William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
EIGHTEEN: The Marriage of True Minds
One of the consequences of the so-called Lopez Plot was that the word “recusant” became synonymous with “enemy” – enemy of the state, enemy of the National Church, enemy of all things English. Even those Roman Catholics who, like me, respected the laws of the land and conformed to every regulation and practice imposed on them, didn’t fare well in the days following the execution of Doctor Lopez. We were discriminated against in a variety of ways – at times subtle, at times outright brutal.
Such was the case when I attempted to stage a new play three or four months after the incident.
We were in the autumn of 1594. The Jew of Malta, a tragedy Christopher Marlowe had written well over four years earlier, was playing to packed houses all over London. Yet, that same autumn, the Master of the Revels turned down my request to produce The Jew of Venice, a drama the Admiral’s Men were convinced was going to surpass the Henry histories in profits and popularity. Sir Edmund Tilney said our tragedy was one Jewish play too many. He was afraid it might incite riots.
Shortly after, when Richard Burbage and I went to register the play, we encountered an even more open form of discrimination. The Stationers’ Registrar declined to enter The Jew of Venice in a public record because his “better judgment” told him not to. Looking over my head at Richard, who was standing behind me, he asked: “How can you expect me to register a play in which a Jew is the hero and Christians are portrayed as evil?”
I stepped forward and said: “My good lord, this play is not exactly about Christians and Jews.”
“My good sir, what is The Jew of Venice about? Exactly.”
Feeling wounded by the Registrar’s sneer, I replied: “It’s a modern morality play in which Good (the Blessed Virgin Mary disguised as a judge) endeavours to save Evil, a lost soul in the person of a money lender. Our audiences would expect the money lender to be of Hebrew stock. Would you rather he were a usurious follower of Christ?”
The Registrar shoved me out of his way in order to address himself to my partner again. Pointing a bent thumb at me, he asked: “Is he a Jesuit?”
Richard took his hat off and made the sign of the cross as he swore: “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!” He fanned himself with the accessory. “A Jesuit? In England? In this day and age? No, my lord. He’s just an habitual equivocator.”
“You heard him say Blessed Virgin.”
“I did, as God is your witness.” Richard pulled me back to my original position. “Young man, we heard you say Blessed Virgin.”
“Which of Mary’s attributes do you consider objectionable?” I grabbed our script and, as I bolted out, Richard completed my question for me: “Her blessedness or her virginity?”
When I turned around to tell him not to waste anymore time disputing with the Registrar, he was walking backwards towards me, stooped in mock reverence.
The play we could neither stage publicly nor register was the amalgamation Oxford had requested shortly before Emmanuel left for Portugal. In the new piece, Emmanuel had reduced his own marriage-by-lottery comedy to a subplot of Oxford’s pound-of-flesh tragedy.
For nearly four years, the Admiral’s Men and, after them, the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants, performed The Jew of Venice only in private homes. In the end, Emmanuel rewrote the play one more time – as a comedy in which the pound-of-flesh drama became one of three subplots to the marriage-by-lottery story. He made Bassanio (not Morocco) choose the right casket; changed the original ending, in which Gratiano killed Shylock, to a suspenseful court-room scene; and added three other happy endings to the Portia and Bassanio marriage. He also replaced “Jew” in the title with “Merchant”.
The Merchant of Venice captured the hearts of London theatre-goers like no other comedy before it. But the blessing came while Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage were parting company – in both senses of the word – for the last time. Upon realizing that they would never get along, the two giants of the stage split their troupe between them and, in effect, put a definitive end to their tenuous personal friendship.
Edward retained his half of the company as the Admiral’s Men. With his half, Richard blazed the trail which took him and me and a handful of other fortunate players to the pinnacle of the entertainment world of Queen Elizabeth’s day.
We worked under the patronage of Her Majesty’s Chamberlain, Henry Carey, the first Lord Hunsdon. Hence our company was incorporated as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
At the turn of the century, ours was the busiest acting company in London. We revived and revised all of Emmanuel’s early dramas and produced them, with unqualified success, at The Curtain, Blackfriars, The Rose, Newington Butts and, of course, The Theatre itself. We performed at The Cross Keys and other inns, both within the metropolis and without. Nobles invited us to their mansions almost every day. And we entertained Her Royal Majesty in the palaces of Greenwich, Whitehall, Richmond and Nonsuch.
For a long while, things ran smoothly. Then we received the one play which nearly cost us not only our livelihoods but our very lives.
When I returned from Stratford one midsummer afternoon, Richard, who had a key to my room, lay flat on his back in my bed, as still as a stuffed boar. I placed a sheet of paper on his face to see if he was breathing. Without displacing the sheet, he pulled a manuscript from under the covers, raised it with both hands, and boomed in the most sepulchral voice I ever heard: “The lyrical, tragical, most treasonable history of the second king to be named after me.”
He took the paper off his face and placed it and the manuscript beside him. Then, pointing at a letter on my chair, and sounding this time like his ghost in one of the late Marlowe’s plays, he said: “The Earl of Oxford opened that. Not I.”
The letter was from Emmanuel. He wrote to inform Oxford and me about the death of William Cardinal Allen and about Richard the Second, a history he had started working on before leaving England, and which he completed on his passage to Portugal.
Our leading actor was anxious about the new play. He told me why: “The king is deposed and decapitated. And both crimes are committed onstage – right before the audience!” He sat up. I turned my chair around, plopped down in it, and asked: “Who deposes King Richard?”
“Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford. He’s exiled in the opening scene. But he returns and musters a rebel army. When the play ends, he’s crowned as King Henry the Fourth.”
There was a second manuscript on my table. Richard, who hadn’t read Emmanuel’s letter, assumed that Edward de Vere had written two versions of the same history. Handing me the copy that had been lying beside him, he said: “In this one, the king loses his crown and, later, his head. In the other version, he’s neither deposed nor murdered.”
We talked about a few other things that had happened in London while I was away. And then Richard got on his feet, placed the unabridged manuscript in the centre of my bed, and covered it with a blanket as gently as one would have covered a sleeping baby. Nearly half-way to the door, he turned around and gave me a parting shot which rang in my ears the rest of that day: “Oxford doesn’t want us to stage the complete history at present. We are not to rehearse the deposition scene, not even in the privacy of our homes, before he tells us to produce Richard the Second in full.”
As I nodded in agreement, Richard pointed to the manuscript on my bed and added: “Nobody else is to be shown that bomb without the earl’s approval.”
For most of the following week, I did nothing but read the two versions of Richard the Second side by side. The full play was Emmanuel’s story. The truncated one was Oxford’s version of it. What he had done was rewrite the entire history almost word for word. But he had cut out the scene about two thirds of the way into the drama in which King Richard is forced to abdicate his throne, and the one at the end in which he is assassinated.
Under the gaze of the Master of the Revels, we gave Oxford’s purged version of Richard the Second for the first time at the newly-opened Swan Theatre on Bankside. The history caused not a stir.
Without the two climaxes which would have stunned our spectators, Richard the Second was no match to the dramatic turns my life was taking offstage.
At the end of one of our subsequent performances of the new drama, my brother Edmund, who had just taken up acting, informed me that the Earl of Southampton was courting a close friend of mine in the royal household: Lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Vernon. The beginning of that courtship marked the end of my dealings with Southampton as my patron.
The very next morning, Amina told me she was expecting our second child.
Within the month, she and I bought a house in her name, with Michael Tunkara as her guarantor. We named it Corisco Novo.
Four or five weeks after Amina and John moved from Chateau Tunkara to Corisco Novo, Michael paid us a visit. As he and I sat down in the back garden, he said: “Amina told Kadiatu yesterday that you’ve asked her to marry you. And she has agreed.”
“She has. But Anne still won’t talk to me. How can I divorce her without first agreeing on some terms of a formal separation?”
Michael stooped forward and took a sip of the ale I had served him. Then, leaning back and spreading his arms over the back of the bench he was sitting on, he asked: “When did you last see Anne?”
“The morning I left for Rome nearly twelve years ago. She moved back to Shottery a few months after giving birth to the twins. My parents have been raising our children with very little help from either of us.”
“You’re virtually divorced as it is. Will you consider yourself damned if your second marriage is not sanctioned by the Church of Rome?”
“Amina asked me that same question the night I proposed to her. What do I say?”
“What does your conscience tell you?”
John came outside to inform us that dinner was ready. We thanked him. Michael continued: “Your answer must be one that puts both your mind and hers at ease.” As he was about to enter the house, I pulled him back and asked: “When you were christened did you stop being an imam?
“I didn’t unbecome a Muhammadan before turning Christian, if that’s what you mean. To me, the two religions are a dual citizenship, a double promise of eternal bliss.”
“May I… Can we… Would you…?” While I racked my brain for the best way to phrase my next question, John came back and held the door open for us.
Michael saved me a lifetime of agony by telling me in his characteristic forthright manner exactly what I wanted to hear. Just before I bade him farewell after dinner, he said: “The answer to the question you’d like to ask is yes. As Waalim Sefuwa, you’re allowed more than one wife. And being a covert Muhammadan is far less dangerous than being an underground Catholic.”
When I saw Michael again a couple of weeks later, he was Imam Musa Abdul Tunkara once more. He married Amina and me in a simple Muhammadan ceremony at Chateau Tunkara on Saturday the ninth of September 1595. It was a rare sunny day. And our nuptials were complemented by another celebration. Together with our wedding cake, we shared a second one that Kadiatu had baked for the eighth birthday of John Shakspere, the Younger.
Copyright: Raphael Soné