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!”
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