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.
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