The Scene: Southwark, London
April 8th, 1584
“O cheerful colors! See where Oxford comes!”
– Henry the Sixth, Part 3
The cacophony of street musicians competed with church bells as Sunday morning believers transformed into afternoon revelers. Puritans prayed over the wayward multitude, hoping to turn their giddy souls away from the wicked playhouses; but their homilies fell on uncaring ears, drowned out by the rollicking merrymakers.
“Piety trampled in the gutters!” That’s what John Shaxper would have said, had he known his son longed to answer that heathen call. John depended on William to take over the family grain business one day. Now that the boy was safely-married, they had come to London to learn how to increase their income by expanding their involvement in the wool trade.
John didn’t know it, but William already had ambitions of his own and none of them included the wool business or the aging spinster he’d impregnated several months ago. William didn’t love Anne Hathaway any more than he loved the sheep grazing in his father’s field. He resented being forced to marry her simply because the bulge in his breeches required immediate relief on the day he delivered her order of grain and chose to thrust in a few seeds of his own. He loathed the idea of starting a crop of babies that would tie him down in Stratford. In London, William saw that there was hope for excitement and a life beyond the mundane.
With his father kneeling beside him in prayer, twenty-year old William heard the revelers outside and wasn’t about to pass up his chance for adventure. He bowed his head, crossed himself and crept out of the church, leaving the older man to counsel with God over the success of the venture that had brought them to London.
William stepped into the street and was immediately swept along with the crowd and deposited in front of The Curtain, one of the many public theaters along the Thames. Someone thrust a crumpled handbill at him. He smoothed it out and read that Lord Oxford’s Men were to perform The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth at two o’clock that afternoon. People were already queuing up to see it. The leaflet boasted that the original play had been thoroughly enjoyed at Court for its audacious swordplay, satire and romance. For the cost of a penny, one could see the same spectacle that had so delighted the Queen. William was sorely tempted, having never seen anything like it in his bucolic country town.
Only yesterday, when they arrived in London, his father had railed that the playhouses were havens for whores and pickpockets.
“Actors are the minions of Satan,” John Shaxper said. “A man’s worst inclinations are aroused every time some beardless boy acts like a woman in a love scene.”
His words aroused William’s curiosity. He was sure they expressed his father’s shame at the events that had transpired a year earlier on a similar trip to London.
John Shaxper had been robbed and severely beaten in an alley behind one of the playhouses. Unable to recall his name or any part of his identity, he was locked away in Bedlam as the beneficiary of charity. If his wife hadn’t gone to find him, he would have been lost forever. His rescuers had been as delicate as possible in describing his condition to her.
Back home under Mary’s care, John gradually recovered, although he never spoke about the mysterious London incident. William was frequently awakened by his father’s nightmarish screams. Whatever had befallen him, drunkenness was now the only relief John Shaxper knew. He suffered the humiliation of being quickly removed from his post as alderman. His neighbors saw that the once-affable merchant had returned from London a battered and broken man.
Accompanied by his son this time, John had pointed out the playhouses and grumbled that each one was crowned with a colorful banner that allowed even the most illiterate simpleton to fall into Hell. Perhaps that was true, but William ignored his words. With youthful callousness, he took note of the locations and vowed to see a play as soon as possible, confident that he was too smart to be lured down a dark alley, even for an exciting assignation.
He now stood amidst the revelers. They were rank and unwashed, and seemed to be a truly devilish lot. Even their Sunday garments were rancid with sweat, having no hint of the fresh lavender used for laundering in the country.
William gagged as the crowd pressed in tightly. Someone puffed tobacco smoke at him. A drunk jostled him and coughed in his face. As the boisterous mob clamored towards The Curtain, he wondered how the Earl of Oxford could lend his name to such a frenzied enterprise as a company of players.
And yet, like a moth seduced by candlelight, William was drawn to it, too.
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.
Red-faced with humiliation, he dusted himself off. Just as the idea of returning to his father dawned on him, the musicians played a martial song and the show began. The audience hushed as the actors took their places to enact The Famous Victories.
The play opened in the aftermath of a highway robbery. Prince Hal and his accomplices were adding up the money they had stolen from the royal tax collectors while King Henry IV lay dying. That was indeed a tragedy; but the audience laughed when Prince Hal boxed the ears of the Lord Chief Justice and demanded his henchmen’s freedom. They wept when the old King died, unaware of his son’s deception. And when Prince Hal became king, he immediately quit his madcap ways and later emerged as the triumphant hero at Agincourt. The audience gasped at the fight scenes, hooted for the clowns and sighed at Hal’s tender and strategically played romance with Lady Katherine.
When it was over, William stood in front of the empty stage. The message of the play had hit its mark: that a young man could attain great heights in spite of his youthful indiscretions. William’s folly had been impregnating Anne Hathaway. He had paid for it with his life by being forced to marry her.
So if the message in The Famous Victories was true, William could secure a brighter future after all. His dreams of gentility suddenly seemed more attainable.
With his headache mysteriously gone, it occurred to him that he should apologize for his bad behavior. Obviously, he’d made a fool of himself; and, if he wanted to work in the theater, it wouldn’t do to create a bad reputation with the nobleman who seemed to be in charge of the whole business.
He looked around for Lord Oxford but couldn’t find him. Instead he saw the gentleman who had thrown him off the stage talking with the man who had delivered the admission box. Perhaps if he offered them his sincerest apologies and explained his situation, they might understand and forgive him and arrange an introduction to the flamboyant Earl of Oxford.
William listened quietly at the door, as if waiting for his cue.
“His Lordship says that the authorities will be shutting down the playhouses again,” one of the men said. “For the next three months, we’ll need to move our performances to the countryside.”
“As he pleases, but I must say, traveling with the full company is difficult,” the second man said.
“I agree, but we have no other choice. He suggests that you simplify the staging to suit more rustic tastes. We’ll have to work without our usual trap doors or backstage devices, and the play is going to need a proper venue.”
“Please assure His Lordship that I’ll do whatever it takes to produce an excellent show, Mr. Lyly. Tell him that.”
“He knows. He has great faith in you, Evans, and that’s why he’s paying you in advance.”
William heard the sound of money changing hands.
“This is very generous, but under the present circumstances, can His Lordship really afford to pay all this?”
“Somehow there’s never a shortage of money where his plays are concerned. Now, of course, we’ll need wagons to convey the actors and the props, and it might prove less costly to use local tailors and carpenters to sew costumes and build platforms. That should provide some good income for the merchants in town. The village of Stratford in Warwickshire is to be our first stop, and we’ll need to find a large barn or guildhall for the performances. Do you think that will be a problem?”
Surprised by the mention of Stratford, William waited for Evans’ reply.
“A good-sized barn shouldn’t be difficult to find, if the price is right,” he heard him say.
William waited for the conversation to end. After Evans left, he framed himself in the doorway and addressed the gentleman in the chair.
“I beg your pardon, sir. May I have a word with you about this afternoon’s performance?”
“Indeed you may,” John Lyly said. He introduced himself as manager of The Curtain and secretary to the Earl of Oxford. “I am at your service, sir. Come in, come in. Do you have a good review of this performance?”
“Oh, yes. It was marvelous, Mr. Lyly, watching history triumph on the stage. You must tell His Lordship so, and send him my greatest compliments.”
A look of recognition shone in the gentleman’s eyes.
“Aren’t you the ruffian I chucked off the stage?”
“Well, yes and no . . .”
“What do you mean, yes and no? What kind of an answer is that?”
“To be precise, sir, yes, I was on the stage. But no, I’m not a ruffian.”
“Is that supposed to be clever? What do you want?”
“I want to apologize to you, to the entire company and especially to His Lordship for my rude behavior this afternoon. Can you pass that message on for me?”
“I shall, sir. But whom shall I say is sending such winning approval? What is your name, sir?”
“Forgive me,” William said, stammering an introduction. He prattled on about his passion for the theater and how it had enticed him away from church.
“Well, I do have to admit that you greatly amused Lord Oxford,” Lyly laughed. “He thinks we should pay you to be thrown off the stage at every performance! Good clowns are hard to find, and we always sell more tickets when the groundlings think such antics are part of the show. If you were trying to impress the Earl of Oxford, I’d say you succeeded rather well.”
Eager to be taken seriously, William said, “I’d rather impress him with the fact that I see theater as a profitable business enterprise.”
“Is that so? His Lordship sees it as an art.”
“Rightly so, theater is an art; and thank Heaven it has a patron like Lord Oxford to support it. But while he and other noblemen aren’t permitted to earn an income in business, the rest of us must work for our daily bread, isn’t that true? Even the actors must receive some salary.”
“And the tailors and the carpenters and the musicians and the copyists,” Lyly sighed. “Everyone must be compensated. We consider ourselves fortunate when we can convert even a small profit, however meager, into a new play. Production is costly, even for country tastes.”
“That’s why I want to offer you my services,” William said. “While I was waiting to speak with you, I overheard you say that you were bringing this play to Stratford. Pardon my boldness, but my father owns a thriving grain business there and we have a barn that’s virtually empty at this time of year. I can rent it to his Lordship’s company – for the right price.”
“A fair price,” Lyly insisted.
“It will be fair for all of us,” William said, wondering how his father would react to the prospect of renting his barn to a congregation of heathens.
Lyly studied the young man, observing that his confidence had grown during their brief talk. Behind his rustic manners lurked a shrewd tradesman who could strike a clever bargain.
“I can ride out with Evans and look at your barn,” Lyly said, “and if it suits our purposes, we will rent it. The final decision rests with Lord Oxford, of course.”
“Of course,” William said firmly, trying not to betray the vital importance of his next request. “There is one more thing, sir. I wonder if the Earl of Oxford would be generous enough to grant me a small favor.”
“And what is that?”
“To permit me to learn how a play is built.”
“Oh, I’m sure His Lordship wouldn’t mind letting you work among the carpenters.”
“Not with hammers and nails, sir, but with pen and ink,” William said. Fearing a refusal, he quickly explained. “I’d like to learn how a play is built from the time it is written until the time it is acted upon the stage, so I can inform myself about every aspect of this business.”
Lyly stared at him in disbelief.
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, sir. Our company has been cursed with an abundance of spies who try to discredit His Lordship’s loyalty because of his interest in the theater. With all due respect, as far as I know, you could be one of them. The Earl of Oxford would never agree to meet you or let you see his work unless you could convince him that you are trustworthy. But first, you’ll have to convince me.”
“I will do that in Stratford, sir. My friends and neighbors will vouch for me. And I can sell them tickets to the play in advance, if you would allow it.”
“Sell tickets in advance? An interesting prospect,” Lyly said, thoughtfully. “No one has ever done such a thing. I suppose we could pay you a percentage of your sales. Let me think about it and convey your ideas on commerce to the Earl of Oxford.”
“Thank you, sir. I am honored that you would consider doing so,” William fawned. “I hope you have forgiven me for my reckless behavior earlier this afternoon.”
“I have, sir. I’ll consider it nothing more than a round of youthful exuberance. I’m sure that your enterprising spirit will allow you to earn enough money to afford better seating at The Curtain next time,” Lyly said, as he ushered the young man from the playhouse.
On the way out, William nodded politely to Henry Evans and fancied that he saw Fortune smiling back at him.
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