William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
SIXTEEN: Joy and Fresh Days of Love
A week or so after apprising me of Robert Greene’s accusation, Richard brought me four more bags of mail. While wintering in Lancashire and Stratford, I had sent him a copy of The Comedy of Errors together with all five of the plays Emmanuel had brought with him. I therefore expected an occasional written response to the dramas, but not a torrent of correspondence.
As Richard emptied the last bag, I thanked him and said: “It looks as though I’m going to spend the rest of my days answering letters.”
“And counting filthy lucre. You’re owed quite a bit of money.”
“Go and tell that to my father.” I grabbed the empty purse hanging on my bed post, threw it at Richard and asked: “How much is quite a bit?”
“Bag-loads. Oxford recommended that I buy all six of the plays you sent me a few months ago. He’s arranged for us to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the wedding of Countess Mary, your patron’s mother, and some member of the Privy Council.”
“Sir Thomas Heneage. Have any of the others been produced yet?”
“We gave Love’s Labour’s Lost before Her Majesty at Christmas; and Titus Andronicus and As You Like It at The Rose in January. We’re about to start rehearsing The Taming of the Screw.”
“Shrew. The Taming of the Shrew.”
“Do I include you in the crew of The Shrew?”
“When will the Admiral’s Men begin staging it?”
“Sometime in May.”
“Only a minor role for me, please.”
As we spoke, Richard tossed my empty purse back to me, and deposited three full ones on the table. For a good while after he left, I sat up counting groats by the handful.
The following evening, I went to Oxford House at the earl’s invitation. He and Emmanuel were in his study when I arrived.
“She’s dying,” Oxford said to Emmanuel as I joined them. And then he advised us both to be particularly careful until the inevitable happened.
“Parliament is about to pass two pieces of legislation which are going to throw the whole country into turmoil,” said the earl. “A week or two from now until the day she expires, it will be a treasonable offence to talk about Her Majesty’s impending demise or to speculate on her successor.”
“Not subjects you and I are likely to engage in,” Emmanuel said, looking at me.
“Not even in secret,” I added.
Staring at a pile of documents before him, and then at me, Oxford countered: “The second law is going to affect you directly. And no amount of secrecy will protect you from it.”
Emmanuel and I had been standing all the while. We sat down. The earl resumed: “To continue residing in London, you’d have to be one hundred percent Anglican henceforth – if only outwardly. Under the second statute, all adults identified as recusants will be required to return to their hometowns. They will register with their local parishes and won’t be allowed to travel beyond five miles of their homes – among other restrictions.”
Looking at me pitifully, Emmanuel said: “That’s tantamount to putting every Roman Catholic under house arrest.”
“You’re worse off.” Oxford shuffled through the papers on his desk, picked out a document and thrust it at my friend. It was a list of Catholic priests and seminarians abroad who, the Privy Council suspected, were likely to return to England as missionaries – in other words, as revolutionaries. Emmanuel Jenkins was the eleventh name on the list of two hundred and five.
“The Privy Council are investigating a gallimaufry of unsubstantiated threats to the queen’s life. And one of the measures they’re taking is looking closely into the whereabouts of everyone on that list.” The earl shifted his gaze from the document, which was in my hands at that point, to his star student. “Last night, Sir Francis Bacon sneered when I told the council that Emmanuel Jenkins must have perished in one of the naval battles of 1588.”
Oxford invited us to sup with him. When supper was over, he urged me even more strongly than he had done eight years earlier in Corisco not to take any actions or even say anything that could land me in prison.
“If walls have ears, as the proverb goes, they will be particularly attentive in the months ahead. Make sure you don’t end up like Henry.”
Henry Donne, poet John Donne’s brother, died in prison under mysterious circumstances the week before. He had been incarcerated for sheltering a Catholic priest.
When the laws Oxford warned us about went into effect, far from discouraging speculations, they turned London into one expansive rumour mill gone out of control. Everyone gossiped with a mixture of anticipation and dread about seizures and abductions, assassination plots and Spanish armadas, fierce civil strife and a world-ending armed confrontation. Those who were brave enough to do so even defied the law and risked their lives by letting others know what they thought about the queen’s looming end and whom they considered to be her most likely successor.
Within one month of the unbridled rumour-mongering, Church of England fingers began to be pointed at adherents of the Church of Rome and their foreign supporters. I had no choice but to go into hiding again.
While literally living underground at Chateau Tunkara, I wrote another narrative poem. I entitled it The Rape of Lucrece, and dedicated it also to the Earl of Southampton.
Lucrece was a deliberate attempt on my part to use a story set in ancient Rome as a means of sending encoded messages to other recusants. I imagined, for instance, that, while recognizing their own plight as persecuted citizens in the expulsion of Tarquin’s family from Rome, they would likewise see in the anchor of my title emblem a symbol of hope.
As before, the first person I went to visit upon re-emerging from my writing retreat was Richard Burbage. After telling me that he and Edward Alleyn were reconciled, he pointed to stacks of mail on his dining room floor and said: “I’ll deliver these to you tomorrow.”
Lord Strange’s and the Admiral’s Men were merged. While waiting for London’s latest plague epidemic to subside, the new troupe, which was later named The Earl of Nottingham’s Company, had gone on a tour of the provinces under Edward’s leadership.
Knowing how frequently he and Edward opposed each other, I said goodbye to Richard wondering how long their new union was going to last.
Next day, I went and saw Richard Field about publishing The Rape of Lucrece.
Though comparatively successful, the new poem was received with less than half the acclaim that had been poured, and was still being poured, on Venus and Adonis. The only thing that comes to mind whenever I think of Lucrece is what happened on the day Field and I designed its cover.
When I returned to Shoreditch at the end of that day, Odilia, my landlord’s daughter, told me that William Johnson, the proprietor of the Mermaid, had stopped by and had slipped something under my door. The something turned out to be a sealed note from the Earl of Oxford. It was disquietingly brief, particularly coming from a man who was prone to verbosity. Though innocuous on the surface, the wording was even more troubling: “John Shakspere is here, residing with me.”
All of a sudden, my mouth was as parched as the inside of a burning pot. What could have happened in Stratford-upon-Avon? Had Friar Paul been found out? Could my father have been forced to leave the cherished market town that had been home to him all his life? Where would the rest of the family be?
I changed in a flash and was about to head out when Odilia walked in with my supper. The dishes rattled as she placed the tray on my table.
“Whatever’s the matter with you, Master Shakspere? You look frightfully pale.”
Before I could explain, Odilia’s father, who had followed her with a cup of ale in each hand, asked: “Ye can na’ ‘ave seen a ghost, can ye?”
“Alec, I am as close to seeing one as I may ever come.” Thanking him, I downed one of the ales and placed the other on my window sill. “I’ll drink that later. My supper can also wait. I have an urgent matter to attend to. Please lock my door for me. I may not return tonight – if I return at all.”
I don’t recall ever running on any other occasion as fast as I did that lonely spring evening. My heart was pounding faster than a horse’s gallop by the time I arrived at Oxford House. And when the earl’s footman let me in, it almost exploded.
No word in any of the languages I know adequately evokes how I felt when, upon my entering Oxford House, the John Shakspere who greeted me was not my aging father, but a seven-year-old boy. My temples throbbed. My hands shook. My knees knocked. Had I been a year older, I wouldn’t have survived the shock of so abrupt a conversion from debilitating anxiety to invigorating joy.
“I named h-, h-, h…” So tight was our embrace that Amina had to extricate herself from my arms to be able to speak. “I named him after your father.”
“Is there a cure for euphoria, my lord,” I asked Oxford as he approached the three of us with the smug air of a conjurer who has restored a severed body.
“None that I know of.”
“Why, Amina?” I hugged her again. “Why didn’t you write and tell me about him? Why didn’t you write to let me know you were coming to England?”
“She did,” the earl replied, ushering us into his study. “Her letters are here.”
After we all sat down, he continued: “About three years ago, I invited Mother Isola to come and visit me. She wrote back saying she was too weakened by ill-health to undertake so long a journey; and that Amina was going to come in her stead. I thought it best to wait until she – Amina – got here before breaking the news to you.”
Oxford glanced at Amina. She in turn defended him: “His lordship didn’t know about John. Not until an Italian friend of his delivered the two of us here last night.”
I stood up, lifted John off his feet, enfolded him in my arms, and asked: “What news from Corisco?”
Copyright: Raphael Soné