The Scene: London
March 15, 1585
“But like a drunkard I must vomit them . . .”
– Titus Andronicus
After some false starts, William’s inquiries led him to The Golden Lion in Shoreditch. The barkeep pointed to a rotund, brick faced fellow sitting by the fire, showing off his war wounds. That was Robert Greene, the ruffian with the beefy arms raising his shirt to display his scars, the least discreet member of Lord Oxford’s band of playwrights, a man likely to disclose anything to anyone who bought him a drink. William thanked the barkeep and paid for two pints of ale, an easy investment in his future.
Ambition overruled William’s disgust for having to talk to such a man. He slowly approached the braggart and offered him a drink. Greene interrupted his story, squinted at this unforeseen act of kindness and boisterously thanked his benefactor. He struggled to recall where he and William Shaxper had met before, but William assured him they had not.
Greene’s small captive audience trickled away during the interruption, and soon William was the sole listener. He smiled and nodded as Greene continued his epic war stories. The drunken playwright grunted and rambled on, occasionally wiping his mouth with his sleeve. When he rolled up his shirt to give William a closer look at his scars, the young man controlled his urge to vomit.
“Scotland was ablaze like the bowels of Hell!” Greene exclaimed. “Have you ever fought in a war, Shaxper?”
“No. I’ve never had the opportunity.”
“What, are you a coward?”
“No. I’ve always fancied I’d do more harm to myself than to the enemy.”
Greene clapped him on the back. “Ha! I like a man who can tell a good joke.”
William stiffened. He hadn’t meant to be funny.
“I’ve heard that the Earl of Oxford writes comedies at Her Majesty’s Court,” he ventured, “and that he is your patron. Is it true?”
“Aye. His Lordship and I are sworn brothers . . . we’re close, like this.” He crossed his fingers to illustrate the bond.
“Perhaps you can tell me how to join his troupe of actors,” William continued.
“I suppose you think being an actor is thrilling.”
“Oh, yes. With all my heart, I do.”
“Well, it isn’t,” Greene snapped. “No one has any respect for the common players.”
“Why not? Being a player is more respectable than selling grain or tanning leather.”
“Not by much. No hardworking commoner is ever respected, unless a generous nobleman desires to purchase his services.”
“Lord Oxford respects his actors or he would never sponsor them,” he countered.
“He respects us playwrights more,” Greene said, between burps. “The actors would have no thoughts in their heads without us playwrights putting ‘em there.”
“I don’t believe it,” William chuckled. “Only wise and clever men can learn someone else’s words and bring them to life. Actors must step beyond themselves to portray their characters.”
“Tush, man,” Greene laughed. “Actors are fools. They travel around the countryside all summer long, jostled about in rickety wagons, shouting bombasts and clashing swords, dripping sweat into their heavy helmets and woolen cloaks. Would you call that clever? We playwrights are the clever ones, sitting comfortably around Lord Oxford’s table at the Savoy, eating and drinking his food, writing and revising our work. Without us, the playhouses would have no plays and the actors would have nothing to say. Take my word for it.”
William didn’t recall hearing any of the traveling players complain about the hardships of the road. They were simply glad to be paid for their hard work.
And as he well knew, playwrights, players and playhouses were England’s newest commercial enterprise. Lord Oxford’s role as their sponsor was precarious, in light of his political and family connections – and worse yet, if he indulged his whims with the lowly pursuits of writing and acting.
“Who are the playwrights around Lord Oxford’s table?” William asked.
“You’ve probably never heard of ‘em, as most people don’t know the names of our playwrights nowadays, nor do they bloody well care. But there’s me and Lord Oxford, John Lyly, Thomas Watson the poet, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe . . . have you ever written a play?”
“Well, at least you’re a literate man, which is more than I can say for most of our countrymen. You say you want to become a player? Well, the truth is, Lord Oxford doesn’t need any more players now. What he truly needs are playwrights with an interest in history. He’s going to need a lot of history plays very quickly. He told me so himself.”
“Why? Is there a holiday or some patriotic event coming up?”
“Nothing that I know of,” Greene belched.
“Are audiences demanding to see more history plays?”
“Not that I can tell.”
“Is it a matter of money then? Will history plays draw in larger audiences?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a businessman.”
“Then apparently, the Earl of Oxford doesn’t tell you everything,” William said, immediately regretting his words.
An awkward silence fell. William handed Greene the second pint of ale. The liquid apology brought the necessary forgiveness to loosen the playwright’s tongue in response to more crafty questioning.
“I saw Lord Oxford at a history play once,” William said. “Is it true, what they say about him?”
“Is what true?”
“You know . . . the buzz of those vile and persistent rumors.”
Greene looked confused, and then suddenly, his drunken words fell like withered leaves.
“The rumor-mongers feed on his defiance like parasites. They know Lord Oxford leads a scandalous life, thanks to his father-in-law’s public bruiting of it. Lord Burghley is furious at his son-in-law’s antics, and never knows what secrets he’s going to reveal. Did you know that the Queen supported a ban against publication by noblemen? It was meant to stop Lord Oxford, but it hasn’t worked. He simply conjures his poison and hides it under a different label.”
“He pays us to act as his go-betweens,” Greene whispered. “We sign our names to his work so it can be approved for public performance. Several recent books have noted that the Earl of Oxford writes excellent comedies, if he could be allowed to take credit for them. But a nobleman cannot be seen as a clown, making people laugh at the expense of his rank. So he dons a disguise. He plays the chameleon.”
“You mean he writes under someone else’s name.”
“Aye, or as the more widely-known Anonymous. Bear in mind that Lord Oxford is also a serious writer. He transforms ordinary words into iambs, turning leaden prose into golden poetry, like this: daDA daDA daDA daDa daDA,” Greene said, banging out five beats on the table. “His Lordship tries to teach us how to write full plays in iambic verse, but so far none of us have come up to his standards.”
“I saw his players perform The Famous Victories in London and in Stratford.”
“Ah, then perhaps you know who wrote it.”
“It was an anonymous play, I believe,” William said, trying to recall the precise wording of the handbill.
“Aye, all according to Her Majesty’s orders,” Greene chuckled. “She knows Lord Oxford wrote every word of it. She’s afraid of exposing his authorship, even though audiences don’t care who a playwright is, as long as he offers a motley swarm of bawdy fools and vile assassins. Never mind that Lord Oxford draws his characters from real life. They’re all people he knows, some of them quite well, like Lord Burghley.”
“I can’t imagine any man being so brazen as to make an enemy out of Lord Burghley.”
“Imagine it, sir, and that man would be Lord Oxford,” Greene said, pleased at having snagged William’s curiosity. “The two men had a terrible falling-out that started years ago, when Lord Oxford was orphaned and sent to Lord Burghley’s home as a royal ward. The old man objected whenever the spendthrift youth wrote and presented court masques for the Queen. He didn’t care that a courtier’s duty is to give Her Majesty expensive gifts and tributes, and that she desires a rousing entertainment more than anything else. The Queen owns all the gold and jewels she could want, and even as a youth, Lord Oxford was the only one among her noble bucks able to devise a provocative diversion.”
“But you said she banned his plays.”
“Not at the royal court,” Greene explained. “Those masques are very private affairs. The after-dinner audiences are small and selective, entirely different from the hoi polloi at the public playhouses. I watched a court masque once, from behind the curtain on the gallery stairs. It won’t do for our nation’s commoners to learn the truth about their superiors in a comedy, tragedy or history play -- even though, as they say, the truth will out.”
“I’m beginning to understand,” William sighed.
“Well done,” Greene laughed, “for by God’s Blood, I swear I never shall!”
Greene’s expression suddenly changed from besotted amusement to complete seriousness. He leaned forward and whispered.
“A few years ago, His Lordship drove the Queen into a violent fury, and he had the gall to put it on stage for all the world to see.”
“What happened? What did he do?”
“He was sent to the Tower for fathering a bastard with one of the Queen’s ladies.”
“By Heavens! Is that a crime?”
“No, but the Queen is ruled by a jealous heart. Lord Oxford was the first of her courtiers to suffer such a consequence.”
“And what became of the lady and her child?”
“She and her newborn were also immediately imprisoned in the Tower. It was a terrible time for all of them, but if you ask Lord Oxford about it, he’ll tell you the Queen was quite merciful.”
“Merciful? How merciful can such dark imprisonment be?”
“It seems that the royal mercy rains differently on some than on others. The Queen allowed Lord Oxford to have pen, ink and paper in his cell, that he should not go mad, as he feared, with the tedious passage of time. He wrote about the ordeal and it became an anonymous piece for the playhouses. I’ve always said that he was lucky the Queen didn’t discover his authorship, or else she would have chopped off his head measure by measure and spiked it on London Bridge, to the delight of the crows that feast on traitors’ meat.”
William knew this penalty was far more gruesome than being forced to marry Anne Hathaway, who’d been pregnant with his child.
“Noblemen father bastards every day and never go to prison for it,” Greene snickered. “And despite her peculiar mercy, the Queen made Lord Oxford suffer for his errant romance. When she learned that he and his mistress had exchanged secret vows to marry after he was granted the divorce from his adulterous wife, the Queen denied it to him. She had no desire to see Catholicism persist in any of England’s noble families, and since Lord Oxford’s mistress was Catholic, he was forced to abandon her and return to his Protestant wife. Within days after he did so, all were freed from the Tower, but the lady and her kinsmen were enraged by Lord Oxford’s breach of promise. A blood feud erupted between the two households. Knife fights spilled out onto the streets, and even the Queen was powerless to stop them. And then came the dreadful night Lord Oxford was stabbed in an alley behind Blackfriars.”
“Behind a theater . . . like my father,” William muttered.
“Nothing. I pray you, continue, sir. What happened next?”
“Lord Oxford went back to his wife and to this day, he suffers from the wound in his leg. He is a spectacular champion in the tilt-yard, but despite that enormous skill, he’s forced to rely occasionally on a walking stick. Still, some days are better than others, and through it all, he counts himself lucky to be alive. He blames Lord Burghley for that particular tragic declension of events, and has sworn to avenge himself with his pen. He’s doing it now, in a play called Hamlet. He’s continuously revising it and adding further delicious fulsomeness to it.”
“It’s dangerous, being Catholic in England. Best hide one’s religion, if you ask me,” William said.
“Aye, that’s best,” Greene nodded.
“I wonder, sir,” William said, summoning his courage, “if you could introduce me to the Earl of Oxford.”
Greene stood up, sweating profusely. He tugged at his collar.
“Is it hot in here?” he asked.
“Not particularly, no.”
“Then by God’s teeth, I’m going to be sick. Fetch me the slop bucket.”
“I-I don’t see a slop bucket anywhere,” William said, looking around nervously. “I’m sure it’s outside. They wouldn’t keep such a disgusting thing in here --”
“Point me towards the door then, damn ye! I can’t wait--”
William steered him towards the back of the pub. The patrons scattered as the barkeep threw the door open and slammed it behind them. Greene broke away in the encroaching darkness and stumbled towards a tree. He bent over and retched. William gagged at the repulsive odor.
“I need to see Monsieur Riche,” Greene sputtered, after a few moments.
“Monsieur Riche, His Lordship’s apothecary. Let’s pound on his door. Riche, Riche, Monsieur Riche!”
“Calm yourself, sir. I’ll take you there, but first, tell me where Lord Oxford may be found.”
“Where the books are . . . at the Savoy, away from Burghley’s spies . . . when he was a boy at Hedingham Castle . . .”
Greene slumped onto William’s shoulder. Together, they hobbled down the lane towards the apothecary.
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