy Council were among Sir Edward’s invitees.
The Hoby version of Richard the Second was another one with neither the deposition nor murder scene. But Oxford had inserted two new speeches in it. The first was an extolment of England; the second a scathing description of a country under the thumb of a spendthrift monarch. The England before King Richard contrasted with the England of his reign.
After reading the two speeches, I pointed with a trembling finger at the tome on Oxford’s lap, the one he had been reading when I arrived. “Is that from Emmanuel as well?”
“It is. It’s a dramatic jewel.” The earl’s eyes lit up. “This is the most Catholic of all the plays he’s written so far.”
“Is it another comedy?”
“It used to be. Do you remember The Montagues and the Capulets?”
Upon hearing that title, I instantly raced a decade down Memory Lane. The play was one of Emmanuel’s early comedies. His best in my books. Penned when he was a student in Rome, it had been given both there and in Salamanca, where he himself was cast as Friar Lawrence in some of the performances. He had also sent me a copy in my Lancashire days.
I took the earl’s manuscript, clasped it to my breast, recalled what I looked like as the Capulets’ Nurse and heard anew in the back of my mind the thunderous applause which greeted the rambling woman every time she appeared on stage. When I glanced at the cover of Oxford’s copy, I noticed that he had crossed out The Montagues and the Capulets. Above Emmanuel’s title, he had written in thin letters: Romeo and Juliet.
“Why the new name, my lord?”
“What you’re cradling isn’t the comedy you acted in when you taught at Hoghton Tower.” The earl’s voice dropped to a deep, sombre tone. As he showed me out, he added: “And the author is clearly no longer the life-loving observer of the world that he was back then.”
I didn’t return to my lodging that night. Instead, I went to Corisco Novo and spent the rest of the month with John and Amina. It was while there that I read The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Emmanuel’s comedy-turned-tragedy for the first time.
Kadiatu had come on an extended visit also – to keep Amina company until our child arrived. The four of us (or five, according to Amina, who counted the unborn baby as a silent participant in everything she did) killed most of our evenings reading random scenes from the two plays.
Judging from Emmanuel’s new tragedy, Oxford had been right in telling me that he was no longer the lover of life he used to be. My friend had converted his dazzling comedy of the fifteen-eighties to a doleful tale. Whereas The Montagues and the Capulets had concluded with the feuding families reconciling at a banquet during which Friar Lawrence informed them that their two issues had eloped to Mantua, Romeo and Juliet ended with a double suicide, prior to which three characters had lost their lives in as many sword fights.
Emmanuel had no doubt been deeply saddened by the outcome of the Lopez Plot. He wrote no more comedies after the execution of his uncle. All things considered, however, his gloom was a boon to our company. It was no doubt thanks to his sad mood that he furnished us with the greatest tragedies of our time.
To begin with Romeo and Juliet, in its review of our first production, the Oxford Gazette wrote: “From prologue to epilogue, it pounds one’s heart with lyrical poetry beyond compare. In no other dramatic piece, Master Shake-Spear’s own Richard the Second included, has our mother tongue been manipulated to cast so magical a spell.”
We staged Romeo and Juliet for a record eleven times in eleven consecutive days. And, chockful though our playhouse was every afternoon, not one of the performances was interrupted by spectators. All that could be heard from our audiences was the comingling of gasps, sobs, sighs and sniffles each time Juliet plunged Romeo’s dagger in her own heart at the end of the tragedy.
Late in the night after our last showing, as I lay awake behind Amina, my chest glued to her back, Romeo’s “My mind misgives” came to my mind. For some reason that now eludes me, I raised her mane of hair and whispered in her ear: “If I die before you, Amina, please bequeath this bed to young John in your will and tell him from me that it was the best bed his father ever slept in.”
Unable to roll over and face me, my wife shifted herself until she lay flat on her back, and then asked: “What about your bed in Stratford-upon-Avon?”
“Second best, Darling. A very distant second best.”
She began to laugh, but stopped and pulled my beard. As I writhed in pain, she screamed: “Dia! Dia! Kadiatu!”
It must have been about four o’clock on the morning of the twenty-fifth day of December in 1595. At the first cockcrow, not long after, we received into this world Amina’s second child and my fifth. A girl. In remembrance of her maternal grandmother and in honour of the day of her birth, we named her Lidia Noelle.
A week or so later, in anticipation of Emmanuel and Monifa’s arrival in Mali, I sent news of our daughter’s birth to Timbuktu, where Michael had told me they planned to settle. Together with my letter, I enclosed the latest list of actors in the Chamberlain’s Company and a brief description of each one’s personality and talents to enable Emmanuel to visualize whom he wrote what role for in the near future.
Only eight months later, I would be writing to Monifa and Emmanuel again. This time to inform them that Hamnet, my first son, was dead.
We buried Hamnet on the eleventh of August, 1596. I had gone to Stratford when Edmund informed me that he was sick.
Even at our son’s funeral, his mother won’t speak to me. We haven’t seen each other since.
About a week after we lost Hamnet, I was sitting by myself in the Black Swan writing a poem when Gilbert walked in and told me he was going to return to London early the next morning.
“So Mother said,” I replied.
“Oxford is preparing a chest of Christmas gifts to send to Timbuktu. Did you borrow one of his plays recently? About a king. James or John. I can’t remember which.”
I pointed my brother to the chair opposite me. As he sat down, I said: “The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England. It’s at Corisco Novo. Amina will give it to you.”
Gilbert had several drinks without either of us saying much else to the other. Hours after he arrived, as we were rising to leave, one of our neighbours wobbled to our table. He spat in my face and, seeming to swallow rather than deliver his words, he muttered: “I knew you were up to something. Bloodthirsty popish cutthroats! Can’t spend a single minute without plotting to kill somebody.”
“Unhand him or I will kill you!” Gilbert grabbed my assailant by the throat. But I separated them without much of an effort. They were both too drunk to stand erect, let alone throw punches. With a sheaf of papers under one arm, I encircled my brother’s waist with the other and we shuffled away together.
When we arrived home, most of our neighbours were outside venting their spleens. The houses of all the Catholics on Henley Street had been raided.
Mother must have heard me trying to unlock the door without letting go of either Gilbert or my papers. She pulled it open and slapped and kicked Gilbert until he lay flat on the ground before turning to me and smelling my breath. Having made sure that I too wasn’t intoxicated, she confided: “Our bishop has reported to the Secretary of State that Catholics in his diocese are importing tons of gunpowder from Lord knows where!” Then she looked up and shouted: “You should have told the trespassers your son just bought you a coat of arms. Gentleman Shakspere!”
I could hear Father pacing the floor upstairs while Mother railed at him from below: “You’re no more a gentleman today than when you were my father’s servant. Next time, flash your coat of arms at the intruders. It should drive them to their knees.”
Mother was still screaming when Father came downstairs one deliberate step at a time. He coughed to attract my attention, said there was a package in his workshop for me, and walked out as calm and stiff and glum as a pallbearer.
Gilbert returned to London the following day much later than planned, but clean and sober. He had on his person my letter to Emmanuel and another one I had written Amina, informing her that I was going to stay in Stratford-upon-Avon for the remainder of the year. I also gave him copies of a poem I had written lamenting Hamnet’s death, and asked him to circulate the dirge among my friends.
Soon after his departure, I went and opened the package Father had told me about. It was from Richard Burbage. He had sent me a pair of garters and a puzzling five-page letter, which began as follows:
I am in receipt of a scimitar of the finest Persian workmanship, a gift for WH (sic) from Nonsuch Palace. You will have to excuse my perusing the accompanying missive in which the Treasurer of the Chamber requests that Master W. Shak-espear (sic passim) wear his new sword when next he appears before Her Royal Majesty. The Treasurer recommends besides that the said gentleman practise a few measures of the zeybek in preparation for that eventuality.
Richard went on to inform me that a dispute had broken out over the names of some of the characters in the last play I sold him before leaving London. The play in question was another history, Emmanuel’s sequel to Richard the Second, which he entitled The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. As he explained in a note he had sent with the manuscript, Emmanuel intended to portray Bolingbroke’s reign as Henry the Fourth and Prince Harry’s accession as Henry the Fifth in two separate dramas.
Without telling him why, the Earl of Oxford had instructed Richard to replace the names Russell, Harvey and Oldcastle in the dramatis personae with Pete, Bardolph and Falstaff before Queen Elizabeth saw the history at Christmas.
Just as puzzling to me was a decision the Burbages had taken in my absence. On behalf of the Chamberlain’s Men, Richard’s father, James, had entered into negotiations to purchase Blackfriars Monastery and convert it into an indoor playhouse for the company.
The first thing I did upon returning to London was visit Blackfriars. James Burbage’s idea was an excellent one – for reasons that shall become evident later in this memoir. I acknowledged that fact in writing and thanked him and his sons for the purchase.
On the evening I returned home from visiting Blackfriars that first time, my landlord’s daughter, Odilia, was busy covering the floor of my room with a fresh supply of straw. As I walked in, she said: “Guess who’s been here asking after you. Two tax collectors. Twice three times. They say you owe moneys to the parish.”
“They’re wrong. I don’t live in their parish anymore – haven’t resided here for a long time. Be sure to tell them so when next they drop by.”
“Are you moving out, sir?”
“I already have.”
“Where’s your new home?”
“Somewhere north-south of Shoreditch.”
“If you know where I’m lodging and you tell the tax men you don’t, as I’m sure you will, then you’d be lying to them, won’t you?”
Odilia got my meaning. She was a Puritan of the purest water, and wouldn’t have lied to save her life.
The following evening, after supping with Amina and the children, I told her I needed to find a new OR (Official Residence). That’s what we called the rooms I lodged in when not in hiding at Corisco Novo.
“I’ve become too well-known in Saint Helen’s Parish.”
“So Edmund told me. He was in your room on one of the occasions the tax collectors missed you. And he’s already found you a new address.”
“Where? What kind of lodging?”
“A room in a house across the river from your present OR. Near Cripplegate.”
“What would I do without Edmund? He anticipates all my needs.”
Amina sat down to play the virginal. She tossed her head back and told me she had invited Oxford, his wife Countess Elizabeth and the Tunkaras to dine with us the following Sunday.
“To celebrate the new year. I also want to thank them in person for helping me adapt to England.”
After the celebratory dinner five days later, while Amina was entertaining everyone else in the parlor, Oxford sneaked back into the dining room, signalling me to follow him. As we sat down opposite each other, I asked him why he had changed the names of some of the characters in The First Part of Henry the Fourth.
“Certain descendants of three of the characters who frequent Eastcheap in the drama threatened to bring action against the Chamberlain’s Men. They were incensed by the company’s portrayal of their ancestors as rogues.”
The earl pulled his chair forward. I did likewise. Leaning against the table, and cupping his hands around his mouth like a scandalmonger, he said: “I want you to know, before we’re interrupted, that you will have to write the next play yourself.”
“Excuse me!” I ran to the out-building and blasted all of my dinner into a chamber pot.
When I returned and asked Oxford to clarify what he had just told me, he whispered again: “You will have to write the next play yourself. And write it fast.”
“Why, my lord? What has happened to Emmanuel?”
“Nothing other than his being unreachable. Yours will be a command performance. It can’t wait.”
“The queen? Heavens above! Not her!”
“She’s so enamoured of the Falstaff play, as she calls Henry the Fourth, that she’d like to see a humorous sequel.”
“What’s her deadline?”
“She hasn’t imposed any. But you’d have to produce a comedy much sooner than we can expect your collaborator to send us one from Timbuktu – assuming he’s now in Mali and not still somewhere in Arabia or the Holy Land.”
Copyright: Raphael Soné