The next day as Jonson rode towards his destination, second thoughts unsettled him. The jagged scar that puckered across his right hand reminded him of the branding he had received in prison. Although guilty of killing his fellow actor Gabriel Spencer, Jonson had claimed benefit of clergy as a minister’s son and was granted his freedom. Nevertheless, he was branded with a hot iron and his worldly possessions were seized, pleasing both the jailers and the churchmen that justice had been done.
That mark of Cain commemorated his second brush with the law. Jonson’s first offense had been for co-authoring a treasonous play with Thomas Nashe. Looking back on it, Jonson knew they had been extremely naive in not considering the consequences of their actions. They were lucky to have escaped with their lives (and their hands) for having criticized the government. When Nashe fled England, Jonson stayed behind and relied on the support of his secret patron. Lord Oxford advised him to cloak his words in cryptic language that rivaled the ancient Riddle of the Sphinx. Over the years, Jonson’s prose had proven he’d gotten quite good at it.
He felt honor-bound to redeem his patron’s reputation. The Earl of Oxford had taught him style and form, and Jonson remained mystified as to why publishing his works would be a crime. Other noblemen had had their books published posthumously, but this honor was forbidden to Lord Oxford. In the mind of King James, some unfathomable secret had made Oxford’s case different. Twelve years after his death, Oxford had been denied his share of tributes. A rank impostor had taken credit for the entire Shake-speare canon, sonnets and all. That unfairness galled Jonson, especially since the impostor was infamous among the writers as an upstart crow.
Surely editing Oxford’s folio would be considered an honorable enterprise; but then again, if King James were displeased, anyone associated with the project would suffer unspeakable punishment.
Jonson had no desire for an encore in prison, and as England’s first poet laureate, there was no precedent attaching a lifetime of royal protection to that honor. He wanted to avoid death by hanging as much as Lords Pembroke and Montgomery wanted to escape beheading, the standard form of execution strictly reserved for the wealthy classes.
With Jonson’s knowledge, standing by and doing nothing seemed unethical. His inaction would inevitably cause the bard’s true identity to be lost forever, and no one would know that Lord Oxford had written the Shake-speare plays.
The more Jonson considered it, the more horrible it seemed not to let the author’s ghost speak. If a man’s name could be so easily separated from his works regardless of his literary reputation, no play or poem was safe from thievery. Every writer’s labor was at risk, if a dead man’s efforts could so easily be ascribed to an impostor.
Jonson swallowed his disgust for authority and turned his attention to the road.
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