A dense fog had enshrouded London since early morning, disguising familiar landmarks and casting a pall over the city. Church bells tolled for the dead, and a few brave souls ventured into the streets, risking their lives to earn some money from those who had escaped the contagion.
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 something 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.”
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.”
“And he paid you for this?”
“Yes, quite well in fact.”
Field wondered if pandering to the scandalous impulses of noblemen had reduced his old friend to trafficking in pornography.
For his part, Shaxper had no plans to tell his friend that Lord Oxford had written the poem and the dedication in honor of Southampton’s twentieth birthday. He said nothing about Oxford’s peculiar fondness for the young earl, or that he, Shaxper, would be allowed to keep the profits from Venus and Adonis to tide him over while the playhouses remained closed. It wasn’t his fault that men of rank were forbidden to profit through commercial enterprise. After all, proceeds from the sale of the poem had to go somewhere; and if not into Oxford’s coffers, what better cause than Shaxper’s own enrichment?
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