With the balance of his rent paid in full, William Shaxper locked the door of his apartment for the last time. He told his landlady that he would be heading to Stratford after his farewell speech at The Globe at the conclusion of All is True. Mrs. Mountjoy cooed and thanked him for always having paid his rent in a timely manner. She tucked the key into her bodice and wished him a safe journey.
She wouldn’t have cared that Lord Oxford’s trunk was also on its way to Stratford, stuffed with manuscripts Shaxper intended to sell. He was confident that the theater owners would seek him out, willing to pay for the use of the Shake-speare name.
As he walked towards the theater, he tried to understand the bitter unfriendliness he felt from the new generation of playwrights. Hiring them to fill in a few scenes every now and then was an extravagance he thoroughly enjoyed, and yet know-it-alls like Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher kept whining about things like denouement, dramatic flow, symbolism, and something called catharsis that belonged in a chamber pot. They assumed that he had all the answers to their questions, especially with the large number of successful revivals the Shake-speare plays were enjoying. But since he wasn’t a writer, Shaxper had nothing to say to them, and he could no longer put them off by looking inscrutable and puffing on his pipe.
Beyond the need to protect himself, he felt the extreme importance of his farewell address to the London stage. His partnership with Lord Oxford had been Heavenly Ordained, and it was time to express his gratitude for the many gifts he had received. It had been hard work: all those hours of dictation and transcription, of meeting the demand for the history plays, of reading lines out loud for dramatic effect, of risking life and limb every time he delivered a play to the Stationers’ Register. In the early days, his lust for advancement had propelled him forward. He had never imagined the exhilaration of working with a literary genius and then, pretending to be one.
It had been a bizarre arrangement, and it had worked well until Lord Oxford’s murder almost nine years ago to the day. No one had ever been punished for the crime, and Shaxper had never told anyone what he had witnessed. Using the Shake-speare name, he had sold several of the manuscripts he had carried off that night. He had asked John Fletcher to finish The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, although the playwright had balked at writing a scene for the executioner, the one Shaxper himself had hoped to play.
Still, it was a relief to be working with real playwrights again, much better than buying foul papers from obscure authors, copying them, and sticking the Shake-speare name on them. In doing that, he faced the risk of having other writers notice his changing style, whereas any play bearing the Shake-speare name could be sold for several times more than what it cost him to buy it from a lesser known playwright.
As he turned the corner, he thought about how quickly he had started his own play factory, signing his illustrious pseudonym to other people’s work. While Fletcher had cobbled together a cohesive version of The Two Noble Kinsmen, Middleton, completely unaware of the authorship ruse, had traded Shaxper The Second Maiden’s Tragedy based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote in exchange for a few personal belongings.
The scribe-turned-impostor promised to see what he could do with the script. He handed it to Fletcher, who exchanged it for his newly completed play, Cardenio. While Fletcher made a small number of revisions in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, Shaxper clapped his name on Cardenio and sold it to The King’s Men at a tremendous profit.
Billed as a Shake-speare play, Cardenio saw only one performance. Audiences were sorely disappointed by its stiff and inferior quality, and from then on, the script was relegated to a dusty shelf in the tiring house next to The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, which also never was performed.
Shaxper knew that if Middleton and Fletcher had ever sat down to discuss it, they would have discovered that they had collaborated on both plays, and that Shaxper had nothing more to do with either of them than signing his famous pen name to the title pages and absconding with the fees from the theater owners.
But when it came right down to it, Fletcher and Middleton had nothing to complain about. At least their theatrical reputations were still intact. Possessed with no literary talent whatsoever, Shaxper’s career was over. Too many of the plays he had commissioned from other writers failed in performance, to the point where the Shake-speare name had lost some of its luster.
That was why he had decided to confess the truth. In his mind he rehearsed his farewell speech, to be delivered after the epilogue of All is True.
I stand before you, ladies and gents, at the expense of the epilogue, which our author hath writ for performance today. With God’s grace, in lieu of the author, I have come here to announce in this wooden O news of great importance to myself and the author.
Author I have claimed to be, but author am I not. I have represented myself to be one, but for shame, I am no author at all, but a mere copyist of these plays.
The true author is a man whose name is truth, or Vere, which means truth in Latin, derived from veritas. “Vero nihil veritas” is his motto – “Nothing is truer than the truth.” And now, I can no longer be false to you.
De Vere is the great nobleman who wrote your favorite plays: Hamlet, King Lear, Henry V, As You Like It, Titus Andronicus, Pericles and others, to which we appended the name Shakespeare, not altogether different from my own.
For the truth is that I was merely the author’s secretary and his distant cousin. I have penned these plays from de Vere’s foul papers and affixed my name to his fair copies.
Why? Because the true author was a nobleman, who by virtue of his high rank, could not publicly lay claim to his work. He has been dead for more than nine years. It is no longer proper for me to prostitute his name onto works that have none of his divine spark. Audiences have discerned the difference.
I have entitled this play All is True for two reasons. First, it represents history; secondly, the author’s name de Vere means truth, and it is my way of telling you the plays were his, not mine. Nothing is truer than that truth.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I take my leave of you to return to Stratford. I give you these great plays in memory of their true author, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the true Shakespeare. So farewell from Shaxper of Stratford, the devoted scribe and impostor. Give me your hands in tribute to our author.
Once he gave the speech, he knew there would be no turning back.
Robert Poley watched as William Shaxper checked with the boy to be sure his horse would be ready for his departure. He smiled as the demure playwright walked right by him without a word. He didn’t recognize Poley from The Golden Lion the night before, when Shaxper had failed to water down his drinks and had clumsily announced to everyone to expect his farewell speech at The Globe.
That was all Poley needed to hear. He made his plans.
He watched Shaxper enter The Globe through the back door and signaled his accomplices to take their places. When the play was over and the crowd had dispersed, they would encircle him with flattery like charmed admirers before he had a chance to take his leave, and run him through with a dagger. Later they would dispose of the body in the Thames.
Poley sauntered over to the throng gathering to pay admission. When he reached the head of the line, he put his three pennies in the box like the rest of them, although he had a rather different kind of entertainment in mind. He squeezed past the horde of groundlings to stand as close as he could to the stage.
For more than a year he had shadowed the unassuming playwright, staying a few steps behind him on the street or a few tables away in a tavern. He never betrayed his presence. He took pride in his ability to become a nondescript face in the crowd. After all, in his younger days he’d been personally trained by Spymaster Walsingham and thus had become a precious commodity, handed down from Walsingham to Burghley to Robert Cecil and ultimately into the personal service of the great King himself.
He spotted the pseudo playwright sitting on the stage among the noblemen. Shaxper seemed a bit nervous. He kept looking up at the roof as if anticipating something. Poley followed his gaze and turned to look behind him. He was startled to see a cannon in the highest balcony, tended by two lumpish stagehands who were being nervously hounded by Burbage with last minute advice.
In all the time he’d been trailing Shaxper to and from the theater, Poley had never seen a cannon there before. It looked ridiculously out of place, but he knew there had to be a practical reason for its presence. Obviously, it had something to do with the play because Burbage was a stickler for detail and theatrical verisimilitude. Poley had overheard the writers using jargon like that in the pub, and suddenly realized how quickly he’d caught on to it. If he ever wanted to change careers, it would be easy for him to promote himself from assassin to theater critic.
He turned back towards the stage and studied his victim more closely. He cursed under his breath when he realized that Shaxper hadn’t worn his infamous flashy jewelry. He felt cheated because it would have been so easy to cut off his ear or his fingers and collect the spoils right off the corpse, as sweet as eating apples from the tree.
From his special seat on the stage, Shaxper cast his eyes idly around the crowd. He remembered his first visit to London, when John Lyly had tossed him into the cockpit for sitting with the noblemen where he didn’t belong. Taking that empty seat had been an honest though brazen mistake, and he’d been publicly humiliated for doing it. How the audience had mocked him then. But now he was the object of applause.
As he surveyed their faces, he noticed that most of them were strangers to him. Almost all of the original patrons who had occupied the balconies had been replaced by a wealthier and younger class of theatergoers with more sophisticated tastes. At that moment, he realized that he had become a stranger to these new times.
Then he noticed a squinting man in a broad-brimmed hat, smiling and nodding at him. Shaxper politely nodded back, wondering how he knew this man with the long scar and where he’d seen him before. He couldn’t quite place him. He might have seen him on a crowded street or in a dimly lit tavern, or even at one of the plays; but he had the vague impression of seeing only his partially covered face and furtive eyes. He brought to mind the cur that had stolen his money years ago, near Stratford. He resembled one of the assassins accused of killing Marlowe in the tavern brawl. By the grace of God, could it be the same man?
The hautboys trumpeted the start of the show and the audience grew silent as the Prologue stepped forward to deliver his lines.
I come no more to make you laugh; things now
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe:
Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow,
We now present.
Twenty-seven years ago almost to the day, the Queen had commissioned the history plays from the Earl of Oxford. Henry VIII was one of the first history plays that Shaxper had helped Oxford prepare, but his lordship was not pleased with it and had long planned to rewrite it. After his death, a patched-together version of it had been performed twice. But this production of the long forgotten play had been newly retitled All is True, and had been billed as the most elaborate production The Globe had ever mounted. Burbage had spent several months fussing over the historical validity of the costumes, and it had been his idea to fire the cannon on the Act One entrance of John Lowin, who was playing King Henry VIII.
Shaxper looked nervously up at the cannon. He didn’t like the idea of such a heavy weapon firing over the heads of so many paying customers, but being a minority shareholder, he was outvoted by his partners. Still, as the first act progressed, it captured his attention and he began to relax.
Each scene proved more dazzling than the one before it. Shaxper was pleased at the audience’s reaction, even though he desperately wanted to go outside and relieve himself. The actors’ words resounded in his ears and he leaned forward to watch a scene that had proven difficult in rehearsals.
They were approaching scene four, the entrance of King Henry VIII. Burbage had argued that Lord Oxford would have enjoyed the rousing burst of cannon fire, and that audiences would be impressed with its real life grandeur. That, he said, would make the revival of All is True well worth the high price of admission, at least in their minds; and future ticket sales would soar. Shaxper couldn’t argue with the fact that those sales would indeed line his pockets with huge profits.
The audience had no idea what was to come. Shaxper saw Burbage stand back and instruct the stagehands to light the fuse. He covered his ears, and Shaxper did the same.
The audience screamed at the sudden violent explosion. The theater rocked on its foundation, and a mild panic ensued until the smoke cleared and everyone saw that the fiery salute had been part of the show. The audience applauded and cheered wildly. Burbage was overjoyed at their response. He winked at Shaxper as if to confirm this meant good money.
No one noticed the tiny spark that ignited the thatched roof of The Globe. It smoldered while the audience watched the play, completely spellbound. The flames crept around the dry roof until the ceiling caved in and the theater erupted into a conflagration. Screams pierced the air. The audience panicked as people pushed towards the exits, scrambling for safety. Wealthier patrons crammed the tight staircases, trying to escape. The surging crowd engulfed the exits at the street level and people were shoved and trampled in the chaos.
Flames encircled the wooden O like witches dancing in a coven. Burbage, having barely escaped with his life, ran back and forth begging for people to help him put out the fire, but the theater was rapidly becoming a holocaust. Several Puritans watched with delight at this Act of Divine Retribution and praised God for the demise of Satan’s house of worship, the unfortunate Globe.
Shaxper leapt to his feet. The back door where the prompter normally stood seemed like his closest avenue of escape. He pushed through the crowd and found himself in the tiring house, engulfed by smoke and trapped against a wall of flames.
He coughed, squinted and covered his eyes with his arm. Smoke filled his lungs. Through his clouded vision, he saw a man in a monk’s robe, his face partially covered with a hood, reach out and grab him by the collar.
Terrified, Shaxper fought him off. He struggled to breathe and his heart beat wildly. He thought of Lord Oxford’s warning, and knew that death had finally come for him. Smoke and heat overwhelmed his senses, and in his mind, he traveled the road back to Stratford where his wife and children would be waiting for him. Then he closed his eyes and prepared to concede to Death’s summons.
Two strong hands lifted him up. Within seconds, he felt himself flying through the air, propelled backwards. He saw nothing but blackness until he hit the ground; and then, stars.
Suddenly, the air was clean. He inhaled deeply and coughed and sputtered. He opened his eyes to see that The Globe was being devoured by the flames. Burbage and his actors sat in the lane, weeping like children bereft of their home.
And then Shaxper knew there would be no final speech to credit the true author of the plays. The theater was burning to the ground, along with his chance at redemption.
The hooded figure silently brushed past him. Shaxper opened his mouth to speak, but the smoke had injured his throat so badly, he was rendered temporarily mute. He reached up and tried to catch the monk by the hem of his cloak, but the stranger pulled away and strode towards a pillar of smoke. He turned and drew back his hood.
The warlike apparition of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, looked at him for a moment and then quickly dissolved into the inferno.
Shaxper trembled. He struggled to his feet and staggered over to his horse, which was tethered a safe distance away by the river. He didn’t see the stranger with the long scar until he stepped out from behind the animal and handed him the reins.
Poley used his dagger to point the way to Stratford.
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