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.
The adventurous young man savored the giddy atmosphere of the theater. He gazed at the galleries and wooden stage, and watched as a well-dressed gentleman placed the admission box in a small room and locked the door behind it, rattling it to make sure it was secure. William concluded that there must be a fortune worth protecting on the other side. Surely there was lots of money to be made in this new medium of the theater! Clearly, his father had been foolish to dismiss it out-of-hand.
The music stopped and the audience quieted. A refined gentleman with boundless energy burst through the curtains at the back of the stage. His white doublet and hose were elaborately trimmed with black lace and his narrow face was framed by a ruffled collar. He stood center stage and bowed with a flourish to the nobles. He directed a mischievous grin at the groundlings and blew a kiss to a lady in the gallery. Then he flung his arms open as if embracing the audience and the crowd cheered wildly.
William maneuvered into a more comfortable spot. He overheard some random snatches of conversation among the groundlings, and suddenly, the young man next to him pointed at the stage.
“Look, it’s the Earl of Oxford!”
William glanced up in awestruck admiration.
“That impudent devil!” an old crone laughed. “He’ll earn some good money with this play, I’ll warrant ye.”
“I think not. A nobleman can’t get his hands dirty earning a living like we do.”
“Ha! Isn’t that always their excuse for an idle life!”
“This nobleman isn’t idle,” another person protested. “He offers us plays just as he offers them to the Queen. That doesn’t sound idle to me, not in the least.”
Determined to get as close as he could to the remarkable nobleman, William brushed past the dour critics and inched towards some empty chairs at the back of the stage, hoping that no one would see him crawl under the rope and take a seat. He was delighted that instead of standing for hours, he could watch the play in comfort. He was so close to Lord Oxford now, he could see the exquisite stitching on his doublet.
Suddenly, he was yanked by the collar and hoisted into the air.
“You, groundling! You didn’t pay for this seat. Get back behind the ropes or I’ll throw you out.” Stunned, William didn’t move.
The gentleman picked him up and tossed him onto the dirt floor. The groundlings roared with laughter at his comeuppance. His head hurt, and as he slunk back under the rope, William wondered if this was a sign from God that he should have stayed in church.
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