Summer had gone dark along with the playhouses. The wooden cockpits on the Thames stood empty, disease having closed them down where Puritan disapproval had failed. Because of the plague, there was no way of knowing when, or if, the theaters would reopen; but that was the least of London’s worries. The stench-filled city was stifled by the large number of plague-ravaged corpses waiting to be burned. Not even a proper burial could insure that graves wouldn’t be robbed by thieves unwittingly spreading infection by selling items stripped from pocky corpses.
Those who could afford to escape the city traveled to their country homes where the air was free of contagion. Clad in black, William Shaxper anxiously waited to join the Earl of Oxford at Hedingham Castle. His horse was groomed and waiting in the stables to begin the long journey, as soon as he finished his business with Richard Field.
They were meeting to discuss the publication of Venus and Adonis, the erotic poem Shaxper had submitted to the Stationers’ Register a month earlier. At first, he wasn’t sure he could convince his old friend that he’d written it. But Field was so stunned that the censor had approved it, he had little need to ponder its authorship. Venus and Adonis told the story of an older woman’s seduction of a young boy. It steamed with sexual innuendos even the reprobate Ovid had not envisioned when he wrote his version of the ancient tale.
“Guaranteed to be a bestseller, Dickie,” Shaxper winked. “Even I was surprised when the Queen ordered the Archbishop to approve it, but I suppose that shows how much I underestimate my talent. Either way, if you agree to publish Venus and Adonis, it will be the first work of its kind bearing my name-by me, William Shake-speare.”
“But that’s not your name,” Richard said. “Look, it’s hyphenated in the manuscript. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of affectation?” “I think the hyphen adds a touch of class, don’t you? Like my earring.”
“Foppish nonsense!” Richard sneered. “It lends an air of mystery then.”
“It certainly does. It suggests a pseudonym, as if the author has some- thing to hide. You don’t have anything to hide, do you, Willy?”
“Of course not. You said yourself the poem is piquant and saucy.” “But you showed no signs of literary talent when you were a boy. I must say, working with the Earl of Oxford certainly has changed you.”
“Indeed it has,” Shaxper said, impatiently. “Well, if you do publish the poem, you can drop the hyphen from my name. I don’t care. So, do you want this valuable property or not?”
Field eyed the manuscript on the table and shook his head. “I don’t think it’s wise to print it with the romantic dedication you’ve given it.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You shouldn’t flaunt your private passions in public. These effusive attentions will embarrass the Earl of Southampton.”
“You’re making this very awkward for me, Willy, but I’ve got to ask. I know how ambitious you are, and I’ve heard rumors about lewd and perverted acts taking place in his household. You haven’t gotten yourself involved in anything like that, have you?”
“Of course not!” Shaxper laughed. “The truth is, I’ve been earning some extra money doubling as his secretary too, but there’s nothing indecent going on, believe me. It’s just that Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, has an insatiable appetite for erotica, that’s all, and I thought there’d be a big gratuity in it for me if I wrote him some, accompanied by a fawning dedication. So, here it is – take it or leave it.”
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