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.
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