The Earl of Oxford tossed the battered manuscript of Edmund Ironside across the table. Before Shaxper could get his hands on it, Kyd lurched forward and grabbed it. He thumbed through the dog-eared, scrawled-over pages and shook his head.
“What has he done to your play, my lord?”
“It’s quite simple,” Oxford shrugged. “The censor won’t allow us to show it.”
“After all our hard work? That can’t be true, my lord.”
“Let me have a look,” Shaxper said. He nervously perused the revisions.
“It’s true, Will,” the Earl sighed. “We might as well chuck it into the flames.”
“But surely it deserves a reprieve, my lord. It’s worthy of one.”
“Not this time. The Queen says it’s too controversial. She won’t allow us to portray holy men as frauds and dissemblers, and she’s furious about the part where the Saxons and the Vikings divide England and rule it together – as if suggesting that she should share the monarchy! And she strongly objected to Canute’s men hiding down the privy hole to assassinate King Edmund when he sat down to take a crap.”
“A bloody end,” Kyd smirked.
“And a bloody end to this wretched script!” Oxford said. He tore several pages from the binding and Shaxper had to restrain him from throwing them into the fire.
“But it’s historically accurate, my lord,” Shaxper pleaded, pointing to the pages of annotations he had made. “I took careful notes, just as you instructed. I gave you all the facts exactly as they happened.”
“What difference does that make?” Oxford said, angrily. “The play has been deemed too incendiary; and to see whether it’s true, we must find out how well it burns . . .”
“Please, stop! We can revise it.”
“Why go to all that trouble? Even with the assassination scene taken out, the censor still won’t pass it and that’s his final word. I can’t do anything more.”
“But what about history? What about the truth?”
“To hell with the truth,” Kyd laughed. “Let’s have a drink and the truth be damned.”
Shaxper abstained when the bottle was passed.
“Will there be no new plays this season, my lord?” he asked.
“Damn it! I forgot to give you the good news. Sir Thomas More has been approved for the public playhouses – with a few alterations, of course.”
“The censor certainly took his time about it,” Kyd growled. “Well, when would you like me to start on the fair copy, my lord?”
“Thanks for bestowing such confidence in me, my lord,” Shaxper said crisply, as Kyd looked crestfallen. “I’ll start first thing in the morning and consult with you promptly if I find anything questionable.”
“Good. I know I can depend on your excellent judgment.”
“Is this play going to be historically accurate?” Kyd snickered. “How can there be history plays without any history in them?”
“Her Majesty was very direct on that point,” Oxford said. “She desires entertainment, not academe. She says we can take the history of England and serve it up with bread and circuses for all she cares, as long as the plays inspire her subjects with enough pride to defend their homeland at whatever cost. Historical accuracy is irrelevant, since the base-minded commoners won’t know the difference. So that’s our job, gentlemen, serving bread and circuses in the cockpit.”
“But what about Edmund Ironside?”
“Bury it with the rest of the dung.”
“But my lord —”
“A pox on that play! There’s no cure for it! Do what you will! I wash my hands of it!”
Kyd and Shaxper rose as Oxford left the room.
“It’s his own fault we can’t put on this bloody play,” Kyd grumbled, as he rolled up the disgraced manuscript and thumped it against the table. “He should have known what he was doing when he wrote it, and bent over backwards to please the censor. We worked for over a month to copy it out, and what did we get? Stabbed in the arse like old King Edmund!”
“At least we got paid,” Shaxper said.
“Ah, yes; and some of us got paid twice.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m talking about those extra little gratuities you’ve picked up along the way. I’ve got a good mind to tell His Lordship that you’re using his acting lessons to impress the theater owners and skim off some of the profits for yourself.”
“Oh, am I? I’ve watched you fawn over Burbage and Alleyn. Exactly how many masters do you intend to serve?”
“That’s none of your business. Why don’t you go ahead and tell Lord Oxford. He won’t begrudge me a penny, and he’d be glad to know I was personally attending to his clients. He’s not in this for the money like the rest of us, so don’t waste your time trying to knock me off my pedestal. You won’t be able to do it.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Kyd laughed, as he rose from the table. “I’ll bide my time. But be careful, or you might find yourself crushed under the Wheel of Fortune when it starts to turn my way.”
He quickly finished his drink and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. Catching Shaxper’s eye on his way out, he grinned malevolently and tossed the manuscript into the fire.
As soon as Kyd was gone, Shaxper frantically rushed to the hearth and gingerly snatched Edmund Ironside from the flames. He had a feeling it might be worth something someday, especially if he took the trouble to make a fair copy of it and pass it off as his own. That seemed only right, since Lord Oxford had disowned the play, and he wasn’t in it for the money anyway.
As it turned out, the pages were barely singed.
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