William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
FIFTEEN: Nor Set Down Aught in Malice
When I arrived at City Hall the next day, the mayor’s clerk told me His Worship wasn’t in the mood to talk with me there and then. Could I join him for breakfast in his residence at eight o’clock the following morning?
I said I could.
Either the lord mayor didn’t care about social graces or he had no time for them when I presented myself at his table some twenty-four hours later. The closest he came to greeting me was to demonstrate by the mounds of food over which he presided that he was no believer in moderation.
Inasmuch as I had made bold to sit before him, as opposed to crouching under the table with his spaniel, he acknowledged my presence without lifting his eyes off the all-important dishes. Between buttering wedges of a walnut loaf and gulping them down with mouthfuls of bacon, mustard-covered salt beef and scrambled eggs, he spluttered a barrage of undiplomatically worded threats over my plate.
Having thus made clear the reason for our meeting, Sir Rowland leaned back in his made-to-measure chair and licked a dab of mustard off the topmost of his three chins. Then he raised his eyes as high as my chest and asked it: “D-d-d-do you know Sir Francis Bay-bay-bacon?”
The Earl of Oxford had once told me about an author called Bacon. I couldn’t remember if he was a Francis or a knight. I had to bluff.
“Not in person, Your Worship. But I do know of him – through his writings.”
“What a fa-fa-fabu-lous coincidence. The great phi–philo-losopher also knows about you. He tells me you’re the first s-s-son of John Sh-sh-shakspere, a Warickshire sh-sh-shoe mender.”
I put my spoon down and wiped baubles of spittle off my face.
“Did your f-f-father send you here to c-cau-cau-cause trouble?”
“He didn’t send me, Your Worship. And I know not what trouble I’ve caused.”
“This trouble,” squeaked the mayor as I rose to leave. “Sit down! Angela!”
Angela entered on cue.
Richard, who knew the Haywards, had told me about Angela, the mayor’s daughter. By all appearances, she too didn’t believe in the moderate consumption of comestibles.
Standing by her father’s side, a script in her stumpy hands, Angela regaled us with three of Jack Cade’s inflammatory speeches from The Second Part of Henry the Sixth.
When she was done, I informed the lord mayor, with more than a modicum of glee, that Sir Edmund Tilney had cut out of our new play all references to the 1450 Kentish rebellion against King Henry the Sixth.
Sir Rowland climbed out of his chair. In a single pile, he walked me to the door while repeating the first clause of his last warning: “You p-p-put out that kind of r-r-ra-rabble-rousing claptrap again,” he paused for a salubrious belch, “and you w-w-w-will be charged w-w-with seduction.”
“Sedition, Father. Sedition!” Angela shouted from the dining hall.
“Wh-wha-whatever!” Sir Rowland spread his legs apart, drew in a long breath and sent me off with a hiss of satisfaction from his posterior.
In spite of calls from some quarters to ban even the toothless second installment of Henry the Sixth (or, perhaps, because of them), the history continued to gain popularity. So much so that, while I was in Stratford recuperating from my harrowing encounters with the Master of the Revels and the Lord Mayor of London, Queen Elizabeth requested to hear “the Talbot play”. To mark the thirty-third anniversary of her accession, Lord Strange’s Men performed a fusion of parts one and two before Her Majesty with Edward Alleyn in the lead.
I returned to London just in time to receive installment three from Emmanuel’s own hand.
My friend and I opened the year 1592 by celebrating his thirtieth birthday and his return to England as Manuel Lopez, Professor of Philology. He had started teaching at Cambridge in January. On the morning of the nineteenth of February, he gave me his newest history in King’s College Chapel.
Had it not been for his voice, I wouldn’t have recognized the man from whom I received The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Emmanuel’s ebony hair, which I had never seen before, was cropped so short that it looked as if it had been plastered on his head. The haircut enhanced his olive aspect and revealed two dimples he had covered with a long blond wig for decades.
Later that snowy day, we met at the Mermaid. I had informed Emmanuel that it seemed Bacon had inherited the late Walsingham’s cloak as Queen Elizabeth’s chief intelligence gatherer, and that he had his eye on me. So we were both disguised as Arabs.
Old Reliable, Mistress Pym, was on duty. When she asked if either of us spoke English, I took her aside, unfolded myself and told her my friend was a scholar from Portugal.
She followed me back to our table and said to Emmanuel: “Welcome to our country.” He stood up and offered her his hand. They must have held hands for a good full minute while he thanked her and said what a pleasure it was to be in England.
Then, after she was done taking our orders, Mistress Pym whispered in my ear: “You could be King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.”
While I puzzled over the remark, Emmanuel asked: “And where are you lodging these days?”
“On Moor Lane. With Michael and his family. For the next eight months at least.”
“With the Tunkaras as well. She’s still to find a place of her own.”
“What are your immediate plans?” As Emmanuel asked the question, Mistress Pym delivered our first cups of ale.
After she left, I assured him that I’d be available to sell his plays to the Admiral’s Men, or any other troupe, whenever he finished writing them; but that I wasn’t going to do any acting for the next while – not until I knew exactly what Sir Francis was after.
“Thinking Man? That’s what they call him at the university. I’d never have associated him with any drudgery as mundane as spying.”
“On the contrary, I’d say he’s the right pick for an intelligencer. A detached contemplative, such as they say he is, would be the last person anyone suspects of ferreting out other people’s secrets.”
In the course of our dinner, my friend and I agreed that we were not going to meet again, not even in disguises, until I was sure that Bacon’s men had stopped trailing me. Meanwhile, whenever he finished writing a play, he would send it to the Earl of Oxford for him to examine before forwarding to me.
A few minutes before we left the tavern, Emmanuel drummed on the table briefly, swallowed his last bit of ale and then, cradling his cup in both hands, he asked: “Do you think Monifa would mind coming to live with me?”
“Not if you tell her you need a secret agent. Michael is training her to be a messenger. Since he started her formation, she’s got it in her head that he and his wife Kadiatu and you and I are all spies. If she were to see us now, she’d be over the moon.”
At the end of our meal, Emmanuel accompanied me to Chateau Tunkara, where he spent most of the evening conversing with Monifa. Some three or four weeks later, she moved in with him – on the understanding that, while playing at housekeeping for him, she would be our go-between.
Monifa was christened the following autumn. After her baptism, she chose Ham as her secret service name. Ham, from the last syllable of Walsingham, used to be the Jesuit code for spy.
I, on the other hand, dissociated myself from the stage throughout 1592, the year in which Richard Burbage earned the nickname Gloucester – because of his incomparable portrayal of Richard of Gloucester in The Third Part of Henry the Sixth.
However, my keeping a low profile didn’t stop Sir Francis Bacon from thinking about me. Early in the winter, he wrote a dispassionate analysis of the record-breaking Wars of the Roses trilogy. He didn’t condemn the histories. Nor did he laud them more than halfheartedly. But he made a point of mentioning me by name as their author. After describing me as “the Stratford fellow” who was “single-handedly lifting the sordid craft of play-writing out of the gutter,” Sir Francis entreated his readers to “remove this rarity from among the nonentities who scribble the bombast regurgitated by common players.”
I couldn’t help thinking that the spymaster’s interest in me had been aroused by one of two occurrences – if not both.
My father had been convicted of recusancy some fifteen years earlier when then-Bishop John Whitgift described him as “a greate mysliker of the religion now professed who absentes him selfe from churche all yeare rounde.” In January 1592, our local parish listed him as one of eight Stratford residents who were being investigated again for continually missing Church of England services.
About five months later, I faced a more serious and direct threat to my life. Two Jesuit couriers from Italy, Richard Acliffe (a messenger from the diocese of Cassano) and Anthony Skinner (Cardinal Allen’s clerk), were arrested in Gravesend on their way to London. Kadiatu, who brought us the news, informed me that a letter from the “English college” in Rome had been found among Anthony’s belongings. It was addressed to me.
The new bearer of the Skinner letter would no doubt have delivered it with blows to my person. Hence, from early spring to late autumn, I ventured out of Chateau Tunkara on three occasions only: to bring The Third Part of Henry the Sixth to Richard in March, part four in July, and The Comedy of Errors in October. On all three occasions, Kadiatu dressed me up as her charwoman.
I wore another disguise that October. It was in Chateau Tunkara – at a Halloween party which Emmanuel attended as a Jew and I as a Moor.
He was accepting a drink from Michael towards the end of the party when I approached him from behind, slipped a manuscript down the sleeve of his gabardine and asked: “Would you mind taking a look at that and telling me what you think of it?”
“You’ve written a play!”
“Nothing that base. I’m in quest of respectability.”
While in hiding, I had tried my hand at narrative verse. The manuscript on which I wanted to hear my friend’s opinion was that of a poem for which I hadn’t yet chosen a title.
Emmanuel didn’t return the poem to me. Oxford did. On his way to Saint Helen’s the Sunday after our Halloween party, he stopped at Chateau Tunkara. When I greeted him, he whistled.
“Impressive!” The earl almost split his face smiling. He handed me my poem, patted me on the shoulder and said: “Take it to Southampton.”
“To whom in Southampton, my lord?”
“Do you mean the Earl of Southampton?” I dropped the manuscript and pricked my ears.
“The earl. I’m sure it will please him to be your patron.”
Long after his coach rattled off, I stood where Oxford left me, rereading my poem. Emmanuel had written a few notes on the margins. And above the first line, he had inscribed in capital letters: VENUS AND ADONIS.
Venus and Adonis was published in the spring of 1593 – prefaced by my dedication to the Earl of Southampton.
The poem excited readers beyond my wildest imagination. I heard that students in Cambridge and Oxford let their meals go cold, or skipped them altogether, while they licked their lips perusing Venus and Adonis. Young maidens were said to read the poem under covers at night and debate its subject matter sotto voce by day.
Even Her Royal Majesty caught the Venus and Adonis fever. According to a rumour believed to have been started by one of her ladies-in-waiting, the first time Queen Elizabeth scanned my lines, she furtively tucked them under her pillow. And she herself did tell the Earl of Southampton a couple of years later that, for weeks after it came out, the last thing she did before turning in for the night was read my poem.
I had used Gilbert’s spelling of our family name as the author. Overnight, Shake-speare became a household word. Every poet in London sang the praises of the Earl of Southampton. My publisher, a former school friend by the name of Richard Field, increased his output six-fold. And some street vendors sold Venus and Adonis by the dozen.
Shortly after news of my good fortune reached Stratford-upon-Avon, apparently to make sure Father didn’t receive the shock through a letter, Gilbert wrote to inform Mother and me that twelve-year-old Edmund was living with him. The truant had stopped attending school and escaped to London to dedicate his life to penning verse.
At the beginning of December, I took Edmund back to Stratford and, after spending a week with the family, headed farther north to Lancashire. I needed a break from fame, and no other household of my boyhood days could have guaranteed me a more peaceful Christmas than Hoghton Tower.
The de Hoghtons welcomed me as warmly as if I lived next-door to them. Thomas assigned me my old room, which felt more like mine than the one I had shared with Gilbert for years in Stratford-upon-Avon.
I had brought along a copy of The Comedy of Errors to put on for my hosts over the Christmas season. The day after my arrival, I pored over the comedy, preparing answers to questions I guessed spectators might ask me – as the author.
But I need not have worried. On my sixth day in Lancashire, the author himself showed up at Hoghton Tower.
“I arrived late last night,” Emmanuel said as he and I sat down for breakfast. “Gilbert told me about your retreat. What better place to work without distractions, I thought.” Pointing to a saddle bag at the end of the table he added: “I’ve brought with me five of the fourteen plays I wrote while living on the Continent.”
Later that day, Emmanuel spent an hour or so in my room giving me a rundown on Titus Andronicus, a tragedy. And the day after, we were in the library of Hoghton Tower all afternoon and most of the evening leafing through four comedies: Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.
When he asked me at the end of the day if we could stage one of the four comedies as a Christmas entertainment, I informed him that Thomas and I had already selected a cast to perform the play about mistaken identities.
Our production of The Comedy of Errors at Hoghton Tower that Christmas was an exemplar of seamless collaboration. And, fortunately for me, no one asked questions about the play that I couldn’t answer with ease.
The only unanswerable question I was asked had nothing to do with The Comedy of Errors. It came from Friar Paul.
The friar had been in Devon during the week that I spent in Stratford. After hearing upon his return that I was in Lancashire, he too had headed north the morning after Christmas Day.
He wasn’t an early riser. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I entered the chapel at about six on the morning after our last performance and found him standing before the crib. He must have seen me walk in, because he asked without turning around: “Did you know that Christopher was in Rome in the spring of eighty-five?”
“Marlowe. It was he who robbed you. Of both…”
“My money and the two passports? He couldn’t have.”
Friar Paul reached into one pocket and retrieved my long-expired passports. Then he dug deeper into another. Handing me my purse from eight years back, the friar said: “He visited Stratford a month before he was killed. He asked me to baptize him, and I did. That’s when he turned over your articles.”
The purse contained all ninety-three of my ducats and a two-word warning, which read:
“Will, Avoid bacon. C. Me.”
If he had intended “C. Me.” to be read as “See me” or “See Marlowe”, I received his request too late to do so. He was stabbed to death in Deptford the previous May by a fellow government agent – if the coroner’s report is to be believed.
As for Sir Francis Bacon, I needed no voice from beyond the grave to put me on my guard against him. But I thanked Christopher all the same, and said a prayer for the repose of his soul.
Three days later, Emmanuel left for Cambridge. I accompanied Friar Paul on his journey back to Stratford, where I stayed for a couple of months before returning to London.
The London I returned to in early 1594 was like a mad dog barking at its own shadow and wagging its tail simultaneously, a raving beast in whose addled brain the real and the imaginary had become inextricably interfused.
Prior to joining me in Lancashire, Emmanuel had discussed The Fourth Part of Henry the Sixth with the Earl of Oxford. They revised the history and changed its title to King Richard the Third before Oxford gave Richard Burbage the go-ahead to stage it.
A member of our company must have passed a copy of the revised play with its new title on to a third party. By the time Richard produced it for the first time in March that year, four pirated versions of King Richard the Third were being staged by half a dozen different troupes in as many playhouses and Lord knows how many private homes.
The pirates were in agreement on one point: the author of all their sundry adaptations was “Master W.S.” By mid-spring, the entire city was plastered with notices advertising dramas about Richard the Third purported to have been written by “W.S.” Poems and pamphlets I was also supposed to have authored became as common as capon and ale.
The competition wouldn’t have mattered had it been carried out only on paper and in the theatres. But the duplicities and murders of the descendants of Edward the Third portrayed on stage by the different acting companies were fiercely outplayed by rival authors and actors in the streets, taverns, inns and even houses of ill repute.
In the middle of the warring factions stood I, an unwilling participant.
Readers and theatre-goers alike were divided into two camps: admirers of Master W.S. and his detractors. Those who were jealous of my newly-acquired status constituted a very small minority. But they were so loud in their disparagement of my success that their venomous vituperations drowned out the enlivening encomiums of the countless lovers of Venus and Adonis.
“That’s your penalty for penning poems of passion,” Richard quipped one morning. It was on the Saturday following my return from Lancashire. I had been tidying up my new room on Hog Lane in Shoreditch when a furious wind blew him in. “Last month a Cambridge student gave a less pugnacious one a black eye for insisting that you, and not their vice-chancellor, Thomas Legge, had written the Latin play Ricardus Tertius. And player Gabriel Spenser has challenged Ben Jonson to a duel over the same disagreement.”
“I guess you’ve also heard that George Peele’s Battle of Alcazar is being circulated under a new title.”
“Muly Molucco.” Richard laughed. “And it’s got your name on the cover as the author. Peele sued the Earl of Southampton.”
“Why my patron instead of me?”
“That, you’ll have to ask the earl. He bought Peele’s silence with a few pounds. He also settled this while you were away.” Richard lifted a pamphlet from atop the stack of correspondence he had brought me and sat on the edge of my bed. “Robert Greene would have ended your career had he not killed himself.”
“Robert took his own life? Why? He had so much potential.”
“Lack of common sense, perhaps. He sold multiple versions of his last two plays to several different acting companies, hoping, apparently, that they will be as popular as your Henries. But Philip – that’s Henslowe – uncovered his ploy before any of the plays made it to the stage.”
I felt the skin around my receding hairline crease to a frown. Moving from the end of the table where I had perched, I sat in my chair closer to Richard before asking: “How would his underhand dealings have stopped my progress?”
“His fraudulent transactions were only part of the story. You’re all he wrote and talked about shortly before his death – telling his fellow university wits that your histories are reworkings of their plays. This is his worst written attack of all.” Richard handed me the pamphlet he had been glancing through while talking to me.
I read the title out loud: Groatsworth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance.
“Don’t let the diatribe bother you. Southampton made Henry Chettle, who printed it, apologize on Greene’s behalf.” Richard rose. Pointing at another publication on my table he added: “Chettle’s apology is in there – in his Kind-Hart’s Dream. I’d read it first if I were you.”
“Well, you aren’t,” I mumbled behind Richard’s back as he closed the door on his way out. “And I am not you.”
The moment he was gone, I lit a candle. Lying in my bed, I read Groatsworth from start to finish. It was nothing but an assemblage of groundless accusations and undeserved insults.
I tore Robert’s pamphlet to shreds, and then spent the rest of the night pondering a remark Oxford made three years earlier. It had taken me that long to realize that when the earl said selling plays in London was cut-throat business, he had in mind throats of flesh and bone.
Copyright: Raphael Soné