The Scene: Shaxper’s Apartment
May 8, 1603
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player.”
Shaxper entered his apartment and slammed the door behind him. He tossed his cloak on the bed and ran his fingers through his hair in a gesture of frustration. He walked over to his washbasin and glanced in the mirror. Bruised and battered, he looked like something the landlady’s cat had half devoured.
Ben Jonson had infuriated him for the last time. He was never going drinking with him again. He had no further wish to waste his time sitting in the Boar’s Head watching a curmudgeonly pack of writers and actors knock back drinks while he paid the bill.
Those boorish bastards had tricked him. Jonson had it all figured out, when he had leapt onto the table, waved his arms and shouted at the top of his voice, “Gentlemen, I have a demand. Since our inscrutable Master Shake-scene is now the most highly-paid playwright in England and several of his comedies have already been published, it’s high time the upstart crow rewarded us for our friendship by buying drinks for everyone in the house!”
Customers banged on the tables and catcalled their approval.
“He can afford it,” Philip Henslowe said. “He’s a proper businessman now, owns ten percent of The Globe, and his plays are in constant repertory. I know, I keep very detailed records.” The theater manager proudly waved his ledger as proof.
“And he owns several homes in Stratford,” Drayton shouted, “not bad for an entrepreneur who sells loads of grain back home.”
“He sold ‘em a load of something,” Jonson muttered.
“Maybe he’ll show some civic pride and pay his delinquent taxes,” writer Thomas Dekker called out. “And let’s not forget his unpaid tithes.”
“He seems to have forgotten ‘em!” Jonson bellowed.
“I like his jewelry,” William Slye said, reprising his foppish role as Osric in Hamlet. Comedians Robert Armin and William Kemp linked arms and danced after him. The pub erupted into laughter.
William Shaxper rubbed his head and wondered what he was doing surrounded by these lowlifes.
“Well?” Dekker asked. “Are you buying us drinks or not?”
The crowd grew silent. Everyone stared at Shaxper, including Augustine Phillips, now a fellow shareholder in The Globe, who had no idea what the ruckus was about. Ben Jonson wore a supercilious grin that Shaxper desperately wanted to knock off his face. The impostor clenched his fists and struggled to control his temper. He had no choice but to buy drinks for everyone, now that he’d been called out. He tossed a purse to the barkeep as the crowd cheered.
Disgusted with the extortion, Shaxper sat down in a shadowy corner of the pub. When he got his wine, he proceeded to water it down. He was angry at the whole wretched lot, and wished that between player and playwright, they’d all drop dead on the spot. He didn’t like being challenged in the light of day, which had happened recently when the students at Cambridge parodied him in their Parnassus plays. The young writers and actors had been merciless in their satire of him as an inarticulate fool who stole his words from a true poet.
Perhaps he’d played the impostor for so long, his role had become transparent.
“Gentlemen,” Jonson bellowed, from a bench this time. “Let’s raise a tankard to our new King James in gratitude for his love of the theater.”
Tankards collided as everyone stood and chorused the toast.
“And,” he said reverently, “let’s toast our late beloved Queen who fostered the plays and playwrights as if she were our mother. And to the Old Player, who fathered England’s great passion for the stage.”
“To our late beloved Queen . . . and to the Old Player . . . mother and father of England’s playhouses.”
Everyone toasted, except Shaxper.
“What’s the matter with you?” Jonson asked angrily, walking over to confront his rival. “You’re supposed to be England’s greatest playwright and you haven’t written one single word of tribute to our late departed Queen, who made all of your success possible.”
“Yes, why haven’t you written her a tribute?” Drayton echoed. “It’s the least you could do, since she’s favored your work so highly.”
“I – I don’t know how to put my gratitude into words,” Shaxper said.
“God’s blood!” Henslowe laughed, slamming down his tankard. “I have a whole diary of the plays you’ve written. Don’t tell me you’re at a loss for words.”
“Well, I am, at the moment anyway. I feel somewhat ill. I must be getting home.”
“What’s your next play going to be?” Augustine Phillips innocently asked. Everyone leaned forward. Shaxper felt his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth.
“Yes,” Jonson asked, with a wicked grin. “What is your next play going to be, Shaxper? Some saucy little comedy, or a woefully incontinent tragedy? Or perhaps you’ve got one where the protagonist dies as a pretender, impaled on his master’s pen?”
“I’ve had no thoughts --”
“What? The great bard with no thoughts? Tell me, how is that possible?”
“I don’t know what my next play will be. I shall have to think about it.”
“You’ll have to do more than think about it. You’ll actually have to put something down on paper – unless, of course, you pay someone else to write plays for you.”
Everyone laughed. Jonson smirked and started to walk away.
“That’s enough!” Shaxper shouted, jumping to his feet. He grabbed the hefty playwright by the arm, and to everyone’s surprise, spun him around. “I don’t normally lose my temper in public places like this, but you’ve pushed me too far!”
“Aw, are you going to strike me, you dainty little milquetoast? Fie, I’ll break you in half!”
“I’m warning you, Jonson, stop spreading rumors about me!”
“What rumors? It’s all true. I served as your errand boy, remember? I know all your dirty little secrets, you bloody opportunist!”
“I’m performing a valuable service —”
“That’s just what the whore said to the constable.”
“Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re causing a public scandal and endangering the life of a man who’s actually very dear to your heart. You don’t know the truth.”
“Truth tells me you’re not a playwright,” Jonson growled. “You might be able to fool the groundlings, but every man-jack in this room knows what you really are.”
The impostor’s fist sent Jonson reeling. Benches scraped across the floor as men cleared out of the way. Jonson lunged at Shaxper and the fight continued on the floorboards.
Shaxper wasn’t exactly sure when the Earl of Oxford had arrived. Henslowe, Drayton and several others broke up the fight, and within minutes, the impostor and Jonson found themselves nursing their wounds at the shadowy table. Except for the barkeep, Oxford and the stranger sitting next to him, the others had disappeared into the night.
“Don’t expect me to pay damages this time,” Oxford warned. “Which one of you started it?”
“Shaxper did,” Jonson said, as he cupped his injured jaw. Oxford turned to his scribe, whose bruised face and torn doublet spoke of his desperation.
“Is that true, Will? Did you strike the first blow?”
“Not without right,” Shaxper said, his head throbbing. “He threatened me.”
“I’ll call an end to our association here and now, Ben, if you don’t stop humiliating Will in public,” Oxford said. “He has committed no wrong against me nor harmed me in any way. My word on that should be enough to convince you.”
“It is, my lord. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“And Will, you seem to have forgotten everything I’ve taught you. Don’t let yourself be antagonized into a common brawl. You can’t afford to lose your temper. You never know who’s watching.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Besides, what would George Bucke think, if the poet and playwright came to blows?”
“Who the hell is George Bucke and why should we care?” Jonson asked.
“Gentlemen,” Oxford said, “and I use that word with great hope for the future, this is my friend George Bucke from Hedingham. I know you’re going to care very much what he thinks because King James has appointed him Master of the Revels, in charge of all performances.”
“Master of the Revels,” Jonson whispered, reverently.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news about Sejanus,” Bucke told Jonson. “The official censor is deeply concerned about your play and you can expect to be called in for questioning by the Privy Council within the next few days.”
“God help me, I don’t want to go to prison over another play, my lord,” Jonson moaned.
“My friendship with the King will keep you out of prison,” Oxford said. “His Majesty generally likes your plays but he doesn’t know you yet. I can arrange an introduction, but in the meantime, your testimony before the Privy Council cannot be avoided. Remember that if anyone else is implicated in the authorship, it may become impossible to protect you.”
“Who else could be implicated?” Shaxper asked, wondering what secrets Oxford and Jonson shared.
“Sejanus is a very intense play,” Bucke continued. “You’ve written very forcefully about political corruption, but as far as the King is concerned, your timing is dreadful. You must tread softly before this new regime, sir, and remember that royal support can be shaped to serve you quite well.”
“We can’t afford trouble right now,” Oxford said. “Remember what happened with Richard II. Our actors were pursued all over England with warrants for their arrests and the entire company was in danger. The political implications of that deposition scene were obvious. Anyone with a brain could have seen them, except for Essex and that rascal Southampton. It’s the perfect example of why a man can’t serve two masters at once.”
“Henslowe must be careful, too,” Bucke advised Shaxper. “If he’s unsure of any play you give him, tell him to return it. I’ll remove any details that could be considered treasonous.”
“Bucke is doing this as a favor to me,” Oxford said. “I wish I could have offered such protection to Kyd, Marlowe, Greene and Watson.”
Shaxper considered the double meaning, and wondered how he himself would be served.
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