The Scene: New Place, Stratford-On-Avon
April 23, 1616
“Now, unto thy bones, good-night.”
– Much Ado About Nothing
When Ben Jonson staggered into the front room, he was an alarming sight; his hair uncombed, trousers lopsided and shirt unlaced. Drayton laughed, aware of the reason for his disheveled state.
“You look like a flea-bitten mongrel,” he said. “What in Lucifer’s name did she do to you?”
“I’d rather not say,” Jonson replied, as he tucked in his shirt. “What happened upstairs is your fault, Michael. That woman’s crazy!”
“Where is she now?”
“Sleeping like a baby in her second-best bed. I put a little something in her wine. It was my only means of escape.”
“You can’t imagine how many times I wished for such a plan.”
“Did Shaxper say anything about the manuscripts?”
“Were you upstairs rummaging through my things?” Shaxper shouted. “I’ll just bet you were! Where’s my wife?”
Jonson angrily pointed a finger at him and started to speak. Drayton stepped between them.
“Why don’t we all calm down and have a drink?”
“That’s a great idea. I’ll pour.” Jonson stomped over to the table and filled two goblets with sack. He kept one and gave the other to Drayton.
“Perhaps a drink will refresh your memory about the manuscripts, William,” Drayton suggested. “I can water it down for you, the way you like it.”
“I’m not allowed to drink spirits. It’s against doctor’s orders.”
“Nonsense, it’s the perfect cure,” Jonson said. “Here’s how it works. After I leave, you’ll feel better, won’t you?”
“But I’m not leaving until you tell me where the manuscripts are. Ergo, if you can’t remember where they are when you don’t drink, you’ll probably recall where they are if you do drink.”
“You’re trying to confuse me,” Shaxper said warily.
“No, I’m not. There’s some science in it.”
“Then how come my son-in-law the doctor didn’t suggest it?”
“Doctors don’t know everything.”
“My son-in-law does. He keeps his medical journals in Latin.”
“Probably to cover up his mistakes,” Jonson muttered.
“What’s that? Speak up. I didn’t hear you.”
“Doctors don’t know everything,” Drayton repeated, somewhat louder.
“That’s right. They don’t,” Shaxper said thoughtfully. “They like to think they do, but they don’t.”
“A little watered-down sack can’t possibly hurt you,” Drayton said.
“In that case, fetch me a drink. What harm could it do? I’m half-blind, I can’t taste anything, I have no teeth and I’m partially deaf. I know you don’t mean me any harm, Michael. Go ahead. Water down my drink. Perhaps it will sharpen my memory.”
Drayton walked over to the table and began blending the sack with water. Jonson came up behind him.
“Trade goblets with me,” he whispered.
“Trade goblets with me. You heard him say he has no sense of taste. Give him my drink and he’ll never know it’s not diluted. Believe me, I want to get out of here with those plays just as much as he wants to see me go.”
“Do you think it’ll work?”
“We’ve got to try it, before that shrew comes downstairs and spoils everything.”
Drayton handed the potent drink to Shaxper. He and Jonson watched as the impostor drained his goblet with surprising speed.
“Ah, that’s very comforting,” he sighed. “Could I have some more?”
“Certainly. It’s wonderful to see you so relaxed, William.”
“I haven’t felt this way in years.”
“Now let’s discuss the manuscripts.”
“Give me some time, Michael. I have to remember where I put them.”
“When was the last time you saw them?”
“About three years ago, when I retired to Stratford after The Globe burned down.”
“I remember that,” Jonson said. “Some imbecile thought it would be a good idea to fire a cannon in the playhouse.”
“That imbecile was Burbage,” Shaxper sighed. “I never liked the idea.”
“As I recall, you gave Henry VIII a brand new title. Did you repackage Oxford’s old play so you could sell it as a new one?”
“Then tell us what did happen.”
“You won’t believe me if I told you my intentions were honorable.”
“That’s right, I won’t,” Jonson said. “So convince me.”
“Michael, please, another drink,” Shaxper said, color returning to his face. “This is magic. My pain is gone. You can put the empty bottles in the dung heap so my son-in-law won’t see ‘em. Plant ‘em nice and deep. Maybe they’ll grow.”
“I wouldn’t thrust my hands into a dung heap for anyone but you,” Drayton chuckled.
“I know. My wife says you’ve been quite useful around here.”
Drayton stared at him, wondering what that meant. He took the empty bottles outside as Jonson poured his nemesis another drink.
“What were we talking about?” Shaxper asked.
“You were telling me how you played false with All is True.”
“That was my swan song,” Shaxper snapped. “I renamed the play because I had prepared a tribute to Lord Oxford revealing him as the author of the Shakespeare plays, but the theater burned to the ground. Fate stole my chance to make an honest confession.”
“That for twenty-eight years, Lord Oxford paid me to pose as Shakespeare.”
For a moment, Jonson was speechless.
“Is that how it was!” he exclaimed. “I always wondered why he showered you with so much attention. Just exactly how did your arrangement work?”
“You remember how obstreperous Lord Oxford could be.”
“Almost as bad as I am.”
“No, much worse,” Shaxper said. “He wasn’t permitted to become known for writing plays because of his noble rank, but that wasn’t going to stop him, especially when the Queen enjoyed his Court performances. And by the way, they were all gifts to her. He sold his estates to see other men’s lands, and found himself conveying their words and customs on the stage.”
“Is that where his fortune went? Everyone said he squandered it.”
“You, playwright, do you consider the theater a waste of money?”
“No, of course not.”
“Neither did Lord Oxford. At first it was considered demeaning for him to offer his plays to the public, but it became downright dangerous when the Queen commanded his history plays to be shown in the playouses. Perhaps it was Fate that brought us together when I sought him out in London as a stage-struck youth longing to become an actor. As it turned out, he needed me just as much as I needed him. First he hired me as his scribe, and then I became his personal secretary and then his business manager and —”
“And then you became Shake-speare.”
“Yes, because as the plays grew more popular, audiences kept shouting for the author. What else could we do? By the Queen’s edict, appearances by Lord Oxford had been rendered impossible. I was paid to register his plays, negotiate with theater owners and make all of his public appearances. I kept my mouth shut and puffed on my pipe when asked too many questions.”
“Is that why the Earl granted you so many favors?”
“I was paid very well,” Shaxper boasted. “Lord Oxford had many secrets, but a man with many secrets doesn’t inspire longevity.”
“Did you just make that up?”
“No, I heard it . . . somewhere.
Drayton returned, poured himself a drink and sat down.
“What did I miss?” he asked.
“Everything,” Jonson replied.
“Not quite,” Shaxper said. “Here’s the worst part of my story: when King James discovered Lord Oxford’s most dangerous secret, he killed him.”
“That’s a lie. He was murdered in his own bed. I was there. I saw it.”
Jonson and Drayton looked at one another in disbelief.
“You think this drink has gone to my head, don’t you?” Shaxper cried. “Well, I’m telling you the truth. Midsummer night in 1604, Oxford’s house at King’s Place was attacked on all sides. They seized his private papers and poured poison down his throat so there’d be no wounds. I stuffed a good number of his plays into my portfolio and escaped that night, always fearing they would come after me. It took a while, but I reconstructed as many of the manuscripts as I could, and sold some of ‘em because I had to do it, with Lord Oxford dead and my livelihood gone. A man has to earn a living.”
While Shaxper spoke, his wife Anne tottered down the back staircase and went into the kitchen, carrying a bundle of papers. She set them down and ripped off one page at a time, balling them up and stuffing them between the kindling. She picked up a long piece of straw, held it to the torch and lit the fire in the hearth.
“Now I remember!” Shaxper said. “The plays are up in the attic. I put them in the old trunk, the one Countess Elizabeth gave me on her deathbed.”
Jonson leapt to his feet.
“How do we get there?”
“Go to the kitchen and take the back stairs. The trunk is at the top, to the left. I’d go, but I feel a bit dizzy. I need to lie down.”
“You go,” Drayton said. “I’ll stay with the scribe.”
Jonson raced into the kitchen. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Anne Shaxper ripping pages out of a bound manuscript and tossing them into the fire.
“What’s that you’re burning?”
“Just some old papers,” she sneered. “Why should you care?”
Before she could respond, Jonson grabbed them from her hands and instantly recognized the handwriting. He dove into the flames, burning himself as he tried to rescue the discarded pages. His screams brought Drayton running.
“Ben, what are you doing?”
“This is the sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Jonson said, his voice cracking. “Do you realize what you’ve done, you decrepit old harpy? You’ve burned an original Shakespeare play, written in Lord Oxford’s own hand!”
“I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t think it was important.”
“Not important? What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid?”
“I burn papers like this all the time.”
“She didn’t mean any harm, Ben. Stop badgering her,” Drayton said.
“Not on your life! She’s gone too far this time.”
“She couldn’t help it, it’s not her fault. She doesn’t know how to read.”
“She can’t read. No one in Shaxper’s family can read. She didn’t know what she was burning.”
Jonson was furious. He ran into the front room and shook the scribe back into consciousness.
“Why, you merchant of falsehood! You posed as England’s greatest playwright and kept your family uneducated and illiterate?”
“I was in London . . . they were in Stratford . . . I had to earn a living . . . there wasn’t time to teach them anything.”
“Your slovenly wife has just torched an original Shakespeare play because she can’t read. It’s as if she murdered Lord Oxford all over again!”
Dr. Hall opened the front door and stepped into complete pandemonium.
“And I told you I wasn’t leaving without the plays.”
“Calm down, Doctor,” Drayton said, trying to pacify him. “We just found out a moment ago that the plays Jonson has been seeking are up in the attic. I’ll help him get the trunk and we’ll be on our way.”
“Not so fast,” Hall said. “I knew it was a mistake to allow you access to my father-in-law, Jonson. Chaos has ruled ever since I let you into this house. Can’t you see my father-in-law is a very sick man? Look at him.”
“He’s fine. He’s resting.”
Dr. Hall lifted Shaxper’s limp hand.
“What on earth have you done to this poor man?”
“We haven’t done anything to him. We had a few drinks to celebrate his birthday.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Drayton seconded, “to celebrate his birthday.”
“You fed him my best sack?”
“I’ll gladly pay you for what we drank, if that’s what’s bothering you,” Jonson said.
“We didn’t force it on him. He drank it of his own free will,” Drayton added.
“He’s not supposed to drink. I swear, I think you both came to Stratford to kill him!”
“That’s not true,” Drayton protested.
“Give them the trunk, John, and let’s be rid of them,” Mrs. Shaxper said.
“Oh, all right, go get it,” Hall cried out. “Take it out of here, and then leave this house and never come back!”
Jonson and Drayton hurried to the attic before Dr. Hall had a chance to change his mind.
As the doctor solicitously examined him, Shaxper fell from his stupor into a dream.
A smiling Countess Elizabeth summoned him into an old churchyard, where she showed him two stone effigies. He leaned over and read the epitaphs closely, since it had once been his line of work to write them. One effigy was sacred to the memory of Lady Elizabeth Trentham, Countess of Oxford. The other was inscribed to the Honorable Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Viscount Bulbec, Lord of Sandford, of Escales and of Badlesmere, Lord Great Chamberlain of England, also known as the great bard Shake-speare, the appellation he loved best.
The Countess kissed Shaxper on the forehead and told him how well he had served her husband, and suddenly, a ferocious storm blew up. A hundred horsemen galloped in and smashed the effigies to pieces. The Countess wept and a marble obelisk grew from her tears. He marveled that it was decorated with flights of angels after the line in Hamlet. But the angels instantly turned into devils and set the obelisk on fire. All of the graves opened up and spread their contagion in the world, and Lord Oxford’s bones were scattered in the churchyard, crumbling into dust.
“For Jesus sake, forebear!” Shaxper screamed.
“He’s awake,” Mrs. Shaxper said.
“Father-in-law, what is it?” Dr. Hall asked.“What’s the matter?”
“What will they do to my bones after I die? I don’t want them scattered in the churchyard. If they think I’m Shakespeare, they’ll dig me up to dance on my grave.”
“What’s he talking about?”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Shaxper cried. “He’s not in his right mind.”
“Fetch me my quills and paper, John. I’ll write my epitaph now.”
The scribe took up his pen and began writing. His eyes could barely focus on his work.
“‘Good friend for Jesus’ sake forebear’— that’ll scare ‘em off. No one will dig me up if I mention Jesus. ‘To dig the dust enclosed here.’ — if I describe my remains as dust, they won’t see any point in digging me up, will they? — ‘Blest be the man that spares these stones,’ - they’ll be rewarded for leaving my grave in one piece. ‘And curst be he that moves my bones.’”
Jonson and Drayton set the trunk down in the front room. Shaxper reached out his bony arms towards them.
“Ben! Michael! Please help me!” Shaxper cried. “I don’t want my bones thrown around the churchyard! Don’t let them desecrate my grave. I heard you talking about how they dug up Lord Oxford. If they think I’m the playwright, they’ll do the same to me. Please help me. You’ve got to tell my story.”
He waved the paper frantically in the air and suddenly began gasping for breath. He fell back onto the couch and his breathing became shallow until at last, it stopped.
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