“You sent for me, my lord?” Shaxper asked.
“Yes, Will. I’d like you to take a look at the newly revised third act for Sir Thomas More. Tell me what you think of it.”
“As you wish, my lord. I’ll take it with me and bring it back tomorrow.”
“No, no, that won’t do. Stay here and read it. I want to know what you think of it as soon as possible.”
“Very well,” Shaxper replied. He sat by the opposite window and began reading. After a few minutes he shifted uneasily, realizing that Oxford’s eyes had never left him.
“Well?” the Earl asked. “What’s the verdict?
“The censor has slashed this one to pieces, too,” Shaxper sighed. “I shall have to work harder to copy it out.”
“That’s unfortunate. Like you, the censor also happens to be my kinsman. I can’t even acknowledge that I’m the playwright. Not that it matters, really . . .”
“Begging your pardon, my lord, but are you saying that you are related to Sir Edmund Tilney, the hardboiled censor we’ve been trying so hard to please? Why didn’t you say so? Perhaps he could have helped us.”
“I beg to differ, my lord; not with me acting as your front man.”
“Perhaps, but I can’t say so for certain,” Oxford sighed. “Surely you’ve observed that England’s nobility is one big consortium of cousins who often despise each other in their lust for power. Everyone is related to everyone else by marriage, or some less holy assignation. Tilney happens to be my cousin on the Howard side, and they have despicable tendencies like back-stabbing and poisoning their friends and neighbors. English history is full of such cousins.”
“I’m not that sort of cousin, my lord.”
“You’re proven your good intentions, Will. But I must say, I have more cousins than there are stars in the sky, and sometimes they fall to earth, just to cozen me. I suppose it can’t be helped. There isn’t a man alive who doesn’t feel the intoxicating pulse of advancement coursing through his veins. You’ve said so yourself.”
“B-but I would never do anything to harm you, my lord,” Shaxper protested.
“Most cousins would jump at the chance to sponge off their vacuous, blue-blooded relatives, if the opportunity fell into their hands,” Oxford laughed. “Well, enough of that. What did you think of the third act?”
Shaxper took a deep breath to clear his head.
“I see that you’ve rewritten More’s characterization,” he said. “It’s a complete departure from the rest of the play. You’ve made him bold and conspicuous, but he’s not like that in the earlier scenes.”
“That’s true. He lacked a certain amount of fire, so I lent him mine.”
“But don’t you think it’s dangerous to conjure up the ghost of Sir Thomas More on the public stage, when he openly defied King Henry VIII for marrying Anne Boleyn? For God’s sake, she was the Queen’s own mother! And More was beheaded for his insolence.”
“Of course it’s dangerous,” Oxford snapped. “But ghosts sell tickets and audiences love them.”
“The Queen won’t like it,” Shaxper said. “She’ll make a ghost out of you - out of both of us - if you infuriate her with this play, especially now that you’ve cast Sir Thomas More so prominently in your image. You might as well sign your name to it, because everyone will know you wrote this play.”
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