William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
FOURTEEN: Rebellious Subjects, Enemies to Peace
Comedy came easily to Emmanuel. By the time we met in Salamanca, he had written a total of fourteen plays. Eleven of them were comedies.
He was working on his twelfth one, which he called The Comedy of Errors, when the Earl of Oxford stepped in and changed what he wrote for the stage and, in so doing, revolutionized the English theatre itself.
After a brief retreat in Stratford, I had gone back to London in mid-October of 1590 to start preparing for Emmanuel’s return and the commencement of our partnership.
I stayed with Gilbert and Antonia in Saint Bride’s. One Sunday evening the following November, while they were attending vespers, a loud knock on the front door made me jump and drop the book I had been reading. I Picked it up, scuttled downstairs, and opened the door.
Without responding to my “Hello, how do you do,” a matronly personage rolled in and made straight for the dining room, which doubled as Gilbert’s office. I was about to tell her that Shake-Speare Haberdashery didn’t do business on Sundays when she said, as if accusing me: “You are Master Shakspere’s older brother, William.”
She remained standing in spite of my offering her a seat. I sat down, expecting to hear a charge.
“I am Mistress Pym of the Mermaid. Messager to his lor’ship, Oxford. A’times he attends Sunday service at Saint Helen’s. When he does, I ask him for alms. He gives me tuppence with a message. Or a penny if he don’t have none. This morning, he gives me tuppence and this here note what says what it says.”
Mistress Pym unclenched her hand and dropped a small piece of paper on the table. She leaned forward slightly, a gesture I took to be a bow, and said: “I hope we’ll be seeing you at the tavern.”
“You can bet you will.” I thanked her, picked up the note and walked her back to the front door.
What Mistress Pym had brought me was an invitation to breakfast at Oxford House the following Saturday.
Breakfast was a misnomer. Until nearly twelve noon on the appointed morning, I laboured on an empty stomach. The earl selected handfuls of books from his library and gave them to me to dust and pack in a trunk.
“They’re for Emmanuel,” he told me. “I’m sending them to him as Christmas gifts.”
I took the opportunity to write my friend a short poem, informing him that I had arrived home safely, and placed it on one of the books.
The volumes Oxford had selected for him were all about the history of England and her neighbours. They included such recent works as Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland; a manuscript of Samuel Daniel’s poem The Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York; and an anonymous play titled The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.
By mid-morning, I began to worry that the chore might last all day. But, after organizing and reorganizing the books in several different ways, we agreed around noon that there was no more room in the trunk for another tome.
Heaving a deep sigh of contentment, Oxford sat down, pointed to a folded sheet on his desk and said: “Read that and tell me what you think.”
It was a letter the earl had written to his ascendant scholar the night before, requesting that he send us a series of plays, five or six if possible, based on the history of England. The request began: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at a flood, leads on to fortune…” And so it continued to the end in Oxford’s ponderous style.
The underlying message was that celebrating the defeat of the Catholic Armada had become a consuming pastime in Protestant England. Well over two years after their victory, Protestants all over the country were still gripped by the patriotic frenzy which seized them in the summer of 1588. Nothing – not harvest failures; not rampant, grinding penury; no, not even plague – would dampen their collective exhilaration.
Even now, London theatre-goers were climbing on one another’s backs for a peek at any stage performance that promised to titillate their national pride. There could not be a better time to dramatize the glories of Albion’s past than the present.
What did I think? Reverently refolding the letter, I walked to the trunk and laid it on my poem.
“What can I say, my lord? Other than that I look forward to playing a role, however small, in the drama you’re about to launch.”
Five or six months later, on the Maundy Thursday of 1591, Antonia and I were having supper while Gilbert paced the floor mumbling to himself about how much income he stood to lose by closing the store for four days – Good Friday to Easter Monday – when he pressed a finger on his lips and whispered: “There’s someone at the door.” He put his cup of ale on the table and went to check.
As he was coming back, the regal figure of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, strode behind him.
“What a pleasant surprise,” Antonia said as we both stood up. She curtsied. I bowed.
“Welcome…” Gilbert was all aflutter.
“…to your humble abode?” asked his distinguished guest.
We giggled as they sat down, the one facing the other. Antonia and I resumed our chairs at opposite ends of the table.
Oxford slid beside my plate of capon a thick manuscript on the cover of which was written The First Part of the Wars of the Roses.
“You’d better not leave just yet,” he said to Antonia, who had stood up. This will interest you too. And Gilbert.”
Antonia sat down again and said: “Emmanuel got your message.”
“He did. Oh, did he ever!” Looking at me, Oxford rubbed his open palm over the manuscript as tenderly as he would have caressed the face of a newborn baby. “This is exactly the kind of entertainment we need to enliven our religious discourse. The only thing I’d change is his title.”
“Why the title, sir?” Antonia asked.
“It’s too broad. When I write him next, I will suggest that he put the names of his principal characters in the titles of his plays. A famous individual’s name in a title would be more arresting than that of a family or dynasty.
I picked up the manuscript. “What would you call this one?”
“Henry the Sixth.”
“The First Part of Henry the Sixth it is,” I said. “We’ll replace his title with yours.”
“But you won’t need to insert any messages in that piece, William.” The earl grinned like a rascal about to stage a dangerous practical joke. “It’s a fireball in itself. If the rest of Emmanuel’s plays are like his Henry the Sixth, you can dispense with your writers of cyphered messages.”
Gilbert cleared the table, then served each of us a flagon of sherry.
The earl reached for his with one hand. With the other, he took a letter out of his pocket and dropped it on the manuscript. “He tells us in there that the story of the Wars of the Roses is coming in four parts. Parts two and three should be here by Michaelmas, and part four early next year.”
Oxford downed his sherry in one gulp, stared at the three of us in turn, and then said: “You better start preparing the stage for our drama.” Turning to Antonia, he asked: “How much do you already know?”
“About the arrangement between William and Emmanuel? I’d say everything there is to know. William has sworn me to secrecy.”
“And how good is your handwriting?”
“Better than Gilbert’s.”
Gilbert frowned. The earl and I laughed.
“I’m going to need the regular services of a scribe. And I’d rather the scribe lived with me. Would you mind moving to Oxford House?”
“Not in the least, my lord.” Picking up her flagon, Antonia pointed it at Gilbert and asked: “Does my present employer object to releasing me?”
“Not in the least, my lady.” Gilbert clinked his flagon against hers. “You’re released this very instant.”
I slipped Emmanuel’s letter into the manuscript. As I did so, his lordship said: “He confirms he will be teaching in Cambridge upon his return. The rest of the letter is about your plans. And what’s happening in Spain.”
Gilbert served Oxford another sherry. After thanking him, and taking a sip, the earl continued to address himself to me: “Talking of your plans, you too will have to move to a different residence before Henry the Sixth is staged for the first time.” To my questioning gaze, he replied emphatically: “You must! Play-writing is cut-throat business here in London. You ought to live so far apart and your two lives should be so distinct from each other that your brother is never suspected of having a hand in any piece of work as potentially explosive as that play. I would go so far as to suggest, Gilbert, that you change the name of your haberdashery. If William becomes the target of anyone’s vengeance, you could be put out of business just for having the name Shakspere on your door. It wouldn’t matter an iota that you spell the name differently.”
The earl rose and poured himself one more sherry before continuing: “Which brings me back to you, Antonia. You yourself may have to deliver to William and other parties some of the texts you copy for me. If you’re ever intercepted, your defence, at all times, shall be that you’re not acquainted with the contents of your delivery.”
Antonia pouted her lips and clamped them on each side with a thumb and forefinger. When she unclamped them and inquired who the other parties were likely to be, his lordship replied: “Richard Burbage, for one.”
He had already met with Richard and informed him about me and “my” new history. He had also instructed the entertainer to make a few changes in their acting company in preparation for staging the histories that I was going to sell him in the immediate future.
Richard Burbage, the earl told me, was a creature of habit. He could be found at the Mermaid Tavern every Friday evening that he wasn’t out of London.
“Go there next Friday and look for him. The two of you will have to work hand in glove for this enterprise of yours to succeed.”
Shortly afterwards, while we stood outside to bid him goodnight, Oxford said: “I feel like the leader of two foot-soldiers about to charge into a cavalry.”
“You’re not just the three of you, my lord,” Gilbert replied, pulling the earl’s cowl over his head as Antonia helped him into his gloves. “There isn’t a single Catholic in England who wouldn’t approve and support what you’re about to do.”
“It’s kind of you to say so. I wish you all a very good morning. If I’m not mistaken, we’re already an hour or two into Good Friday.”
His lordship blessed each of us with a pat on the head. After receiving his blessing, I dashed off to my bed. Lying flat on my back, I read Emmanuel’s letter twice over, and then laid it on my chest like a relic. I put my candle out, and was reflecting on Oxford’s words and the news from Spain when I fell asleep.
The following Friday evening, I entered the Mermaid Tavern for the first of many times. And there, sure enough, was Richard Burbage.
The renowned player had aged beyond recognition since he and I met in Stratford. What little hair he had left hung around his head like greyish moss on the sides of a rock the top of which had been scrubbed clean. His beady blue eyes were sunken deep into their sockets, almost imperceptible under the furrowed bluff that was once the forehead of an Adonis.
He was sitting at a table with only one other patron: a gaunt fellow he introduced to me as Robert Greene.
“Master Greene is a university wit.” From the way he spat out the description, I deduced that Richard held the mud under his boots in higher esteem than university wits.
I sat beside the actor. He scratched his head, tapped the back of my chair, and said to the wit: “This is Master Shakspere, his lordship’s new apprentice.” And to me: “You’re from?”
“Shakspere! The name did ring a bell. That boy who wouldn’t stop asking questions after hearing me as The Prince of Morocco. How long has it been?”
“Six years. Almost seven, sir.”
“Save the sirs for the Earl of Oxford.”
As Richard spoke, Mistress Pym materialized out of nowhere. Upon seeing her, I popped out of my seat like a Jack-in-a-box, and sat back down just as swiftly. She placed a cup of ale before me and headed for the next table without either of us saying a word to the other.
Robert and Richard had apparently been served a round of drinks only minutes before I arrived. Their cups were both full. Raising his, Richard said “Seven years!” He took a long draft and put the cup down on his far right. “And now you’re a writer. Oxford tells me you have a play for us.”
The First Part of Henry the Sixth was in my battered grammar school satchel. As Robert stared at me, I sheepishly pulled the manuscript out and laid it face down before Richard. The actor flipped it over and started thumbing through the pages.
“How long have you been writing…?” Robert stopped, his mouth open, his eyes fixed on the manuscript.
Richard had raised his hand. The university wit and I sat in restless silence for nearly half an hour, watching the actor’s lips as he read one speech after another at random. Then he slammed the manuscript closed and got on his feet. He took a couple of steps backward, bowed to me and said: “You write well, my boy. Excellent well!”
The wit picked up his hat and walked out of the tavern. Richard explained: “I refused to buy his latest play yesterday.” Raising his cup a second time, he said: “Here’s to our future.”
I moved to the chair Robert had vacated. With Richard and me sitting face-to-face, I would be able to look him straight in the eye when answering any of the countless questions I anticipated from him.
But the entertainer asked me not a single question. Rather, he pushed everything aside, took my right hand and spread it open in the middle of the table. After dropping two pounds in it, he clapped his own right hand over the money and said: “From this point on, The First Part of Henry the Sixth belongs to the Lord Admiral’s Servants.”
“Not Oxford’s Men?”
“No. The earl is disbanding his company. We have merged with the Admiral’s.”
Mistress Pym reappeared. “Would you like some more, my dears?”
We both said we wouldn’t. Richard poured about a quarter of Robert’s abandoned ale in my cup, and the rest in his. While he did so, our hostess came and stood beside me. Grasping my shoulder, she asked: “Master Burbage, has your young friend here told you he’s looking for a place to stay?”
“As a lodger?”
“Yes. Only a room.” I tugged my ear, which was something I did spontaneously in response to unexpected acts of kindness or pleasantly surprising news.
Stretching himself out of his chair, Richard asked: “His lordship says you want to do some acting in addition to writing?”
I nodded. Mistress Pym pulled me up. Richard said: “I can find lodgings for you close to the theatres.” She thanked him, and I thanked them both.
Within the following month, Richard assumed leadership of the Admiral’s Men, obtained the Master of the Revels’ authorization to produce Henry the Sixth intact, selected a cast for the history, and secured a room for me in a house his father owned on Maiden Lane in Southwark.
Antonia moved to Oxford House. And Gilbert changed the name of his haberdashery to GS & Co.
Richard couldn’t have chosen a more convenient location for me to live in. My new home was at walking distance to the Rose Theatre, a playhouse purpose-built for the Lord Admiral’s Men. Also close by was Saint Mary Overie, where I could always make a show of attending Anglican services.
All was set for me to begin spreading the word: the history of England according to Emmanuel Jenkins, alias Manuel Lopez. And London theatre-goers were in the mood to lap up his first installment.
If anything elated the English more than beating Spain, it was subjugating France. Naturally, when the Admiral’s Men announced that they were staging a play in which English forces thrashed the French, Londoners queued up to hear the performances.
And they got their money’s worth. The First Part of Henry the Sixth was more full of action than any drama anybody could recall ever seeing in London before. Troops moved to their destinations at the speed of cannon balls. In the blink of an eye, victory followed retreat; siege counter-siege.
The spectators reacted as Oxford had foreseen. They didn’t just sit or stand and take in the battle scenes, plots and counterplots, treacheries and counter-treacheries. Nor were they contented with clapping at the grandiloquence of the speeches of Lord Talbot. They joined in the action. Every time Richard Burbage made an appearance as the famous war hero, the audience would shout “Brave Talbot!” over and over again.
For the first time in the entertainment history of London an acting company staged the same drama more than twice in seven days. For the first time, not one London reviewer had anything negative to say about a new play. Author Thomas Nashe’s concluding line typified the effusive reception. “As Lord Talbot,” he wrote, “Master Burbage outdoes Master Burbage.”
Inevitably, our first hurrah reached more ears than we would have liked. Our rivals heard it, as did testy city authorities and self-righteous Bible-lickers.
On the afternoon that we were due to stage our history for the first time at The Theatre (a playhouse owned by Richard’s father), I was seated reading one of the reviews of our latest performance when the boy who played King Henry as a young man tapped my knee and pointed downhill from us. He and I and a handful of other actors were in front of the tiring house.
Richard was charging up the hill like a mad bull in search of a prey to gore.
“Who is the Judas?” he asked no one in particular as soon as he got close enough for us to hear him. Huffing and puffing, he rephrased his question: “Which of you betrayed us?”
Clasping his clammy forehead with one hand, he tossed at me a letter he had been clutching in the other. Still out of breath, he stomped from player to player, running his eyes up and down each of them, apparently attempting to configure from the outward man the traitor within.
The letter came from a certain George Peele, another of the London scholars who called themselves university wits. It was addressed to Robert Greene, the wit with an axe to grind. And the addressee had passed it on to Richard.
Peele wanted Greene to know that Lord Strange’s Men were going to start producing a new play at the Rose a week or two from the date of his writing. Of unknown authorship, most likely a collaborative effort, the piece was entitled Harey the Sixth. Edward Alleyn, who had recently lost his post as manager of the Admiral’s Servants to Richard Burbage, was going to lead the cast.
I gave the sweat-soaked letter back to Richard saying: “I doubt that there’s a disloyal player among us. Anyone in the audience could have memorized our lines for Lord Strange’s Men as we spoke them.”
“And what is it with churchmen?” he asked out of the blue. I gave him my chair. He slumped into it swearing: “Frustrated gaggles of Jeremiahs! They’re going to be the ruin of us.”
Richard’s outburst against religious leaders was his reaction to what the divided English clergy were telling their respective denominations about The First Part of Henry the Sixth. The history had ignited an ecclesiastical petard which we feared might explode at any moment into splinters of armed fanatics.
One of our innovations in Henry the Sixth had been the spectacular enactment of the burning at the stake of Joan La Pucelle.
Roman Catholics saw that incident as a painful reminder of the recent beheading of their beloved champion, Queen Mary of Scotland. To Protestants, the scene was calumny concocted to infuriate papists, a malicious dramatization of the lawful execution of a convicted heretic and sorcerer.
The anger on both sides of the religious divide simmered down after we stopped performing The First Part of Henry the Sixth. Then part two arrived. And things boiled over.
Puritans took to the streets in droves, protesting “the performance of an outrageous spectacle,” to quote one of them, “in which shiftless riffraff parade on stage in elaborate costumes and openly enact prohibited popish rituals.”
Had all the playhouses not been shut down because of plague, Puritans would have had our new play taken off the boards and our entire company imprisoned. Their word was becoming law. And every now and then their word would be a fabrication designed to put Catholics in not-so-good a light.
They sprang into action again when we resumed business in the autumn of 1591, sending word to Whitehall that a Jesuit priest had joined the Admiral’s Men and that Catholics were being told they could go to The Theatre (our company’s new home) and hear The Second Part of Henry the Sixth as an alternative to attending Holy Mass. The Theatre was ordered closed until Richard signed a pledge under which he agreed that when we performed part two of Henry the Sixth none of us would appear on stage in vestments, and we would enact no Roman Catholic rites.
The restrictions proved to be a blessing. They piqued the curiosity of Londoners and heightened the appeal of our play. Drama lovers of every faith flocked to The Theatre for the pleasure of hearing, in the words of poet John Donne, “the dulcet decasyllables of the Anglo-Saxon vernacular as enunciated by honey-tongued Richard Burbage.”
Because most of its action was akin to the savagery of less refined entertainment, like bear-baiting, spectators responded to The Second Part of Henry the Sixth not with applause, but with uproars. And before long, the uproars spilled into the streets.
At the end of our ninth performance, Sir Edmund Tilney, Her Majesty’s Master of the Revels, pulled Richard off the stage.
Our leading actor had broken his promise to Whitehall by playing Cardinal Beaufort in full regalia. As Sir Edmund dragged him away, and his mitre and crozier dropped on the floor, some in the audience cheered. Others booed.
I followed them. I too was still in costume – as King Henry.
The Master of the Revels pulled Richard to his carriage, opened the door, picked a scroll up from his seat and flapped it under the bulbous nose of the make-believe cardinal. “Do you see this?” He ground his teeth and bit his lower lip. “This is a writ.”
“So this is what a writ looks like.” Tapping on the document with his cardinal’s ring, Richard turned to me and said: “Master Shakspere, this is a writ.”
Sir Edmund took no heed of the actor’s feigned ignorance. He pressed both palms wide open on a stack of correspondence. “And these!” He pounded on the stack. “These came in only today. They’re all complaints. Maddening complaints! I’ve done nothing for a whole month but read complaints about you and your company.”
“Whom have we offended?” Richard asked me.
Sir Edmund turned him around. Eying me as if I were a patchwork of all the detestable creatures he’d ever seen, he said: “You and your fellow players are causing public disorder. It has to be stopped.”
I moved a step closer to him and protested: “Sir Edmund, our audiences like their history. Surely you don’t want us to stop entertaining them.”
“Jack Cade is not entertainment.” His lordship reached under his pile of mail, extracted a copy of The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, and slapped my face with it. Tossing the manuscript at me, he said: “Take Jack Cade out of that play, or take the play out of London. Out of England.”
“My lord.” Richard stepped between us. “Our spectators know that the Jack Cade uprising happened. We didn’t invent it.”
“Cut the rebellion out of your play, or be prepared to face the consequences. You’re putting our citizens in a malevolent frame of mind. England is not France or Germany. We shall have no riots in our streets.”
The Master of the Revels could not have been more mistaken. Two days after he took us to task for disturbing the peace, Richard and I met in Eastcheap. In the din and semi-darkness of the Boar’s Head, we excised the Jack Cade Rebellion from Henry the Sixth. While Thomas Dekker, a playwright appointed to oversee the exercise, was congratulation us on a job well done, I received an order to appear before Sir Rowland Hayward, the Right Honourable Lord Mayor of London.
Copyright: Raphael Soné