The Scene: Ben Jonson’s House,
November 23, 1623 seven years later
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
Wherein the Graver had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life:
O, could he have but drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse
But since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.
– by Ben Jonson, from “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies,
Published according to the True Originall Copies,” First Folio, 1623
Jonson wanted to scream the way he had when his children died, but a strange agony silenced him. The unending string of irretrievable losses had grown much worse, now that everything he cherished lay in ashes at his feet.
Fire had ravaged his home, and he was lucky to have escaped with his life. His printed offspring had been less fortunate. Everything had gone up in flames: the decorative volume of his Complete Works, his entire library of classics, books his friends had graciously loaned to him, the versification of his journey to Scotland, all of his finished manuscripts and miscellaneous works-in-progress, the tender wards of his imagination that he’d hoped would one day graduate into books.
His earthly creations were gone. And to make matters worse, the entire compendium of Shake-speare plays that had been stored in the trunk smoldered like orange eyes in the corner of the lot where his library once stood. Only the brass nameplate with Lord Oxford’s initials survived, and it was so hot Jonson had to use a handkerchief to pick it up.
He didn’t know what to say to his patrons. He prayed that they might find a few kind words to say to him, and perhaps provide him with a modest roof over his head and a few meals, at least until he could rebuild. His heart ached and he could scarcely breathe as he surveyed the ruins. He had no possessions anymore, nothing except the clothes on his back and the thick wool cloak that protected him from the winter chill. He wandered through the debris like a pitiful creature, stooping down to sift through the remains with his fingers. Adding insult to injury, people started gathering in the street to gawk at his misfortune. He felt like a churl, an inglorious misanthrope, when he saw that the sky threatened to offer a mixed blessing: rain would disperse the crowd, but it would also blend the ashes of his world into a thick gray mud.
He heard his name as if in a dream.
“Ben? Ben Jonson! Thank God you’re still alive!”
He looked up and saw Countess Susan standing over him. Still dazed, he scrambled to his feet. He heard his own voice cracking with grief.
“I’m alive, my lady, although from the looks of these ruins, it might have been best if I had perished with my books.”
“Don’t talk like that. You needn’t worry about a thing. Come and stay with us at Wilton. We’ll help you rebuild. We’ll see to it that you want for nothing.”
“That’s very kind, my lady, but you might change your mind when you hear what I have to say.”
“What is it?”
“Your father’s plays, the true original papers I brought here for safekeeping seven years ago, and all the others I’d gathered from the actors – they’re gone, all gone! Everything is in cinders. All that’s left is the nameplate from the trunk. Be careful, it’s still hot.” She stared at it, and for a moment seemed lost for words
“You mustn’t blame yourself. The fire was an accident.”
“Was it? I’m not so sure. Perhaps the same rogues who plundered your father’s grave set fire to my house to keep the folio from going to press.”
“Surely you don’t believe that.”
“I don’t know what to believe. All those years of hard work, carrying the plays to the printer one by one, just to keep them safe, and now the originals are as dead as the author.”
“Don’t chastise yourself. You’ve suffered your own losses.” “I tried to safeguard his papers, I truly did.”
“I know you did. It’s not your fault.”
“If this fire was deliberately set to stop publication,” Jonson said angrily, “the villains made a big mistake. They’re one week too late.”
“You’re not making any sense —”
“I’m making perfect sense, my lady. I had decided to write you this morning and tell you the good news, but as you can see . . .”
“Good news? If you can conjure up any good news out of this, please tell me.”
“The published plays are safe. Jaggard told me yesterday that he completed the folio ahead of schedule. He says he’ll have it in the bookstalls by Christmas.”
“Oh, Ben, I don’t know how to thank you. It was an incredible task, just as you said it would be.”
“Your kindness and generosity have sustained me, my lady. It’s good of you to come and see me in my hour of need.”
“Forgive me,” she said gently, “but that’s not why I came. I didn’t know about the fire until I turned the corner and saw the destruction with my own eyes. I came about a different matter, but I have no desire to give you the news of any more catastrophes.”
“More catastrophes? What could follow this one? Please, sit down and tell me what’s troubling you.”
He took her hand and guided her through the rubble.
“I built this brick wall with my own hands when I was fifteen, my lady. I’d like to think that’s why it’s still standing, but I don’t want to tempt fate. Now sit down and tell me your catastrophe. It can’t be any worse than this.” He gestured at the ashes.
“My brother-in-law Lord Pembroke had planned on coming here today,” the Countess said, “but he was forced to send me instead. He’s at Court right now, appeasing the King with a variety of promises in order to save my brother’s life. You do know that Henry was imprisoned in the Tower nearly two years ago for opposing the marriage of the royal heir to the Spanish princess.”
“Yes. He was jailed for speaking his mind.”
“And now the Spanish ambassador is demanding his head. Southampton has been carrying messages back and forth to the King, trying to help us win a reprieve. He’s very close friends with James, as is my brother-in-law Pembroke. Neither of them can understand why the King is so threatened by Henry de Vere as 18th Earl of Oxford.”
“I don’t understand it either. Sounds like politics to me.”
“Anyway, Southampton seems to have successfully negotiated Henry’s release. The King has said my brother will be freed on the condition that our father’s name be entirely stricken from the folio.”
“That’s impossible! The printing is complete. Lord Oxford’s name is on it. We can’t make any changes now, without turning it into mincemeat.”
“But we must save Henry’s life. Southampton says the King is terrified. He’s gotten it into his head that something dangerous will happen if Father’s authorship becomes known to the world. He thinks Father encoded some dark and dangerous secrets into the lines of his poetry. But that’s impossible, isn’t it?” Susan asked.
“Well, to be honest . . .” “Isn’t it?”
“There are subtle ways to encode messages into poetry.” “Could Father have done such a thing?”
“Certainly. He was a master at it. He knew all about codes. He was a spy, like all the writers in his employ, except that he was sophisticated, cultured and grandly titled, easily welcomed into all the best houses in Europe.”
“What secrets did he know?” “Far be it from me to speculate.”
“Something about Henry, perhaps?”
“Who can tell? Like all men, I’ll bet he took his darkest secrets to his grave.”
Countess Susan probed his eyes as if mining for answers. Jonson shook his head and shrugged.
“Nevertheless,” Susan continued, “the King has commanded us to use the Shake-speare pseudonym in our book. We can make no direct reference to Father, his title as 17th Earl of Oxford, or the de Vere family name. Do you understand what that means?”
“Unfortunately, yes. It means that when we print the name Shake-speare, everyone will think that good-for-nothing scribe from Stratford is the author. William Shaxper, the rank impostor who posed in front of the playhouses, puffed on his pipe and couldn’t have written a love sonnet to a goddess if his life depended on it! My blood boils at the thought. That bogus bard is going to get away with it one more time, all because the King is haunted by ghosts from the past.”
“I’m sorry, Ben, but we have no other choice. Father would have surrendered his plays in an instant, if he knew it would save his son’s life.”
“Any father would do so,” Jonson said, thinking of his own lost children.
For a moment neither spoke. Jonson suddenly jumped up and started pacing.
“Jaggard’s going to kill me. Can you imagine what our publisher is going to say when I tell him he has less than one month to print the folio all over again?”
“Never mind, I’ll speak to him,” the Countess said. “Jaggard once dedicated a book to me, and he’d do anything to secure my patronage.” “Still, it’s going to be a disaster. He’ll have to reprint whole pages. Why, the name change alone is going to leave visible gaps in the type. It’s going to be a publishing nightmare!”
“It’ll be difficult, but not impossible. At least Henry will be safe, even if Father’s name will be buried forever.”
Jonson looked pained. He started to speak, but she interrupted him. “I know how you feel about it, Ben, but there’s nothing we can do.” “I can do a great deal,” the playwright said. “I’ll commission a boy to draw a caricature of a man wearing a mask – that’ll serve to hide the identity of Shaxper and Shakespeare. I’ll write an inscrutable poem that’ll make the Oracle at Delphi sound sober. People will think I’m jealous, but have you ever known me to care what people think?”
“Not that I can remember.”
“I’ll praise the Sweet Swan of Avon and make it sound as if he had a tin ear for Latin and a mildewed ear for Greek. I’ll have Shaxper’s fellow shareholders Hemminge and Condell write a brash and annoying sales pitch to the reader. The whole thing will look like a hugger-mugger patch-up job, but if the folio looks common, people will think it’s the work of a commoner.”
“What a shame,” Susan said. “It was supposed to have been an enduring tribute.”
“Oh, it will be. Your father’s plays are immortal. I’ll just remind his readers of that fact, and tell them not to pay any attention to the picture or the introductory doggerel.”
“Michael won’t be pleased at having his poetry called doggerel.” “Drayton? Well, I’ll give him a chance to withdraw from the project as a courtesy.”
“And the others?”
“Your father’s friends? We do need a little sincerity in the book. It can’t all be tripe and trumpery.”
“Whatever you do, please don’t harm my brother.”
“On my honor, I won’t. King James is too bland to understand riddles and subtleties, but I warrant you he’ll be very pleased with the finished product. I’ll even devise some convoluted drivel for that ridiculous monument in Stratford.”
“Isn’t that going too far?”
“Not at all. It’ll keep ‘em guessing about the authorship for generations.”
“I suppose,” the Countess sighed. “Still, it’s not the memorial I wanted for my father.”
“No, nor I,” Jonson replied. “But the truth will out. Who would be so foolish as to believe that a merchant from Stratford, with not one word of literary juvenilia or poetic practice to his name, could emerge from the ether to create the greatest plays ever written?”
In a corner of the home’s foundation, a gust of wind blew some ashes into a circle.
The long rain had begun.
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