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.”
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