The Scene: Stratford-on-Avon
two weeks later, April 23, 1584
“Now I play a merchant’s part . . .”
– The Taming of the Shrew
Stratford had seen its share of traveling farces, religious pageants and puppet shows, but it had never seen anything like The Famous Victories, with its clever mix of comedy, tragedy and history.
When John Lyly agreed to pay him an extra incentive for tickets sold in advance, William Shaxper became a relentless promoter. He impressed his neighbors with the importance of seeing the same play that had delighted the Queen, and warned them that companies like Lord Oxford’s Men would bypass the village in the future if it didn’t support the players. Fortunately, the hardworking people of Stratford appreciated a good diversion. Tickets were quickly sold and Lyly was pleased. William could hardly wait for his introduction to the Earl of Oxford.
As the money poured in, he began to envision himself a theatrical impresario, garnering hefty profits by importing the latest cultural sensations into Stratford. Even his skeptical wife Anne admitted that his trip to London had emboldened him. The growing popularity of the playhouses proved that theater was indeed a lucrative business, despite John Shaxper’s insistence that it was a godless waste of time.
Beyond that, William never lost sight of his ultimate goal: a proper introduction to the Earl of Oxford, with whom, he had come to feel, his fortunes rested.
His hopes for an impending meeting were quickly dashed when he learned that Lord Oxford would not be traveling with the company. In spite of this sudden disappointment, William’s strong determination allowed him to carry on with his plans.
Excitement spread when the play wagons rolled into Stratford. The villagers applauded the motley juggler and the small black dog that jumped through a row of hoops. A crier waved The Curtain’s enigmatic flag and shouted that The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth would be performed the very next day at Shaxper’s barn on Henley Street.
No one was more startled to hear that than John Shaxper. Barely recovered from a drinking binge, he cornered his son behind the pub.
“What do you mean by renting my barn to those heathens?”
William ignored the bitter words and wiped the old man’s face. “You’ve been drunk for a month now, Father. The ale is leaching out of your pores. Don’t you think it’s time to stop?”
“Bloody hell! I’ll drink when I please, and I’ll not have my boy telling me to stop. Show me the respect I deserve as your father.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you whipped it out of me years ago. And what you did to Mother was a disgrace.”
“I never hurt your mother, not once –”
“No, not once, but many times,” William said. “You foolishly lost her inheritance and forced us all into debt. You were seen drunk in public and dismissed from your post as alderman. You tormented our neighbors by piling a dung heap next to their door. You were disgraced and jailed so often, it broke Mother’s heart. Well, I’m not going to follow in your footsteps. See this, Father?” he asked, dangling a purse in front of him. “I earned all this money in one week - in one week, for selling our neighbors tickets to a play! And I’ll earn even greater riches, now that I’m working my way into Lord Oxford’s good graces. You should be proud of me, Father. I’ve made a neat little profit for myself and this is only the beginning.”
John Shaxper grabbed for the purse. William tucked it safely into his own pocket.
“When I was a boy, I knew you loved me, Father,” he said. “But everything changed when you came back from London bruised and battered, and the decent life you had worked so hard to build crumbled all around you. You found your courage in kegs of ale, but I don’t believe that’s how a man should live in this world. I found my courage with the players, Father, and I’m determined to work hard for the rest of my life to make a name for myself. I am terribly sorry for whatever happened to you behind that playhouse, but as long as I live, I swear I’ll never drown my sorrows in hogsheads of ale the way you do.”
“You think you know what the world is, boy,” the old man grumbled, “but you’re a blind, stumbling puppy in a pack of hungry wolves. You’ll learn what evil is, if you persist in associating with that deviant band of miscreant players --”
John Shaxper lunged at his son, lost his balance and fell.
He lay on the ground in a heap, waiting for William to pick him up and dust him off, and perhaps pay him to go on his way as he had so many other times. He was such a good boy, William, a regular milksop, driven by the same gentle compassion his mother showed even to the smallest of God’s creatures.
“Get along, Father. Go home, and give this money to Mother.”
“No, not yet . . . best swallow more courage before The Bull closes tonight.”
John Shaxper grinned and turned away. He spat on the ground and lurched off towards the pub.
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