The cacophony of street musicians competed with church bells as Sunday morning believers transformed into afternoon revelers. Puritans prayed over the wayward multitude, hoping to turn their giddy souls away from the wicked playhouses; but their homilies fell on uncaring ears, drowned out by the rollicking merrymakers.
“Piety trampled in the gutters!” That’s what John Shaxper would have said, had he known his son longed to answer that heathen call. John depended on William to take over the family grain business one day. Now that the boy was safely-married, they had come to London to learn how to increase their income by expanding their involvement in the wool trade.
John didn’t know it, but William already had ambitions of his own and none of them included the wool business or the aging spinster he’d impregnated several months ago. William didn’t love Anne Hathaway any more than he loved the sheep grazing in his father’s field. He resented being forced to marry her simply because the bulge in his breeches required immediate relief on the day he delivered her order of grain and chose to thrust in a few seeds of his own. He loathed the idea of starting a crop of babies that would tie him down in Stratford. In London, William saw that there was hope for excitement and a life beyond the mundane.
With his father kneeling beside him in prayer, twenty-year old William heard the revelers outside and wasn’t about to pass up his chance for adventure. He bowed his head, crossed himself and crept out of the church, leaving the older man to counsel with God over the success of the venture that had brought them to London.
William stepped into the street and was immediately swept along with the crowd and deposited in front of The Curtain, one of the many public theaters along the Thames. Someone thrust a crumpled handbill at him. He smoothed it out and read that Lord Oxford’s Men were to perform The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth at two o’clock that afternoon. People were already queuing up to see it. The leaflet boasted that the original play had been thoroughly enjoyed at Court for its audacious swordplay, satire and romance. For the cost of a penny, one could see the same spectacle that had so delighted the Queen. William was sorely tempted, having never seen anything like it in his bucolic country town.
Only yesterday, when they arrived in London, his father had railed that the playhouses were havens for whores and pickpockets.
“Actors are the minions of Satan,” John Shaxper said. “A man’s worst inclinations are aroused every time some beardless boy acts like a woman in a love scene.”
His words aroused William’s curiosity. He was sure they expressed his father’s shame at the events that had transpired a year earlier on a similar trip to London.
John Shaxper had been robbed and severely beaten in an alley behind one of the playhouses. Unable to recall his name or any part of his identity, he was locked away in Bedlam as the beneficiary of charity. If his wife hadn’t gone to find him, he would have been lost forever. His rescuers had been as delicate as possible in describing his condition to her.
Back home under Mary’s care, John gradually recovered, although he never spoke about the mysterious London incident. William was frequently awakened by his father’s nightmarish screams. Whatever had befallen him, drunkenness was now the only relief John Shaxper knew. He suffered the humiliation of being quickly removed from his post as alderman. His neighbors saw that the once-affable merchant had returned from London a battered and broken man.
Accompanied by his son this time, John had pointed out the playhouses and grumbled that each one was crowned with a colorful banner that allowed even the most illiterate simpleton to fall into Hell. Perhaps that was true, but William ignored his words. With youthful callousness, he took note of the locations and vowed to see a play as soon as possible, confident that he was too smart to be lured down a dark alley, even for an exciting assignation.
He now stood amidst the revelers. They were rank and unwashed, and seemed to be a truly devilish lot. Even their Sunday garments were rancid with sweat, having no hint of the fresh lavender used for laundering in the country.
William gagged as the crowd pressed in tightly. Someone puffed tobacco smoke at him. A drunk jostled him and coughed in his face. As the boisterous mob clamored towards The Curtain, he wondered how the Earl of Oxford could lend his name to such a frenzied enterprise as a company of players.
And yet, like a moth seduced by candlelight, William was drawn to it, too.
A coach pulled up to the playhouse. A fashionable lord and lady stepped out and were hurriedly whisked inside. As the wealthier patrons arrived, William saw that not all theatergoers were coarse and rude. The nobles and ladies had impeccable manners and seemed none the worse for attending a playhouse. Even the Queen had survived the corrupting influence of The Famous Victories to give it a pleasant testimonial. William concluded that if Satan hadn’t thrust Her Majesty into Hell over a theater piece, especially with the Pope so confident that she would end up there anyway, the son of a grain dealer could also escape damnation.
Now if only he had the money to see it . . .
He slid his hands into his pockets and felt what might be a penny trapped in the lining of his breeches. He fingered and pinched it until he finally captured it. He gently guided it up through the small tear and removed it carefully to avoid dropping it into the street, where it would be lost forever. He held it up to the light and saw that it was indeed a penny. He rubbed it with gratitude, unsure whether God or the Devil had just granted him his own famous victory.
A few steps away from the door, he glanced up at The Curtain’s banner, unfurling in the breeze, bearing the emblem of a writer’s hand thrusting through a curtain. He noted the strange design but gave no particular thought to its meaning as he dropped his penny into the admission box and stepped inside.
He was surprised to find that the interior of the playhouse looked more like a hectic marketplace than the venue for a play. Beneath the noblemen and ladies seated on the stage and in the balconies were peddlers that passed through the crowd hawking their wares. The commoners responded with greedy indulgence. Mulled wine, meat pies, herbal cures and political pamphlets swiftly changed hands. Musicians transformed the scene into a bacchanalia of commerce.
A boy ushered William to a roped-off area several feet from the stage. This was where the groundlings stood, he explained, those like William who had paid the cheapest price for admission. He suggested that he work his way through the crowd for a better view. Taking his advice, William vigorously elbowed his neighbors as they had elbowed past him on the street.
He pushed his way through, still assaulted by the dizzying stench of ale and sweat. He clutched the rope to keep his balance. The afternoon sun poured through the open roof. The putrid odors reminded him of his father’s drunkenness, which had cast his mother’s family into disgrace because of their neighbors’ gossip. But he was in London now, not Stratford. No one here cared a whit about the personal failures that had driven John Shaxper to drink, and that those were the very same failures that had strengthened William’s determination to better himself.
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