William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
EIGHT: The Play’s the Thing
Less than a month after we defied Westminster, it became evident to me that I was being watched whenever I showed up in a tavern or some other public place. And the agents tracking my movements were not Stratford locals.
I felt entrapped. No morally acceptable way out. Moving back to London without my wife and daughter would have been an irresponsible act. Taking them along with no guarantee of a regular source of income would have been even less responsible.
Should I have my marriage annulled and return to the seminary? Can such things be done? As a priest, I would be free of Anne, legally and emotionally, while at the same time being able to provide for her and Susanna.
I decided to seek Friar Paul’s advice on the matter, hoping that Anne wouldn’t object to my proposal to nullify our marriage. However, before I could muster up enough courage to discuss my unease with anyone, I was presented with a golden opportunity to serve the Church Militant profitably, and relatively safely, as a layman. I took it without demur.
The opportunity came in the form of an invitation to the theatre.
In the summer of 1584, five or six London acting companies appeared in the Guild Hall of Stratford-upon-Avon. Among them was one called the Earl of Oxford’s Men. Their patron was Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
It rained cats and dogs the day Oxford’s Men arrived. They were soaked to the bone; their wagon in tatters; their costumes so many jumbles of muddy laundry.
When, nearly a week later, they assembled from the various homes where they had been kindly billeted, Oxford’s Men gave some of the best performances that Stratford theatre-goers were privileged to hear in my life time.
They staged four dramas in all. Their masterpiece, which they saved for last, was a new play called Portia, Heiress of Belmont. Father and I heard it together. I was so enthralled by the performance that when it was over I asked him if we could invite the leading actor home for supper.
“What the devil for?” He bared his clenched teeth at me. “Isn’t it bad enough that you never tire of stage-acting? Must you also consort with common players? I’d thank you not to bring any of the vagabonds to my house.”
While he huffed away, I went in search of Richard Burbage, the flamboyant entertainer who had played the Prince of Morocco in Portia, Heiress of Belmont.
I found the actor in the tiring house. He was seated on a bench, wiping paint off his face. I whispered to the back of his head: “Master Burbage?”
“I am he. And who would you be, my good man?” He smiled radiantly at my image in the mirror before him. His voice was as captivating as it had been onstage, even though he looked exhausted.
“William, sir. Shakspere. My father was…“
“…the high and mighty bailiff who sent us packing many summers ago because our Dido wasn’t to his liking. I remember your father too well, Sir William. To what do Oxford’s Men owe the pleasure of your lordship’s visit?”
“I was wondering if you’d be able to join me for a pint at the Greyhound this evening.”
“Able? I will be. And willing. And available too. Make it a quart and tell me when.”
“Eight o’clock sharp. And it’s Richard. Not Master Burbage.”
“Thank you. Good day.”
Richard and I had conducted all of our parley through his looking-glass. Then, as I turned to leave, he stood up and said to one of his fellow players: “Any son of mine enemy is a friend of mine.”
We met at the appointed hour. My new-found idol didn’t have to tell me that he drank deep, or that he was accustomed to chatting late into the night. The more ale he imbibed the more he exuded an air of imperturbable composure. Or perhaps it was my vision which dimmed little by little as the night progressed.
In the course of our conversation, Richard made several statements, which, for days after Oxford’s Men left Stratford, I repeated to myself over and over again like one rehearsing lines for an upcoming performance. He had to have been a divine messenger sent to tell me how I could strike a palpable blow or two against the Goliath that was the Church of England; and so, however circuitously, avenge the wrongful execution of my mother’s cousin and the unjustified seizure of his estate.
When I asked him if he knew the author of Portia, he said he didn’t. “The manuscript was delivered to the Earl of Oxford without any indication on it of its origin.”
He went on to explain that nobles who wrote masques and other entertainments didn’t associate themselves openly with players and play-acting. “They won’t write their names on their scripts – unless they be false appellations. And paid authors who write for the stage see no reason to put their names on plays. Once they sell a piece of drama to a printer or an acting troupe it no longer belongs to them. They have no say in what publishers and producers do with it. Whatsoever.”
As if rendering an aside, Richard then made the two utterances which intrigued me the most: “Whoever penned Portia stands to make a fortune in London supplying plays to the thespian societies mushrooming in the metropolis. Londoners are infected with an insatiable thirst for drama.”
I knew the Earl of Oxford. I knew the author of Portia, Heiress of Belmont. I knew how they were connected.
Late in the summer of 1576, a year before Emmanuel finished grammar school, Master Jenkins had taken the pair of us on our first trip abroad. We spent most of our time in Venice. While there we stayed in Oxford’s villa and were looked after by the accommodating, if choleric, earl himself.
From that year on Oxford took a keen interest and played an active role in Emmanuel’s education, backing him financially and editing virtually every piece of his writing intended for circulation. To the bookworm that was his protégé he also made available his immense collection of books at Oxford House, believed to be second in size, in all of England, only to that of the Cecils, his adoptive family.
Between his last year of grammar school and his first in college, Emmanuel had written two plays which spectators thought were both worthy of a mature playwright. He had entitled the first one The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco.
The Marriage was performed thrice at Hoghton Tower when I taught in Lancashire – with me playing a London heiress wooed to no avail by two English noble men; and then successfully by the Moorish prince of the title.
Apparently because of its scandalous subject matter, Emmanuel had revised his first play, moved its setting from London to a fictitious estate in Italy, changed the names of his characters accordingly and renamed the comedy itself. Portia, Heiress of Belmont was The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco rewritten to entertain London audiences without shocking their sensibilities.
At that juncture, the budding author was in Rome studying law and philosophy at the newly-founded Collegium Divi Thomae while teaching rhetoric at the English College nearby. His plan was to end his academic career at the University of Salamanca, from which he hoped to take a doctorate in the philosophy of language.
In his last letter to me, my friend hadn’t said anything about Portia. I wondered if he had asked his benefactor to make sure I knew about the adapted comedy. Oxford was in attendance when I first played the heiress in The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco.
After Richard and his company left, I asked myself if Emmanuel had penned any other dramas since his departure from Stratford-upon-Avon and, more to the point, if he would be interested in making an adjunct living as a writer of plays.
Given his writing talents and my acting and administrative skills, we could run a business in London – a business virtually guaranteed to succeed. And he wouldn’t even need to be living in England for us to work together. All he would have to do is send me plays from wherever in the world he happened to be. Producing and promoting them would be my responsibilities.
I could start working immediately. My wife and daughter could have a house to call their own within a year or two.
The idea of our forming a partnership kept me awake, night and day, for ten days running. If we corresponded to each other about the matter, it would take years before we came to firm agreements on all the details of the plan I had in mind. Emmanuel never took decisions on impulse. And I couldn’t afford the luxury of waiting for the indefinite day of his return. There was only one thing to do: Go to Rome and discuss the partnership with him in person.
Once my mind was made up, I sat down with my parents and the friar.
“I’ve decided to become an entertainer,” I told them, and detailed my plan of action. We were sitting around the kitchen table. My parents had been playing piquet when the friar and I joined them.
Mother and Friar Paul thought the idea was brilliant. Father had listened in frosty silence while I explained how I planned to attain my goal. Just as I began to speak about needing money for my trip, he tossed his cards on the table, got up, lifted his goblet of sack and poured it on my head, saying: “If you make a minstrel of yourself, don’t show your face in this house again.” Chucking his cup on my lap, he shouted: “Ever!”
Mother jumped to her feet. She hefted the table and shoved it at his groins. Doubled over and staggering backwards, he ordered her: “Have your son committed to an institution where his mind can be restored. He’s lost it!”
Friar Paul stormed out of the kitchen. Mother followed him. I rose to go and dry myself. Father banged the table repeatedly with his fists until I was out of earshot.
Now I had two relations who wouldn’t talk to me.
Although she continued to do her conjugal duties much as before, Anne hadn’t said a civil word to me since her outburst over my calling her Angel. Even after I told her about my imminent journey, she persisted with her silence. It wasn’t until the morning of my departure that, upon snatching Susanna out of my arms, she mumbled: “Something tells me you won’t return to England.”
“I will. But I’m going to settle in London.” I took the child back from her.
“How convenient. You will visit your family from time to time, I suppose. Shall it be weekly, monthly, annually? Or shall I be sending you regular reports?”
“You shall do as you please.” I strode into a tranquilizing breeze outside, Susanna clutching my shoulders. The rest of the family was standing in a semi-circle by Fidelis, waiting for me – except for Father, who had retreated to our cottage in Snitterfield since dousing me with sack.
“Please see to it that Gilbert brings Fidelis back here before you depart for Rome,” Mother pleaded, stroking the horse’s mane.
I was tempted to say something like “Surely, Pater won’t mind if I take him on a tour of the Continent”. But I thought the better of it, and instead assured Mother that everything was going to be alright.
She stepped forward to take Susanna from me. But the child blenched and clung to my neck. After calming her down, I dropped her in Joan’s outstretched arms.
While the young aunt dandled her niece, I settled in my saddle.
Richard, Mother, Joan and little Edmund each shook me by the hand. Friar Paul gave me a blessing and the final handshake.
Fidelis broke into a gallop. As I half-closed my eyes to shield them from a sharp north wind and the blinding copper rays of the rising sun, the last thing I heard was my daughter’s voice. She was crying out loud her very first word: “Papa! Papa! Papa!”
Tears obscured the road ahead of me – tears I would have shed all the way to the Vatican had I known then that Anne was in the family way again.
Copyright: Raphael Soné