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New Fiction


by Charles West

      At one o'clock a flag was raised by one of the stagehands of the Globe Theatre. The flag flew from the roof of the backstage building. The banner showing Hercules carrying the glove on his shoulders waved briskly high above the stage and was large and colorful enough to be seen by possible patrons across the river on the north bank of the Thames. The banner signaled a play for that afternoon, Tuesday, June 29, 1613.
      Then from near the flagpole appeared another stagehand with a trumpet. He blew a long and loud call, announcing the performance would commence in one hour. The sounds of the trumpet prompted activity inside the theatre as well. The doorkeeper and his assistant as the did the gallery-keepers on each side, collecting the extra payments for seats in the galleries, and the extra payment for the use of a cushion.
      Sturdy young men appeared, heavily laden, and took their places inside the main entrance. They were the vendors of refreshments, offering apples, gingerbread, hazelnuts, and bottled ale.
      The groundlings, mostly young men who had paid a penny to stand in front of the stage for the entire performance, scrambled and jostled each other for what they considered the best places. They were there to hear a new play called The Famous History of the Life of Henry VII or All is True.
      As Will Shakespeare entered the huge round theatre that afternoon, he noted the badly worn stairs, the chipped and scratched paint. However, the scars were also proof of the many thousands of people who had come to this wooden “O” over the years for an an afternoon of love, war, and comedy, to shout, cry and laugh.
      Years ago, William Shakespeare, the Burbages and others were a band of traveling players looking for a place to perform their plays, near London, but not in London. The city fathers who controlled London had ever been hostile to the traveling actors, who were ranked with thieves and prostitutes in the social order.
      In 1576 James Burbage took a 21 year lease on a piece of property in Shoreditch, a suburb just north of London, out of the reach of the city authority. Here Burbage and company constructed the first permanent professional theatre in England. It was called, appropriately enough, The Theatre. All acting companies had to be under the patronage of a nobleman. Shakespeare and the Burbage's company was initially the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The Chamberlain's Men prospered at the Theatre for years. In 1597, when the original lease for the land on which the Theatres was built ran out, the landowner, Giles Alleyn, refused to renew the lease. While the Theatre was closed, Cuthbert Burbage and company, along with carpenters and odd laborers, took advantage of Giles Alleyn's absence from London, and pulled down the Theatre timber by timber, plank by plank, loaded the materials on wagons and carted the building across the Thames over the London Bridge to the southern suburb of Bankside.
      After many busy days of work, the Theatre was reborn in a new location with a new name, The Globe, an impressive structure with a capacity of up to three thousand persons. At the Globe, the Chamberlain's Men became even more prosperous, especially the sharers, or owners, of the company, which included William Shakespeare, as well as the Burbage brothers and others. After the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Chamberlain's Men became the King's Men, with King James as their patron. With the respectability and security that patronage provided, the company flourished.
      The audience watched the first three scenes intently. In the fourth scene Burbage is on stage as Wolsey, as a group of masquers disguised as shepherds enter with King Henry VIII played by John Lowin. To salute the royal presence small cannons with blank shot are fired. As the play continued there came a cry from the crowd, the sound of people running on the balconies and then picked up and echoed throughout the Globe.
      Shakespeare ran onstage and saw the coils of smoke rising from the thatched roof. Soon the flames began to engulf the upper stories of the theatre. The terrified audience stampeded through the two narrow doors which led into the surrounding marshland. Sparks were falling onto the last of the fleeing audience, causing the dried rushes on the floor to catch fire. Here and there clothing caught fire and was beat out. In less than an hour, the Globe Theatre was a burned out shell. It was a miracle that, with only two exits the large crowd was able to escape safely without serious injury, by being trampled or burned.
      Shakespeare and Burbage stood together staring into the charred ruins of their great dream and source of their fortune. The timber their own hands had carried, sawed and hammered, were now ashes. The King's Men, sharers and hired players alike, found each other and stood in a group, thankful at least that none of their company had come to harm.
      Heminge and Congdell approached the group each carrying an end of a stout trunk that they had been prudent enough to rescue in the pandemonium of the moment. The trunk held the company's most precious possessions, the manuscripts of the plays. Most were by Shakespeare, but also included the contributions by Ben Jonson, the late Christopher Marlowe, as well as the recent additions of the company's newest playwright, John Fletcher who, with Will Shakespeare, had penned the interrupted Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII. The rescue of the plays was most important because most existed in their entirety in one copy and all were kept in that trunk.
      “We will build again,” Burbage vowed.
      “Of course we will,” someone else said, and the company agreed, resolved to carry on with their business, their livelihood, their craft.
      James Sands was wigless but still dressed as Katharine. Likewise, young Richard Robinson was still attired as Anne Bullen. Cloaks were procured to cover their costumes, lest they be mistaken for male varlets. Unfortunately there was no cloak available for the boy, Thomas, who was playing the old woman in the play.
      “Surely, you have some more clothes at your lodgings,” said John Lowin, still regally dressed as King Henry.
      “No longer, I'm afraid, sir,” the boy answered. I was sleeping in the tiring room of our theatre, now burned. The lad looked around for a friendly face and offer of assistance. The uncomfortable silence was broken by Will Shakespeare.
      “Come along with me, lad. There is some space at my rooms, and some clothes that may accommodate you.”
      When they arrived at Shakespeare's lodging in Bankside, Shakespeare pointed at trunk. “Inside you will find a blanket. If you can build a fire without burning down this building you may sleep there,” he said indicating a space near a fireplace. “You may take what clothes you wish from the trunk. They were my brother Ned's.”
      “Won't he be needin' 'em then?” Thomas asked.
      “Ned has been dead these past six years.” Will Shakespeare said.
      “I am very sorry, sir. God rest his soul.”
      “Of course, thank you.” Shakespeare turned to leave, then turned back and took off his cloak. “You may have this as well,” he said, and tossed it to the surprised boy.
      “No, sir, I dare not accept. It is too fine, too extravagant for me.”
      “Nonsense. You are a player with the King's Men,” Shakespeare said with pretended pride. “No garment is too extravagant for you.” Will Shakespeare and Thomas smiled. “Besides,” Shakespeare continued, “it smells of smoke, and I wish not to be reminded of this day's conflagration.”
      The owners of the company, the sharers, met the next day at the Blackfriar's and rescheduled their summer and fall schedule for the more intimate indoor theater. The better educated and more sophisticated patrons of the Blackfriar's would be offered plays including Shakespeare's Winter's tale, The Tempest, Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsman, another collaboration by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. The trunk of manuscripts was give a secure place at the Blackfriar's Theatre.
      Days later, John Fletcher sought out William Shakespeare. Fletcher was an earnest young man, the son of a clergyman. In fact, his late father had once been the Bishop of London. Fletcher had graduated from Corpus Christi College in Cambridge and became a player and then writer of plays following the death of his father. Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on such plays as the recent Henry the VIII and The Two Noble Kinsman.
      “Will,” Fletcher said somewhat uncomfortably, as he was not used to addressing someone fifteen years his elder by his Christian name, even though in their work together they had come to be as friends. “I don't believe that the fire was an accident. I believe it may have been planned as an attempt to destroy the company or even to do harm to our persons.”
      Fletcher now had Shakespeare's full attention. Who would do such a thing?” he asked.
      “Perhaps one of the rival companies, those of the Rose of the Swan,” Fletcher suggested, naming two of the theatres near the Glove that competed for playgoers with the King's Men. “With the Globe gone, there would be less competition.”
      Shakespeare thought for a moment. “I think not,” he said. “Had there been any loss of life—the audiences, that is, for the loss of a few players would not concern the city or the court—all the theatres would likely been closed as hazardous. In addition, Burbage and Henslowe have gone to the Rose and the Swan to borrow costumes that we might continue.”
      “Of course, it may be the puritans,” Fletcher considered. “They have long been the most vocal of our detractors.” Indeed, the most persistent enemies of the theatres were the Puritans. The Puritans were known to have a very severe religion, which condemned almost every form of amusement, from music to dancing to card playing to plays, players and playhouses were particularly vexsome to the puritans. Actors were referred to as villains, vipers, hell-hounds, and many other unflattering terms.
      “You maybe be correct,” Will said to Fletcher. “I would though, be more inclined to it were the Puritans if I were to see the other nine theatres nearby suffer a similar fate, not the mention the many other entertainments offered in the district to which the Puritans are similarly opposed.” In this Shakespeare was speaking of the cock-fighting arenas, taverns, and bawdyhouses.
      “There is the possibility,” Fletcher continued, “that it could be someone at court, or eve,” dropping his voice to a whisper with a quick look around for anyone listening, “the King himself.”
      “The King?” Will said incredulously.
      “Yes,” Fletcher insisted. “The play is the story of Henry VIII, the father of our late Queen Elizabeth. Perhaps the King does not want to be reminded how much England loved Elizabeth. The play ends with the birth of Elizabeth and the prophecy of her coming greatness.” Fletcher said, “Perhaps the King was provoked by these lines when we last played before him.”
      Shakespeare paused a moment before speaking. “Had the king been provoked as you suggest, he has the power to close the theatres—all the theatres, and to disband the company. We are, after all, The King's Men.”
      Fletcher accepted the opinions of his more worldly friend. Shakespeare had seen and done much in his life, receiving a more rounded education than Fletcher had acquired at Cambridge.
      The following day, Shakespeare was startled to hear his name shouted. “Master Shakespeare!” The sudden interruption took him from his work on Cardenio, a new play with which he was yet unsatisfied. It was John Fletcher, with a most serious demeanor waiting for leave to speak.
      “Yes, my friend,” Will said.
      “I believe I know the identity of our enemy—your enemy,” Fletcher said somberly.
      “And who is it, now?”
      “It is Ben Jonson,” Fletcher announced. “I have personally heard him make the most scurrilous remarks about you in public. He is most envious of your success.”
      Shakespeare laughed out loud. “Many would see our relationship as combative. But it is a combat of wit, a combat of words. There is no one in London, outside of our own company, than I trust more than Ben Johnson,” Shakespeare said. “Did you know that he distinguished himself in battle in the war in the Low Countries.” Fletcher admitted that he did not. “And, furthermore,” Shakespeare continued, “have you ever noticed the brand on his thumb? Jonson fought a duel with another player named Gabriel Spencer. Jonson was condemned to die for the offense, but he pleaded benefit of clergy. The brand on his thumb is to remind the authorities he can not escape as a first time offender again. If Ben Jonson wished to have me dead, I would already be worm's meat. He is skilled in the art of killing. And he is not one for secrets. If he planned to kill me, he would print handbills, hire a theatre and charge admission.”
      Will could see that Fletcher was almost disappointed that Jonson was not the culprit. Fletcher excused himself and left the house. Shakespeare reviewed the lines he had written before Fletcher's interruption.
      Just then there came a shout from downstairs. “Will Shakespeare! Are you about?” Will recognized the boisterous voice of his friend, Ben Jonson.
      “Upstairs,” he shouted down.
      Ben Jonson entered the room in a huff. “Was that John Fletcher I spied leaving just now?”
      “Yes it was.”
      “That is the very reason I came here today,” Jonson said lowering his powerful voice. “I believe that John Fletcher wishes you harm. I would not be surprised if he did not plan the fire himself in an attempt to kill you.”
      “Why would John Fletcher do me ill?” Shakespeare asked.
      “Is is plain that he is envious of your skill as a poet and playwright. With you out of the way, he would step into the position of chief writer of plays for the King's Men.”
      “If that be the case, then why destroy the home of the company?”
      “I must admit,” Jonson said, “that has me puzzled.”
      “And if he wanted me dead,” Shakespeare asked, “why not merely run me through wit ha sword or dagger?”
      “Oh, that little preacher's boy does not possess the courage for such a deed.”
      “Did you know that John Fletcher stood in that very spot you now occupy only minutes earlier and presented you as the villain who have me dead as well? I don't know if I should be honored to have two such friends whose love shows such concern, or should I be a'feared that I have two such murderers so close to my person.”
      Jonson laughed loudly. “It seems in the love we share for you, that we believe we are its only owner.” He laughed again. “Perhaps we hoped for the easy explanation of personal enmity, rather than believe that providence may love us not.”

                                                                                                *        *        *

      Will Shakespeare was at his writing table, searching his brain for a rhyme for the word “silver” when his chamber door was flung open and in stormed Ben Jonson and John Fletcher, and an unpleasant demeanor had both men. Will secretly welcomed the interruption. The writing was not going well. The words did not flow as readily as in his younger days.
      He greeted them. “My friends,” he said cordially. “Or may it be my enemies,” he jester, recalling their earlier suspicions. The jest was wasted as both gentlemen remained steadfastly somber.
      “We have disturbing news, “John Fletcher announced, “There has been a murder near the Blackfriar's. It is Thomas, our young apprentice player. Slain.” Shakespeare was shocked by the news of the death. Only that morning, the lad had awoke in the very house where Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher now stood. “He was stabbed through the heart, from behind, a murder most foul.”
      “Say you what?”
      “Thomas, the young boy player, of our company,” Fletcher said slowly, “has been murdered.”
      “Stabbed in the back,” Jonson continued, “and left in the dirt to die.”
      “Who would commit such a foul deed, and on one so young?” Shakespeare asked. “What enemies could he have had so young?”
      “It is not about his enemies that you should enquire,” Fletcher said.
      “Explain yourself,” demanded Shakespeare.
      “There is more,” interjected Jonson.
      “Then pray continue.”
      “The boy, Thomas, was wearing your cloak when he was murdered,” Fletcher informed him.
      “So the one who killed him may have believed you, Will Shakespeare, to be the wearer of that garment,” Jonson said. “In fact, when I saw the body myself still lying in the lane, I feared it was my own friend, William Shakespeare himself, laid dead.”
      “The death of young Thomas in borrowed robes comes quickly on the burning of the Globe,” Fletcher pointed out. “What of your enemies, Will?”
      Shakespeare pondered a moment and spoke calmly. “The enemies I have could scarcely qualify for the name 'enemy.' Those who oppose me, do so in court for trifling sums. Or they may disparage me in the print of cheap pamphlets. Enemies that would burn and murder I pray I have none such.”
      “But it would seem,” observed Ben Jonson, seriously, “that you do.”
      The King's Men, though saddened and frightened by the murder of their young apprentice, went about their business, which was giving plays at the Blackfriar's. Thomas was provided a decent burial by the company, with William Shakespeare personally making an additional contribution to convince a sour clergyman that Thomas should be laid to rest within the holy ground of the churchyard and not outside the walls where he originally thought all players and such vagabonds should be buried.
      The play for the afternoon was The Winter's Tale, which was not a comedy or a tragedy but with elements of both, with light moments, but also with dark and devious aspect with references to the cruelty and uncertainty of life. Sexual jealousy is the mainspring of the plot. Leontes, King of Sicily, becomes convinced that his guest and lifelong friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, has had an affair with his wife Hermione.
      After the play, Shakespeare had to travel but a few hundred yards to arrive home. Earlier that year he had purchased the Blackfriar's gate-house. The Blackfriar's Theatre, the gate-house and other neighboring properties and lands had once been part of a vast Domenican monastery. Shakespeare was not afraid to walk alone, but recent events had made him more wary. He clasped the handle of his dagger—send me none of thee.
      Almost at his door, he heard a faint jingle of metal. The next sound he heard almost too late—a loud grunt. When Will turned around he was confronted by a man with sword raised to strike. However, the sword seemed frozen in the air. The would-be attacker gave a look of pained surprise and tried to cry out but nothing emerged from his lips. The sword frell from his hands and clattered on the cobbles at Shakespeare's feet. The assassin was unable to cry out because Ben Jonson had rammed a dagger through the villain's lungs, robbing them of the air needed to give voice to his pain. Jonson struck the dagger home again home again, twisting it this time for good measure. When he removed his weapon this time, the creature melted to the ground. Will Shakespeare used his foot to turn over his attacker. “Who are you?” he asked the dying man. “Who sent you?” His questions were not answered as the life flowed swiftly from the man. The crimson blood appeared black on the dirty cobblestones in the faint light.       As the failed assassin shuffled off his mortal coil, Will Shakespeare finally appreciated what transpired. “You saved my life,” he said to Ben Jonson. Jonson said nothing but wiped the blood from his dagger and hands on the clothing of the prone corpse. “What are you doing here?” Will asked.
      “Trying to keep you alive,” Jonson answered modestly.
      As Ben Jonson was busy turning aside his friend's thanks, John Fletcher approached leading a horse, saddled and ready. “I found this beast waiting on the other side of the gate-house,” Fletcher said. “Just as I got there two more horsemen were making a hasty getaway. “I see this one will not be needing his horse any more tonight.”
      Just then, Heminge and Congdell ran up, dressed half in their costumes from The Winters Tale and half in their own clothes. “The trunk!” Heminge gasped. “The plays!” Congdell wheezed.
      “Slow down,” Shakespeare instructed, “catch your breathe. What are you trying to say?”
      “The trunk,” Heminge said. “The trunk that held our plays has been stolen.”
      “Two hooded men, swords drawn, entered the room where we kept the trunk, and ran off with the whole lot,” Congdell added.
      “Those must be the two men I saw ride away,” thought Fletcher. “They must have been in league with this one.” Fletcher took a closer look at the dead man. “Do you recognize him, Will?”
      Shakespeare looked closer. “Not the face,” Will said thoughtfully, “but the livery of man and horse seem familiar.” They were indeed familiar, as they belong to William Shakespeare's former patron and friend, Henry Wriothsley, the Earl of Southhampton.
      Lord Southhampton was a favorite of the late Queen Elizabeth. He then aligned himself with the Earl of Essex, and shared in his successful campaigns in Cadiz and the Azores. In 1599, Southhampton joined Essex in the ill fated Irish campaign and shared the disgrace of that failure. Lord Southhampton was also a co-conspirator in Essex's failed rebellion, and like Essex was condemned to death. Essex was executed, however the Queen commuted Southhampton's sentence to life imprisonment in the Tower of London. After Elizabeth died and James ascended the throne, he ordered Southhampton release from the Tower, and he is currently a favorite of the Court.

      Both Jonson and Fletcher knew fragments of the old friendship of William Shakespeare and henry Wriothsley, the Earl of Southhampton. They knew Shakespeare dedicated his long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, to the young Earl in 1593 and 1594, respectively. They knew that Shakespeare resided at Southhampton's estate during those years when the plague had closed the city theaters. They knew also of the speculative gossip that Henry Wriothsley was the mysterious “Mr. W.H.” to whom Shakespeare's collected sonnets were dedicated. However, no sooner did the book of sonnets appear in the bookshops and its contents generally known than they were withdrawn from sale and the printer was ordered by authority to discontinue further issues. After the sonnets were published, about 1609, Southhampton withdrew his favor from Shakespeare once and for all. During the days of their friendship, both the Earl and the poet were both quite young and had not achieved their reputations. Their journeys had not taken them near each other for many years. Until now, that is, when William Shakespeare returned to the Southhampton estate with a dead man and his horse, both attired in the livery of the Earl of Southhampton.

      So Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher arrived at Southhampton's estate, called Titchfield, in the County of Hants, with the slain assassin as their traveling companion. Shakespeare was greeted by an old servant who fondly remembered Shakespeare's time at Titchfield some twenty years previous and greeted him warmly. The old man had seen much in his years. He had seen his master, Lord Southhampton, grow to manhood, observed his education at the hands of learned tutors, and by those schooled in wilder, less Christian skills. He watches as his master both succeeded and failed as a soldier. He wept when his master was sentenced to death, fretted when the death sentence was changed to life imprisonment, rejoiced when the new King released him, and felt pride as Lord Southhampton assumed an honored position at court.
      The ancient servant's warm greeting was tempered by the presence of the dead assassin. “Do you know this man?” Shakespeare asked.
      “Indeed I do, sir,” the servant said. “Just as I am still, he was a servant of this household.”
      “Unlike you,” Ben Jonson pointed out, “this man is very much dead.”
      “That is apparent, sir,” the old man agreed. “And I am not at all surprised.”
      “What do you mean?” Shakespeare asked.
      “His personal habits were not in keeping with a member of my Lord Southhampton's household. He was too fond of drinking, carousing, and fighting. In fact, the rogue was a runaway. He left without permission and stole the very horse you have now returned him on.”
      “Why would Lord Southhampton retain such a scoundrel?” Shakespeare inquired.
      “My master may have found some of his skills necessary in his recent trials and tribulations. Besides, he was not with us that long, sir. He was formerly in the service of the late Earl of Oxford.”
      “It seems, then, that he takes after his late Lord,” Johnson said.
      “What do you mean?” asked Fletcher.
      “The late Edward deVere, Earl of Oxford, dead these eight or nine years or so,” Jonson explained, “was a drunken, violent, irresponsible wastrel. He was imprisoned at least once by the queen.”
      “I had heard him to be an accomplished poet, musician, and playwright,” Fletcher said.
      “He had some small skill in comedy,” Shakespeare interjected, “yet I can find nothing complimentary to say of his verse.”
      “Yes,” Jonson said excitedly. “He is remembered as a writer of plays and poems, yet where are these plays and poems that we may look at them and judge for ourselves. They are conveniently lost. I submit that they never existed. He was a patron of poets and players. Do you remember John Lyly? John Lyly was in his service for some time. I believe deVere claimed some of Lyly's work for his own. Unfortunately, Lyly also is dead, so we may not ask him.”
      “I will admit,” Shakespeare said, “that gives a choice between a play by John Lyly and a play by the late Earl of Oxford, I would spend my coins on the more fragrant Lyly. However, I cannot believe we stand here debating which long-dead author wrote which long-forgotten plays. I am satisfied that when I am gone there will be no such discussions.”
      “Do you know the whereabouts of your Lord now?” Shakespeare asked the servant.
      “Yes, sir,” he answered. “I believe he is presently in your country, in Stratford on Avon.”
      Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher set out for Stratford after the horses were ready and the servant extended some of Lord Southhampton's hospitality to them in the way of some meat, bread and wine. The distance was considerable, so the three men were obliged to spend the night in a seedy inn where they passed the night together in a bed, sleeping fitfully with one hand on their purses and the other on their weapons.
      When the trio crossed the bridge that spanned the River Avon, they were in the quiet market town of Stratford riding in the direction of the spire of the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was both baptized and married. Halfway between the bridge and the church, they turned onto Chapel Lane where they approached New Place, Shakespeare's Stratford home. “Oh, that man might know the end of this day's business ere it come,” Will said anxiously.
      New Place was said to be one of the largest houses in the town. It was clearly the home of a well-to-do merchant, but in this case the merchant's goods were scribbles on ink-stained paper and actors who strutted and fretted some hours upon the stage.
      At the side of the house stood two horses, attended by a single groom. The groom was dressed in the now familiar livery of a servant of the Earl of Southhampton. Ben Jonson greeted him. “How now, friend. What duty brings you to Stratford?”
      “My lord and master is paying a visit to the mistress of the house within. As we speak I believe he is tupping the ewe of the missing shepherd.”
      “What say you?” Shakespeare was growing livid.
      “The mistress of the house is being sluiced in her husband's absence.” The young servant smiled, expecting smiles in return.
      “You rogue! You rascal! Do you prate? I will cut out your tongue!”
      Shakespeare dismounted and his sword. The immediate target of his rage, the servant, stepped in his path prepared to stop Shakespeare from entering his own home. The young man was ill-prepared for the strength and wrath of Will Shakespeare, who knocked him aside, choosing to bypass the servant and confront the master. The door was bolted, however, and Will was unable to enter immediately. Meanwhile the young man, chagrined at being knocked down by one so superior to him in age, had risen, drawn his own weapon and was prepared to prevent Shakespeare's entrance. Will forced the door at the same time Southhampton's sentry crumpled to the ground a second time, this time sent there by a blow from the hilt of John Fletcher's sword, which cracked open his head somewhat. Ben Jonson looked on with new found respect for the “preacher's boy.”
      The commotion outside had provided Southhampton and Anne Shakespeare enough time to dress themselves, however, it was evident from their demeanor that they had been making the beast with two backs. “Anne!” Will cried. “Henry! Can this be true?”
      “All is true, husband,” Anne Shakespeare answered, still adjusting her clothing. “How does it feel to be the betrayed spouse?” She asked him. “No need to answer, husband, for I know those feelings. I have lived with them these many years.”
      “Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide.” Shakespeare turned his attention to Lord Southhampton. Hal,” he said using the nobleman's familiar sobriquet. “How could you?”
      “How could I?” Southhampton answered. “The same way we did in our youth, the same way you have conducted yourself in London. Have you forgotten the 'dark lady' of your sonnets?”
      “No, I have not forgotten,” Shakespeare said soberly. “Nor have I forgotten the 'fair gentleman' of those same rhymes. Since you've answered 'how,' can you answer me 'why'? That is why me, why my wife?”
      Southhampton looked at Shakespeare sharply. “Have you not noticed, but your wife is still a handsome woman, though somewhat neglected by you.”
      “Yes, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Shakespeare observed.
      Southhampton looked at the floor. “It was the only way I could get something that you had.”
      “What do you mean?”
      “I want what you have. I want your skills. I want your rhymes. I want your immortality.”
      “What immortality?”
      “Your words,” Hal cried. “Your words. Your words will live long after we are all gone. How will Southhampton be remembered? An adulterous strumpet, a poor soldier, a bad husband, a traitor, a useless courtier? That will be my epitaph. You will be remembered forever.”
      “Are you mad?” Shakespeare fumed. “there is no immortality for me. My words are nothing. The sonnets are gone forever. You saw to that. As for the plays, the words pass the lips of the players and vanish forever into the air. My words are no more immortal than breath.” Shakespeare reached into the trunk of manuscripts that Southhampton had stolen and pulled out of a sheaf of pages and threw them on the grate of the fireplace. The embers transformed the pages into a quick hot flash of flames that quickly turned to ash. It was the play Cardenio. “There is your immortality!” Shakespeare shouted.
      Just then Ben Jonson and John Fletcher appeared at the door, checking on their friend. “Shall I burn them all, then? Shakespeare asked Southhampton. Acting quickly, Fletcher snatched up the trunk and carried them out of the reach of his ill-tempered writing partner.
      “Men that make envy and crooked malice nourishment dare bite the best,” muttered Fletcher.
      “Perhaps we should all burn with them—in hell!” Shakespeare lunged at the Lord Southhampton fully intending to kill him, and probably would have had not Ben Jonson prevented him from doing so. Jonson's hands that had once learned the brickmason's trade were still strong enough to restrain the furious cuckholded husband.
      “Think about what you do friend.” Jonson advised.
      “Come not between the dragon and his wrath, and do not use the word 'friend' around me,” said Shakespeare. “It has lost all meaning. He was a gentleman on whom I built and absolute trust. Have I not been wronged here?”
      “Forbear to judge for we are sinners all,” Jonson said. “It is oft their husband's faults when wives do fall.”
      “Haven't I the right to kill him. Or her?”
      “All may not see it that way,” Jonson considered. “He is a nobleman, a Lord, a courtier close to the throne. You are, after all, but a player. The King and the court may not take your side in this,” he pointed out.
      “What of our burned theatre? What of our slain Thomas?”
      Southhampton responded to these. “Those were done DeVere's man,” referring to the man Jonson had killed, “without my sanction. His instructions to take the plays, not to burn or kill. I believe the scoundrel had his own enmity against you.”
      “Have I not been wronged?” Shakespeare asked again.
      “Of course,” agreed Jonson, “but there are other considerations. Your name would be besmirched thought the country.
      “Is it not now?”
      “Not if we can agree that this incident goes unreported outside this room.”
      “Am I to have no satisfaction?”
      “Aye,” said Jonson. “You have the satisfaction that your two daughters will retain the love and admiration they have already for their parents and family name. Unfortunately, adultery and murder could change that.”
      Shakespeare relaxed his body somewhat, beginning to see the wisdom to Jonson's argument. Speaking only to Jonson, Shakespeare asked softly, “How can I live with this indiscretion?”
      “The same way she has lived with yours,” Jonson answered frankly.
      Shakespeare realized that his friend was correct in this. “I hold the world but as the world, Ben, a stage where every man must play a part, and mine is to be a sad one,” he said, and added, “that used to be my favorite bed.”
      With Ben Jonson as mediator it was agreed that the events of the day would never be spoken of again. Will and Anne Shakespeare thoughtfully put consideration of their daughters' feelings ahead of their own. Henry Wriothsley, Lord Southhampton wisely chose not to make public his adultery. He rightly believed that although the King may have winked at the affair with Anne Shakespeare, His Majesty could not ignore his involvement in murder, theft and arson.
      All present agreed to remain silent on these events. John Fletcher, however, thought it prudent for Lord Southhampton to sign a confession. “Is my word as a gentleman and Earl not enough?” Southhampton asked, before signing. The trio of writers agreed that, unfortunately, it was not enough. Fletcher quickly drew up an account of recent events and of Southhampton's place in them. The Lord reluctantly signed the document, and it was witnessed by Jonson and Fletcher.
      Lord Southhampton left without farewells or fanfare. He retired to his country estate and was afterward seen little in London or at court. Ben Jonson and John Fletcher returned to London and the world of pen, ink, paper, printing presses, players, and playhouses.
      William Shakespeare never returned to London, never wrote another poem or another play. He and wife, Anne, apparently made their peace. They prospered in Stratford, and their two daughters, Judith and Susanna, both married well and they, too prospered.
      William Shakespeare died three years later on April 21, 1616. It was his birthday. In his will, he remembered his friends and fellow players from the King's Men with generous amounts. And to his wife, he left his “second favorite bed.”

Charles West is a teacher and writer living in Fresno, CA. He has fiction and poetry for a variety of publications. His novel, The Sacred Disc, was published in 2000 by Salvo Press. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow in Shakespeare twice. He has written about Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Bulletin and for the Folger Shakespeare website. He has also been the Dramaturge for the Woodard Shakespeare Festival in Fresno and has acted in numerous Shakespeare plays.

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