When Will Shakespeare joined the troupe of players passing through Stratford, they were a man down and Will needed a way out. How could he say no?
He later learned he'd stepped into a dead man's shoes.
Literally, even. "Don't mind that bit of blood on the lining," the apparel master said cheerfully, helping Will into a doublet worth more than his father's house. "Poor Billy Knell was wearing it when he died, the idiot. What do I always say? Take off the priceless costume before you get yourself run through in a street brawl."
"Oh!" said Will, his skin crawling a bit now that he knew some of the things this doublet had seen. "Is that…a common fate amongst actors, would you say?"
"Maybe a bit more common for those in the Queen's service," said the man with a significant waggle of his brows.
Will only found out what he meant a few months later, when the troupe had reached London. He'd been summoned to a house in Shoreditch by one Emma Ball, a…landlady of the troupe's acquaintance, and Mlle Ball had shown him into a room where he found England's greatest living comic actor lying face-down in a puddle of his own sick.
"He's been in my house for three days," she said wearily. "Just get him home. I don't care how."
After Will had searched the neighborhood for a wheelbarrow, Mr Tarlton (for that was the comic actor's name) put an end to the need by waking up on his own, and Will got himself under the big fellow's arm so that they could teeter out into the street together.
Will guided them slowly and did his best to avoid Tarlton's breath. After a few blocks, the greatest comedian in their nation's history roused a bit and said, "You may as well leave me in that ditch over there."
"Are you joking?" said Will. "One can't just leave national treasures in ditches." He added, less flippantly, "Anyway, the boys would never forgive me. The Queen would never forgive me."
"Ha!" Tarlton hiccupped sadly. "That's more to the point. We are all the Queen's little chessmen—can't be too careless with ourselves."
"You're no chessman," said Will kindly. "And neither am I."
Tarlton halted, which perforce meant Will did too. "So they haven't got to you yet?" he said, staring at Will curiously. "Hmmph. I thought for certain they had…" He lurched them on their way again.
After another block, Will said softly, "What do you mean, 'got to me'?"
It was three o'clock in the morning. There was nobody in the street, and no lights in the windows. Yet Tarlton still stopped and looked around before speaking.
"Come, come, Will," he whispered. "Haven't you figured it out yet? The Queen's Men is chock full of spies. They'll make a play for you sooner or later. Anything shady in your past? Of course there is, everyone's got something. You won't be able to say no."
Will shuddered. There were a few things in his past, not to mention his father's. He'd never breathed a word about them, but that didn't mean a determined fellow couldn't find them out.
"Did…did you say no?"
"Oh, they didn't bother with me. I'm too fat, too valuable, and too talkative when I'm full of drink, which is usually. You don't have any of that to protect you."
Will deposited Tarlton in his bed. Within the fortnight, the poor fellow was back at Emma Ball's, attempting to drown his worries. A fortnight after that, he was dead.
Will looked for the signs and soon he found them. In London, no conversation between important men ever lacked an observer, usually some no-account fellow whom nobody would notice—like an actor, for instance. In the provinces, the matter made even more sense. Players, he realized, could go anywhere. They were as welcome in the houses of the rich (for a limited time, at least) as they were in the kitchens and stables. Amongst foreigners or in places where strangers mixed, they could pretend to be whoever they liked. The Queen and her ministers would be foolish not to employ actors as spies.
His call to service finally came when they were back in London—right in the middle of a performance of The Famous Victories of Henry V.
"Graghhhh," said Will, doubling over the impaling sword, which was in fact tucked safely between his arm and ribs. "Arrrrrgh." His knees hit the planks. He tipped forward onto his face. "Brrrrbbl."
Face-down on the stage, he came nose to nose with John Dutton, lead actor of the Queen's Men, who had been slain just before him. "Don't overdo it!" Dutton hissed through his teeth.
Will gave one last postmortem twitch.
Once he and Dutton had been dragged back into the tiring-house, divested of their bloody costumes and turned loose, Dutton slung an arm around his shoulders and said, "Will. We need to have a chat."
Here we go, thought Will grimly.
"Ah, Will," said Dutton as they walked. "Will, Will, Will."
Will swallowed. "That's me," he said, with a minute shrug.
"You've been a reliable fellow since we hired you," said Dutton as they strolled past the bear pens. "I won't lie, you're not exactly star material…but you're great at those 'Second Gentleman'-type roles. We've made something of you, and you've paid us back handsomely. To the glory of Her Majesty, long may she reign."
"I'm pleased you think so," said Will. He wished Dutton would get to the point.
The point was not what he'd been expecting.
"I hear you've been doing a bit of scribbling," said Dutton. "Is that right?"
Will paused in his steps. "Oh…nothing the Queen's Men would be interested in, Mr Dutton." That was because Pembroke's Men had already taken an interest.
Dutton's arm tightened. "No? Because my brother laid his hands on one of your plays and said it was rather good." Dutton nodded appraisingly. "Really quite extraordinarily good, in fact."
"I thank Mr Dutton for his compliments," said Will, growing colder. He wondered how the other Mr Dutton had seen it.
"Look here," said Dutton, stopping and turning to face Will. "I'll come clean: business has been lousy since we lost Tarlton, and we think you're the man to save us. Alleyn and Burbage have that fiend Marlowe writing play after play for the Admiral's Men, and, well—we want you to be our Marlowe. An Anti-Marlowe, if you will."
Will gaped. If there was one playwright in England who could be said to possess something like fame, it was Christopher Marlowe—Marlowe, whose genius wasn't even eclipsed by Edward Alleyn's spectacular scene-chewing when he spoke Marlowe's words. In the London theater, the actor was king, not the playwright—except for Marlowe. Will admired no-one more than him. Which was why he felt compelled to reply:
"Why not just hire Marlowe? He's got no special contract with the Admiral's Men, does he?"
"Because he's a bugger and an atheist," snapped Dutton, "that's why. And his plays are about buggers and atheists. They're outrageously popular, unfortunately."
Will raised an eyebrow. "And you…don't think those things might be related?"
"A play can be good and pious and still draw a crowd," Dutton insisted. "As you will demonstrate. We'd like you to write an oriental chronicle for us. To give that unholy Tamburlaine a run for its money. But something with a good Christian moral…the fall of King Cambyses, perhaps."
"Just to reiterate," said Will, frowning: "You want to compete with Tamburlaine, and you want me to write it."
"And you're going to build me up as another Marlowe, but better-behaved."
"That's the idea, yes."
"I hate to say it," Will sighed, "but I think we're all going to come out of this looking like fools, Mr Dutton."
"Because there's only one Marlowe, and only a fool would try to compete with him."
"Will," said Dutton, folding his arms, "do you know how much we pay for plays?"
Will shook his head.
"Five pounds. Which will get you five pounds closer to a share in the company, won't it?"
"So." Dutton smiled. "Shall we say The Excellent History of King Cambyses, then?"
Once he'd seen a few plays performed by the Admiral's Men, Will couldn't help noticing how tame his own company's were by comparison. God's annointed ruler always triumphed; order and proper lines of succession were always restored. Fortune's wheel never turned very far. But the stage in an Admiral's Men play ran with blood, and the very sky above Shoreditch seemed to fill with dark omens. The world changed in such a play. You could feel it changing under your feet.
He was too afraid to try and defect. But what freedom they seemed to have, without the leash of royal service around their necks. And the freest of all was Marlowe. Lore about him ran rampant; his alleged perversions both sexual and metaphysical were common knowledge all over London. Yet no consequences ever seemed to fall on him; he was celebrated even as he was condemned. He just…did as he pleased, by all accounts, while everyone else struggled to stay in line and still fell short.
Will had befriended another regular scribbler working for the Admiral's Men just to have eyes and ears inside—a Thomas Watson, who also happened to be Marlowe's roommate in Norton Folgate. He told himself he wasn't succumbing to the fashion of the times. After all, he did enjoy Watson's company. And Watson was an excellent hand with languages, something Will most emphatically wasn't.
The Excellent History of King Cambyses was not going well. Not least because it had turned into The Stately Tragedy of the Great Cham, who was a completely different fellow, though hailing from the same approximate part of the world. His story didn't tell quite the same moral tale as Cambyses' did. A bit of Marlowe's influence had crept in.
He'd recruited Watson one evening to translate a bit of Herodotus that he thought he could use. They'd repaired to the pub, the typical scene for these sorts of operations, and they'd ordered food and ale to help them work. Just as they were getting down to business:
Something seized Watson and shook him, knocking his collar askew. As he was huffing and straightening it, a man appeared from behind him.
"Well!" he said. "Your latest victim, I presume? Who's this reluctant Ganymede putting up with your foul breath and clumsy pawing just to get a bit of help with his letters, then?"
Will's mouth hung open. Not in outrage; not because he and Watson had just been insulted, but because—well, if anyone deserved to be called "Ganymede," it was this fellow. His ruddy, heart-shaped face grew a bit of straw-colored fuzz about the chin, and wisps of straw-colored hair wreathed his head. He had a maid's red lips and a crafty councilor's keen grey eyes. Eyes that fixed on Will and seemed to be taking inventory of him inside and out. Will had an uneasy feeling that they could see everything—the mendings on his threadbare doublet, the unstarched collar, the self-doubt, the fear for the future—all of the shabby details that presently added up to "Will Shakespeare." The man's own velvet doublet announced him as someone of substance. And the hungry cunning behind his youthful beauty announced him as trouble, one way or the other.
"Sweet Jhesu." Watson grabbed the man's arm and pulled him down into a seat. "You're going to get us both in trouble some day. Mr Marlowe, allow me to present Mr Will Shakespeare, whose indulgence I really must beg."
Will started violently. "You're—you're Marlowe?"
Marlowe, alarmed that his impolite scrutiny had been turned back upon him, said, "What's it to ye, if I might ask?"
"Oh—nothing except—" Will laughed. "I'm a tremendous fan of your plays."
"Ah." Marlowe smiled thinly, as if he'd grown bored with this particular compliment.
"And of your translations," Will added quickly. "Though your Helenae Raptus was beautiful more on account of your own poetic skill than of the author's, I think."
"Yes, well," said Marlowe, glancing about disinterestedly, "Coluthus was something of a hack. As are most of us." He laughed unpleasantly. "Hacks translating hacks. Isn't that right, Watson? Still working on those silly madrigals, are you?"
Watson sighed again and turned to Will with a look of earnest apology. "Mr Marlowe, as you can see, is more than a bit drunk. Please forgive him."
But Will wasn't listening. Now that the sun of Marlowe's attention had left him, he wanted it back, despite its disconcerting heat. "Perhaps you'd tell me how you're finding Lucan? I'm told you're having a go."
Marlowe, who had huddled forward on his arms, looked sharply up at Will. "Aren't you meant to be some manner of actor?" he said. "When the devil do you have time for all these books?"
"Oh, well…" Will smiled shyly. "I don't sleep very much." He took a breath to give himself courage. "I've even started writing a bit myself," he admitted.
Marlowe hiccupped an incredulous laugh. "Writing, eh?" He turned and slapped Watson on the back. "Hear that? This young fellow has started writing." He drew himself up so that he could loom over Will. "Do you know, young Will Shakespeare, what literally every man in this town does? He bloody writes!"
Will shrank back. "I'm not saying I'm much good yet…"
"Well that's a relief," Marlowe ranted on, "because the streets are fairly littered with learned men trying to write their way out of their university debts! Good, clever men, who can read Greek and even Hebrew, living on top of each other and sharing a stump of tallow to finish some trashy play about shepherds rutting, since that's all anyone'll pay for these days! And then along comes some actor from the sticks who's read a line or two of Ovid at the bellows of his father's forge and thinks he can compete!"
Will had never been a timid man, exactly. But he'd survived by being an inconspicuous one. Maybe a spirit possessed him at that moment. Or maybe he'd simply been talked down to by enough men in velvet doublets with university degrees, and Marlowe was one too many.
"You know," he said, a nasty note creeping into his voice, "it's not all about Latin tags and clever allusions on the stage. Nobody at a theater gives a damn about that. You're right, I've never read a word of Greek—but do you know where an actor can go? Anywhere. You know what sorts of houses he can creep into, what sorts of conversations he can overhear?" Marlowe got a peculiar look on his face at this, and something like respect crept into his eyes. "Now," Will concluded, "which do you think is more useful in writing for the stage: to have been inside the closets of the powerful and seen into the hearts of men rich and poor, or to have memorized a few hexameters? My letters may not be much, Mr Marlowe, but I reckon I've seen a fairer bit more of life than you have, all shut up in your university."
Marlowe's grin was sinister. He peeled a bit of chicken off a bone on Watson's plate and chewed it slowly before saying, "Is that what you think? Do you truly believe that you, Mr Will Shakespeare, are a greater scholar of life than I am?"
Will affected a careless shrug, even as his heart pounded and his cheeks blazed. "The kind of life that matters on the stage, at least."
Marlowe shot to his feet. "Right then," he said. "Come with me, and let's see how much life you really know."
Out in the street, Will trailed after Marlowe, jogging to keep up. Somewhere behind him, his fear and deference had burned away, and he was left with nothing but boldness and power, as if he'd entered into a dream where nothing could hurt him. But he hadn't, not really, and his residual sense of caution pressed him to ask: "Was this your way of challenging me to fight, Mr Marlowe?"
"Oh no," Marlowe called back without turning. "No, no. Though perhaps we'll cover that later. For now, I've got other subjects to examine you on, o alleged doctor of living." He stopped at the corner of Canwick Street. "And I know just the place to start."
Will was well-equipped for the first part of Marlowe's exam; he had spent many hours in the aisles of St Paul's, just eavesdropping. As any aspiring writer would.
"Name that one over there," said Marlowe.
"I think that's John Hatton," said Will. "Under-under-secretary of something-something, in Lord Burghley's service. Likely to know all the foreign war gossip, which is undoubtedly what that fellow to his left is asking him about right now."
"Debney, I think. Recently kicked out of court. But his brother's been fighting in the Low Countries for the last three years."
"Not bad, not bad," murmured Marlowe, walking ahead.
"Just a minute," said Will. "Can you even verify any of this?"
"Of course! I wouldn't ask you questions I didn't know the answers to." He straightened his hat. "All right, let's go over to the Royal Exchange and you can name all the silks and spices."
Back near Bishopsgate, in the so-called "London Rialto," they took up a perch just upwind of the smoke from a glass-house.
"I'm pretty sure you don't know Italian," said Marlowe, "whereas I do. Now watch those fetching young people over there and tell me what they're arguing about."
Will squinted at a man and a woman standing just inside an alley. Both were under twenty, and both were handsomely dressed—though the girl much more modishly, in fabrics too oriental for the English taste. She was a merchant's child, he reckoned, whereas the boy was the son of an artisan—a glass-blower, probably, given the neighborhood. He watched them chatter quickly at each other, standing close, their hands on their hips or waving about.
"They have an arrangement," he said at last. "Or the boy thinks they do. The girl is more realistic—she probably realizes her father isn't going to go for it, and she's trying to make the boy see sense. The boy is all stupid courage, though—he's thinking, we're in England, the customs are freer here, what's there to worry about? But the girl isn't convinced. She's trying not to hurt him but she also hopes to get them both out of this muddle before it stains their reputations."'
Marlowe looked at him with approval. "Pretty close," he said. "Now, for the full set of points: have they done it yet?"
Will studied them again—the way they held their bodies toward each other and gazed frankly into each other's faces. "I'd say yes," he concluded. "In fact, that's why the girl is putting up with this at all. She knows she's been a bit foolish and this could blow up in her face. Also she loves him, more to the point. But women understand the limits of courage better than men. She'll talk him out of it, at least for a while. Then he'll spend a few weeks dreaming of her eyes and writing poems until he's worked up enough to try again."
Marlowe watched him with amusement. "Such a romantic!" he said. "Haven't you ever written a poem about someone's eyes?"
"Oh, several," said Will. "And look where it got me."
The sun was starting to set as they walked through Cheapside.
"Time for the practical," said Marlowe. "First: quickest way from here to Chancery Lane if you're trying to avoid the watch."
It may not have been the quickest way, but Will got them there. He didn't know this part of London as well as Shoreditch and Bishopsgate, but one of the first things he'd done when the Queen's Men had ended their provincial tour was learn most of London by heart.
This part of the city was the haunt of lawyers and law students. Near Lincoln's Inn, they stopped in front of a livery stable.
"Now," said Marlowe. "There's a horse inside there, a big gray mare at the end of the row. I want you to steal her."
"W-what?" Will shook his head. "We could be hanged!"
"No," said Marlowe, "you could be hanged."
Will ignored the implication. "And what will we do once we've got her?"
"Oh, just turn her loose for the ostlers to catch. I only want to see if you can get her out." Marlowe folded his arms. "Well? Are you chickening out?"
"I'll do it," said Will, clenching his jaw.
Will had grown up in the country, where "borrowing" horses for a joyride and poaching game on the local gentleman's lands were a primary form of teenage entertainment. Getting the horse out of the stable wasn't the problem. It was getting off the horse and out of sight once the neighborhood had been roused by the cries for help that was the problem.
Will slipped off the mare's back as she thundered up the lane and took refuge in a little lean-to shed. A moment later, a mob of ostlers, servants and apprentices ran past, shouting her name. When they'd gone, Will peeked outside and spotted the red plume of Marlowe's hat sticking out of another shed on the opposite side of the street.
Will hurried across the street and crammed himself into Marlowe's hidey-hole. "Well," he said, breathing hard. "I assume you saw that, or did I just risk my neck for nothing?"
"Oh, I saw," said Marlowe. "I must say, I'm impressed—both by your ability to rustle livestock, and your willingness to risk your life for a bet. Which isn't even a proper bet, by the way." He crowded up against Will in the close, dark space. "Why are you doing this, again?" He sounded thoroughly delighted. "Is there anything I could ask you to do that you'd refuse?"
No, Will didn't say. I desperately want you to approve of me, because you're the greatest living writer in England, and if you decide I'm of no consequence, I'll have let down the honor of actors everywhere. Also, I feel more alive in your presence than I ever have in all my twenty-five years on Earth.
What he said instead was, "I'd better not answer that, had I?"
Marlowe shrugged. "A shrewd and politic answer." He chewed contemplatively on his lip. "One last task, then, and we'll call it a pass."
As they walked up Chancery Lane, Will said, "They want us to be rivals, you know."
Marlowe snorted. "So I've heard. They told me all about the young fellow the Queen's Men are grooming to be the new me."
Will scowled. "So you already knew who I was."
"I didn't want to tip my hand!" Marlowe laughed. "But Shakespeare—" He fixed Will with an earnest look. "We don't have to do their bidding. We're writers—our loyalty's to each other, not to them."
"I don't want to get on the wrong side of them."
"You don't have to. But you don't have to dance to their tune either. Remember, as long as you hold the pen, you get the last laugh."
Night had fallen when they stopped at Gray's Inn. At a side gate, Marlowe hissed into the dark. "We're here for his lordship!"
A few seconds later, the door creaked open and a man crept out. He held up a candle to Marlowe's face and then to Will's.
"I know you, Marlowe, but who's this one?"
"Oh, nobody," said Marlowe. "An actor with one of the playing companies. His word's of no account to anyone."
"Good. That's how his lordship prefers it."
"Is his lordship receiving tonight?"
"I think so. Wait here a mo, and I'll tell him you're here."
When the man left, Will grabbed Marlowe's arm. "Marlowe, what are we doing here? Who is 'his lordship'?"
"You'll find out," Marlowe grinned. "Unless you want to throw in the towel?"
Will frowned. The stunt with the horse had been perilous indeed, and Marlowe hadn't seemed to care. Will certainly couldn't trust him now not to be leading them into something even more dangerous. But he'd committed himself.
The man with the candle returned. "Follow me, Marlowe."
They trailed after the candle. "So," said Marlowe as they crept through the dark passage. "What sort of humor is his lordship in this evening?"
"Hard to say," said the man. "But he's been melancholy all week. He's being pressed to marry soon, and as you can imagine, he's not so keen. Perhaps you and your friend can cheer him up."
They were led into a small chamber, richly furnished and lit with no more than the fire on the large, ornate hearth. Next to it, with his feet tucked up beneath him, sat a beautiful boy of fifteen or sixteen years old.
"Ah, Marlowe," he said, looking up. His manhood was far enough advanced for his voice to have dropped, but his cheek was smooth, and gold ringlets fell to his shoulders. He looked like the picture Will imagined when he read Ovid's description of Narcissus.
He also looked like actual pictures of the Earl of Southampton, a young ward of the Crown who was reckoned to be the comeliest youth to grace the Court in a generation. More poems had been dedicated to him than Will could count.
Will and Marlowe both doffed their hats. The boy extended his hand for Marlowe to kiss. "My lord," he said. Will followed his lead and bowed low. "Allow me to present Will Shakspeare, an actor of the Queen's Men."
"An actor, is he?" The boy laughed, high and musical. "Oh, shall he perform for us?"
Marlowe turned to Will; he realized he was expected to reply. "I am pleased to perform whatever parts would make his lordship merry," said Will.
"Do you know any poems, Shakespeare? I should like to hear a Latin poem first, I think. About love—or perhaps about birds. Do you know any Latin poems about birds, Shakespeare?"
"He is a simple player," Marlowe interjected. "Latin might not be quite his thing…"
"Well, my lord," said Will, "I know a few Latin verses about love and birds, as it happens."
He began to recite Catullus' song beginning "Passer, deliciae meae puellae"—Sparrow, darling of my girl, with whom she is wont to play and to hold in her lap—
"Oh, I know this one!" said the little earl, clapping with delight. When Will had finished, he said, "Now the next one—the one in which the sparrow dies."
"Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque," Will began, "et quantum est hominum venustiorum: passer mortuus est meae puellae…"
The earl clapped when Will finished—taking more pleasure in the death of a small animal than Will thought was appropriate, but such was youth. "Why, he speaks the Latin better than you do, Marlowe!" the earl said.
Marlowe scowled. "Perhaps his lordship would like to hear a speech from a recent play?"
"Oh no," said the earl. "It's been a wretched week and I'm all tied up in knots. Enough poetry for now. Marlowe, kiss him, if you please, there's a good fellow."
In a heartbeat, Will realized why they were there—not to recite poetry for a sixteen-year-old boy, but to give him things he couldn't admit to needing, not when he was likely promised to some duke's daughter.
As Marlowe turned to him, that same light feeling stole over him that he'd got outside the pub, and on the back of the gray mare—a sensation of freedom and power. Like stepping into a role, except one that didn't stop at the edge of the stage, for which no-one had written any lines in advance. Marlowe's red lips drew very close. Will parted his and received them.
Marlowe made a small noise of surprise, as if he hadn't expected Will to acquiesce so quickly. Was this what Marlowe considered "knowing about life"? This Will could do. Marlowe had been dragging him about all day like a nanny-goat on a lead, putting him through one test after another; it was time for Marlowe to be the wrong-footed one. Will pulled Marlowe's hips closer and slotted their mouths together, turning the kiss messy and lewd. The earl sighed in pleasure, and Will heard the rustle of fabric. His cheeks glowed and his skin prickled with the strange delight of being watched.
But the earl didn't allow their attention to wander from him for long. The earl, it turned out, wanted not to use men, but to be used, though with all care and affection—and so Will and Marlowe carried him to his bed chamber and gently stripped the silk hose and brocade doublet from his slender body. For all of his power and influence he was, in fact, just a lonely teenager, and his body was as smooth and lovely as a girl's. Marlowe laid on the side of the bed and fed the boy his prick while Will covered his smooth white belly and flanks with kisses, then sucked on his rosy prick and balls. As Marlowe panted and roared and spent himself, Will ground his own stiff prick against the heal of his hand as he sucked on the earl's sweet little fuzzy stones. Then the earl rolled over and begged to be stuffed full of cock, and Will couldn't help but oblige. Lightheaded, flushed and dazed, swaying on his knees, he took down his hose and wondered if he wasn't dreaming after all.
Marlowe's eyes burned into Will's back as he crouched over the earl, sweating and pumping away. It was those eyes, he thought, that were turning his prick to iron, however perfect and beautiful the boy was. Beneath him, the earl moaned into the bed clothes, so pleased to be serviced by a couple of learned brutes. A rough sword-hand and a bit of Latin, that was what he wanted. Will seized his hips and fucked him hard enough to make the boy come, twitching and crying. Then Will spent himself in the boy's tender hole.
"Sweet holy Hell," said Marlowe as the three of them lay dazed and sweaty on the bed, their hair in each other's faces.
"Such a blasphemer you are," the earl said missishly. "You'll be done for irreligion one of these days."
Will giggled. Of all the blasphemies of the last hour to point out…
"So long as there are boys in Hell," said Marlowe.
The earl sighed. "Right then." He sat up. "I'll sleep now. Out with you."
Back out on the street, the night had grown colder, and Will shivered as they jogged from doorway to doorway, not just from the cold, but from the strange energy that made his chest want to burst. Beside him, Marlowe vibrated with the same energy. Will wanted to hold him and crawl inside his clothes. They didn't say a word, just clutched each other's hands and darted through the dark streets. We are gods, Will thought.
After untold hours, Marlowe halted at Bishopsgate Street, his breath making infernal plumes. "We can't go to my chambers," he whispered. "Watson'll be there. Where do you lie?"
When they burst into Will's little room, it was almost dawn. They tumbled inside, breathing heavily and laughing, and as soon as Will had shut the door Marlowe flung him against a wall and kissed him, licking inside his mouth to taste what they'd done, hands burrowing under his clothes. Seams tore as they struggled to undress.
Naked and twined together on the bed, hot skin sliding against hot skin, Will said, "Did I pass your exam, then?"
Marlowe paused his thrusting hips. "I award you my highest degree," he muttered, "in artibus nefariis paedicantibusque magister, or if you prefer, master of thievery, buggery and brazenness. Satisfied?" Then he dove forward to bury his prickly face against Will's neck, sucking and kissing until Will moaned.
In the morning, Will woke alone in his bed. He stretched until his joints popped one by one, his body humming with satisfaction. What an utter idiot he had been—and how little he minded it. He could die that moment and not give a damn. Once he'd dressed and stumbled down to the pub for a bite to eat, he returned to his room and took up his pen. At last, at last, he knew what to write next. He could see the bloody Marlovian panorama of his oriental play unfold. Dutton wouldn't like it, but Dutton would just have to live with it.
Shuffling the papers around on his desk, Will looked for his manuscript and couldn't find it. With growing alarm, he searched the rest of the room. At half past two, he admitted the truth: it was gone. He sank to the floor and stared sightlessly between his knees. Marlowe.
Will didn't want to believe it. He only did believe it when the Admiral's Men put up a new play a few weeks later called The Lamentable Tragedy of the Great Cham. By then, Will had lost years off his life writing a new Cambyses play, working round the clock in order to deliver it to Dutton in time. It was an embarrassing exhibit of moralizing doggerel, but nobody noticed or cared. Nobody except Marlowe, presumably. And Will did his best not to think too much about Marlowe. Meanwhile, the Queen's Men had their home-grown Marlowe and Will's self-respect had sunk to an all-time low.
He heard about the business by accident, just picking gossip out of the air as he passed through Hog Lane. There'd been a fight the day before. One man was dead and two learned rascals were taken off to Newgate.
Will hadn't yet recovered. He was still a wreck from the hours he'd spent finishing that shitty play, and his heart still ached from the number Marlowe had done on it. He didn't want to care. But some intuition insisted against all the evidence that Marlowe was not his enemy.
He went to Newgate.
Marlowe was in a shocking state. His eyes were hollow and his hair was lank, and as he paced back and forth in his cell, he reminded Will of one of those poor exotic beasts in cages in the Royal Exchange, staring and murderous and pathetic.
"What happened?" Will said, aghast. "Are you cutting men down in the street now?"
Marlowe's laugh was a little unhinged. "It was Watson who struck the fatal blow, heaven help him. But I started the fight."
"I know!" Marlowe rubbed his arms as if he were cold. "You'd never think it to look at him, would you? That limp old coot?" He let out another crazed giggle. "I guess we're all full of surprises."
"Marlowe," said Will, "what's happened to you?"
"Why all the concern?" Marlowe shouted, grabbing the bars. "Why are you here, Shakespeare? Don't you know we're rivals now? Didn't you notice that time I thoroughly screwed you?" He lowered his voice to keep it from the warden's ears, at least. "Literally, I hasten to add?"
"I noticed," said Will. "But I never consented to that rivalry. I can't pretend to understand why you did, but the fact is that I don't accept it."
"You're a fucking idiot," said Marlowe savagely.
Will shrugged. It hurt, and he still didn't understand why Marlowe hated him so, but Marlowe had given him something that night that even Marlowe himself couldn't take away. "What are we going to do with you?" he asked.
"You are going to leave me here," said Marlowe.
"I'm not. Now who do you think is likely to put up a surety for you?"
For a moment, Marlowe looked scared. His eyes darted around until he picked something out of the air: "Henslowe. He needs a play from me, and he'll know where to get forty pounds."
Philip Henslowe was an impresario with the biggest purse in the London theater, as well as a tendency to bind actors and writers into his debt when they were at their lowest. "How about your friends at Durham House," Will suggested, thinking of the wealthy scholars of the Ralegh circle that Marlowe was said to be friendly with. "They're all made of money, aren't they?"
Marlowe was shaking his head. "Look, it's Henslowe or nothing. At least he'll only demand I write him more plays to make up the debt." He rubbed his bloodshot eyes. "Go do it quick. The fewer who hear about this, the better. Oh, and see if he'll do something for Watson too, would you? He took a nasty wound to the leg."
Will nodded and turned to go.
"Shakespeare!" Marlowe called.
"I hope you don't think I'm going to call off our feud for this."
"We don't have a feud," Will reminded him.
"Don't we? Men say otherwise."
Will clasped the bars. "I don't know you as well as I'd like, Marlowe, but you don't seem like a man who lets other men tell him what he's about."
Marlowe smiled weakly, exhausted and sad. "No, I don't suppose I do." He sighed. "Now run along and get that surety before I catch typhus in here or die of boredom."
Will nodded again.
"Oh, and Shakespeare?"
"You're a better chap than you ought to be."
Marlowe turned his back to him. "But the next thing I say will be an insult, so get lost unless you want to hear it."
Will ran off, still smiling.
And that was how Will forgave the man who'd betrayed him for no reason, who never apologized, and who didn't ask to be forgiven. All because Will's heart told him that Marlowe had had his reasons, and that if Will knew them, he'd sympathize. Marlowe was a man who played with fire and whose frequent troubles tended to get his friends burnt as well. He drank himself half to death and shouted irreligion in the streets and picked fights over small debts and generally acted like he was trying to die early; and in Will's experience, men didn't act that way unless they were backed against a wall. Once, he'd taken Marlowe's wildness for freedom; now, he saw it for what it was.
Will's friend Tom Kyd added another piece to the puzzle one evening: Marlowe, he explained, was perpetually in debt all over town.
"But how is he not buried under lawsuits?" Will asked.
"Nobody knows," said Kyd. "He's got some mysterious interest in government. He runs up prodigious tabs with everyone, and then every so often they just…disappear."
"But who pays them?"
"Nobody knows. The boys reckon he's somebody's bastard son. Personally I think he buggered someone and now he's holding it over their head."
"That sounds…dangerous." Will rubbed his neck, face warming with a sudden memory. He didn't think Marlowe was playing that game with the Earl of Southampton; men of their sort didn't play games like that and win. And Marlowe, velvet doublet or no velvet doublet, was definitely of Will's sort. In more ways than one.
The worry he felt was all for Marlowe and not for himself, although he now realized the kind of danger he was in. He'd spent years building up a decent reputation, as much as an actor could expect—and Marlowe could bring the whole thing crashing down in an instant. He didn't even need malicious intent to do it—he could ruin Will with an accidental word. Marlowe was like a man who'd filled his pockets with gunpowder: you didn't want to stand too close.
"He's outrageously good for business though," Kyd said. "Each new play of his sells through the roof. Probably because they're full of black devils who go unpunished and do what the rest of us wouldn't dare. Henslowe would play them every day of the week if he could."
"A regular cash cow, isn't he," Will murmured. And for the Queen's Men as well, if Will's trumped-up rivalry with him was doing as much for their coffers as Dutton claimed. Marlowe even made money for his competitors, it seemed. But something was burning through Marlowe from the inside and nobody but Will seemed to care.
That summer, the Queen's Men performed a burlesque in which two clowns named Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe chased each other around the stage, pantsed each other, and then had a fencing contest. After they'd resorted to fisticuffs, a boy dressed as Athena came on stage to adjudicate their quarrel, and called upon the audience to cheer for the better playwright.
Both playwrights got universal booing. "Hang 'em both!" someone shouted, and Will thought he recognized one of Marlowe's Cambridge pals from the pub, though he was doing his best to blend in with the other rabble. Then "Marlowe" and "Shakespeare" went back to their comical roughhousing while Athena gave up in despair.
Will didn't have a role in the play, so he watched from the yard. Halfway through, Marlowe came up and stood next to him.
The crowd roared at another poorly written joke.
"Just look at that berk they got to play me," said Marlowe. "Could he be any uglier?"
"I was just thinking it's a remarkably good likeness," Will answered. "He's even got your not-quite-there beard." They watched another few minutes in silence. "Besides," Will continued, "at least you're not an actor who works for this company and so it makes sense that you're not playing yourself."
Marlowe snorted. "Would you really want to be up there, doing that?"
"Well, no." Will huffed. "That's not the point."
Another few minutes of hijinks went by.
"I do think he looks a lot like you, though," Will added.
"My balls are bigger. You can tell because his are right fucking out there."
"Well." Will smiled. "It can't be perfect." He studied the man closer. "He's as close as you could reasonably expect, though. In fact they must have hired him for this role alone, because I don't think I've ever seen him before."
Marlowe made a sound of disinterested acknowledgement.
Athena threw in the towel, the rival playwrights knocked each other down, and the stage-hands dragged their bodies from the stage.
"So, in light of this literal farce that's been made of our lives," said Marlowe, uncharacteristically hesitant, "I don't suppose you'd be willing to give things another go?"
Will's face grew warm. He smiled and turned to Marlowe, who stubbornly avoided his eyes. "Oh come on," said Will. "What do you think?"
That fall, Will shocked the London theater world by leaving the Queen's Men and defecting to Lord Strange's Men, who shared Henslowe's Rose Theatre with Marlowe's company. Actually, nobody much noticed. Actors shuffled around all the time, and Will's fame rested mainly on his brief turn as an artificial rival for the great, inimitable Marlowe. And it didn't even bother him, because he'd begun writing different sorts of things, things that bore little resemblance to his embarrassing Queen's Men repertoire.
The first was about an Italian swindler who tricked a rich shrew into marrying him.
When Marlowe saw it, he expressed grudging admiration. But later, he reversed his judgment.
"Your comedies are so nice," he said with disgust, as they sat together in a corner of the Cross Keys Inn. He waved an arm at the room. "Don't you hate all these people? Don't you want to write a really nasty play that holds the mirror up and shows them their own pimply trivialities?"
"I don't hate anyone," Will shrugged.
"Really?" Marlowe narrowed his eyes. "I don't believe you."
"I really don't."
Marlowe contemplated him, then shook his head. "I don't trust a man who doesn't claim to hate at least one person," he decided. "Because he's clearly lying, and he wants the moral high ground too. Nobody's that forgiving."
"It's not forgiveness," said Will. "I'm not—a good person, I just—" Understand people, he almost said. That was his curse—he knew why people did things. When you saw into someone's heart, you could resent them but it was pretty hard to hate them.
"You're a fence-sitter, then," said Marlowe. "One of these 'only God can judge' chaps. That's all well and good if you're writing a play, you know, but in life, the case must be decided."
The room cleared out, and for the moment they were alone. So Will leaned over and kissed Marlowe, softly, just a few-seconds' press. When he pulled back, Marlowe had that haunted look he'd had when Will had visited him in Newgate: the look of a trapped man running through his options.
"What's the matter, Kit?" Will asked.
"Nothing." Marlowe looked away.
As the evening advanced, the crowd grew, and Marlowe's circle of rowdy admirers descended. Not just the Cambridge toffs, but the shady scientists, the suspicious priests, and the foreigners with strange opinions who shouted dangerous ideas and goaded Marlowe into doing the same.
"Let's get out of here," said Will.
But Marlowe's friends protested. Finally, Marlowe said, "We're going."
"You're not," said a fellow—one of the new hangers-on who'd appeared in recent months. Name of Poley, Will thought.
Marlowe scowled. "All right, then, we'll do this the hard way." He stood up, roared, and tossed over a heavy oak table.
The landlady appeared in the doorway. "Somebody get that sodomite out of here!" she shrieked.
"Yep, going!" Marlowe gave Poley a brisk grin and slung his arm around Will's shoulders.
Outside, Will shrugged out from under Marlowe's arm. "I don't understand you at all," he said, without smiling. "You play this ridiculous role—"
"No more ridiculous than your worst!"
"—shouting that God's a lie and the universe is nothing but atoms, and getting into fights at the drop of a hat. And the damnedest thing is, nobody even buys it! Everyone knows it's an act, but they play along anyway!"
"Yes…" Marlowe stroked his chin. "It's a bit like this other scenario you and I are both familiar with…I wonder what that could be…"
"That's different," said Will. "Plays are entertainment."
"Do you not find me entertaining?"
"Of course I do. But you're not a character in a play. You're not a Vice; you're a man."
"Oh Will." Marlowe shook his head. "You really are the sweetest, most innocent thing."
"I'm not sweet. Or innocent." He thought of the life in Stratford he'd fled. "I've done things—well, you probably wouldn't even believe me if I told you. But I knew what I was doing, and I did them for reasons that made sense. You—I don't get why you're doing this!"
"Oh really." Marlowe chuckled. "Allow me a bit of mystery, won't you?" He turned to Will with a pleading look. "Will, you're the only one left with a shred of respect for me. If I spill all my secrets, I won't even have that."
Will studied Marlowe's pleading eyes with uneasy pity. The man couldn't even do "earnest" without faking it—without contorting his face into a mask that screamed, Please believe me. That didn't mean it wasn't true, of course. That was the problem with Marlowe—he even told the truth as if he were lying.
Marlowe ducked them both into an alley and pressed Will up against the bricks to give him a deep, searching kiss, framing his face with his hands. When he pulled back, he said, "I'm leaving soon. Bit of business out of town. Won't be long."
He was gone for three months.
When Marlowe came back, he had two black eyes and a number of marks on his face that suggested not one beating but several.
Will yelped in distress and let him into his room. As Marlowe lay on his bed with a wet rag pressed to his eye, he said, "I think they knocked a few teeth out too."
"Kit," said Will, "they say you were arrested. In Flushing."
Marlowe gave a shrug and a limp flap of his hand, as if to say, As you can see.
"They also say you were set free, when the others with you weren't."
Another shrug, meaning: And?
"Look, just tell me yes or no: are you spying for the Crown?"
Will's heart sank. "I'll take that as a yes."
"Oh, don't sound so depressed," said Marlowe, slurring his words. "They pay good money—more than I ever got for those plays."
"And all you have to do is act like a lunatic and an atheist so that the seditious types will speak freely around you."
Marlowe's scowl darkened. "Who says it's an act?" He sat up. "Will, has it ever occurred to you that your hero-worship—admittedly flattering though it is—might have led you to misjudge me a bit?"
"No," said Will. To Marlowe's sneer, he added, "I'm a very good judge of character, actually. You might say it's my one and only true skill."
Marlowe laid back down and settled grumpily. "Well, that and a sublime and effortless command of the English language. But we won't haggle over details."
"You're very sweet." Will sighed. "Kit—the point is, act or no, the way you're carrying on is going to kill you. If they're forcing you to be this way—"
"They're not!" Marlowe snarled, then winced and clutched his jaw. "This is just how I am," he said more softly, "and they found a way to use it."
"Then don't let them! Find another way to be!"
"Will," said Marlowe, and Will couldn't help but look at him then, at the pain and weariness he could hear in his voice. "I can't."
Will got it now. What had seemed like such enviable freedom to him once now revealed itself as quite the opposite. Will had learned as much from Marlowe's own plays: to be damned, a man need only believe he was damned, and the rest would play out like the steady winding down of a clock.
A year passed. There were more fights, more poems, and more plays. And with each new success, Will heard the word "atheist" attached more and more frequently to the name "Marlowe." Combined with the fact that Marlowe would often disappear for weeks at a time, Will had the feeling that a noose was drawing tight.
"Nonsense," Marlowe said. "I've got everything completely under control."
"I really don't think you do," said Will.
Marlowe held his face and kissed him. "Sir Tom will take care of me. I'm going to stay with him for a while, I think."
"Sir Tom" was Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe's newest patron, and cousin to the Queen's late spymaster. Marlowe would never hear a word against him. Will was less sure.
In May, the noose snapped tight.
Marlowe received a summons to appear before the Privy Council, to defend himself against charges of blasphemy and atheism.
Marlowe laughed at it.
"Take this seriously!" said Will.
"Why should I? They'll let me off. Remember when I came back from Flushing? They let me off then too—because I've always been their loyal and faithful servant." These last words came out in a desperate snarl. "They'll save me again this time too, won't they?" he cried. He shook his head. "Of course they will. They'll come out looking bad if they don't. The things I could say—"
"But Kit," said Will patiently, "the Privy Council—this is where the right and the left hand meet. And the right hand doesn't know what the left hand's been doing."
The naked look of fear only stayed on Marlowe's face for the briefest of moments. Then he smiled, or grimaced rather, and squared his shoulders. "I need to go see Sir Tom," he declared. "He'll know what to do."
Ten days later, on the first of June, Christopher Marlowe was pronounced dead by a royal inquest—which also declared that Ingram Frizer, a man of little account in the service of Sir Thomas Walsingham, had killed him in self-defense. Marlowe was buried the same day at St Nicholas's in Deptford, with a handful of mourners in attendance, and the grave was not marked.
But wait: let us go back.
With Marlowe gone off to Walsingham's estate, Will stayed behind, anxious and lonely. So he took to sleeping in Marlowe's rooms in Shoreditch. Occupying Marlowe's place, as it were, made it feel like he hadn't really left.
One night, Will jerked awake for no reason he could tell. Then a body crashed through the dark. As he scrambled away, steel pierced the pillow beside his head.
He fumbled for his dagger where he'd laid it under the bed. Struggling against the body bearing down on him, he thrust the dagger up and felt the warm spray of blood on his face before the body turned to dead weight on top of him.
Shaking, his limbs weak with shock, he rolled the man onto his back and pulled open the curtains to let in the moonlight.
For a horrible second, he thought the man was Marlowe. Then he looked closer. "Good heavens," he murmured. "That really is the damnedest likeness."
His assassin was Tom Cady, who'd played Marlowe in that ridiculous burlesque.
Will hadn't hidden a lot of bodies in his day, but his mind was capable of shockingly unsentimental calculations when it needed to be. Within the hour, he was looking for a horse to carry him to Marlowe, feeling every second that passed.
Thomas Walsingham's estate was all the way out in Chistlehurst, in Kent. When he arrived, neither Marlowe nor Walsingham was there, and his dread deepened. Another gentleman was present, though, the servants told him. A very important gentleman, who was asking to speak to him.
Will stepped into the chamber, hat off and head bowed. Then the man turned around, and Will recognized Lord Burghley, the Lord High Treasurer and the Queen's Secretary of State.
Will's mouth went dry.
"Ah," said Burghley. "You're that playwright, aren't you. Marlowe's friend."
"Yes, my lord," said Will, clearing his throat. "I'm Shakespeare."
"I hear you've just arrived in a hurry, so perhaps you have some news?"
Will knew exactly what news Burghley expected. He looked at Burghley standing there in his velvet cloak, so untroubled by the little lives he held in his hand—and he couldn't keep quiet. "You're expecting me to tell you he's dead, aren't you?"
"Well? Is he?"
"No," said Will, with growing anger, "he's not. And I'd like to know—" he could tell from Burghley's face that his impudence was passing acceptable limits— "why his former masters, whom he served so faithfully, are so determined to be rid of him now. If you please. My lord." He dropped his eyes to the floor.
"The reason," said Burghley after a long moment, "is very simple, Mr Shakespeare, and you have probably deduced it already: what Mr Marlowe will say when he is questioned by the Privy Councilors is likely to disrupt the operations of the state. That is all I can reasonably say." When Will opened his mouth to reply, Burghley waved an impatient hand. "I tell you this because I think perhaps you can help me. You see, your friend Marlowe has become something of a problem for me, and if possible, I would like to find a novel solution."
Will nodded, shaking.
"Allow me to put it in terms more congenial to your profession," Burghley went on. "You might say that, when faced with this kind of problem, men such as myself are endowed with a limited number of plots—or at least a limited number of endings. And most of them are of the tedious tragic kind, with the stage littered in bodies, et cetera. But what are one's options, really? Once you've accused the king's brother of murder, or what have you, how else can the play end?" His small, shrewd eyes regarded Will calmly. "Do you see my dilemma?"
Will took a deep breath. That curious feeling was welling in him again, that feeling of lightness and power. "I think I do, my lord. And I think I can help. You see, I've got a problem as well…"
The coronor recorded the testimonies of several men identifying the corpse as Marlowe—which was remarkable, given the state of the dead man's face. Marlowe's clothes at least were distinctive—particularly that velvet doublet he'd been so proud of, that had designated him so far above his station. Besides, the men said, they'd been with Marlowe continuously for nearly a day, and they could explain in detail how he'd died.
This story, too, showed signs of another authorial hand.
Months earlier, as he and Marlowe had lain together in bed, Will rested his chin on Marlowe's shoulder and asked:
"If you could write your own death scene, how would it go?"
Marlowe snorted a laugh, then thought it over seriously for a while. "It should be for some ridiculous reason," he decided. "A trifling debt, that's it. I want to be killed over twenty pence. A bar tab, perhaps. But all terribly grim, blood everywhere, very shocking." Marlowe yawned. "Funny question. Why do you ask?"
After the funeral, Will left Deptford and rode back out to Kent. Around six o'clock, he stopped at a barn just outside Chistlehurst, hid his horse, and crept inside.
He found Marlowe crouched in the hayloft with his sword drawn.
"Only me!" he said, holding up his hands.
Marlowe lept down to the hay-strewn floor, dropped the sword and took Will into his arms.
"Is it all finished?" Marlowe asked, after they'd kissed for a while.
"All finished," said Will. "Except this." He reached into his coat and took out a packet of papers. "I've written you a new part."
Marlowe leafed through the packet dubiously—letters of reference for various professions in various places, various documents of non-existent lives, or of lives that could exist. "I don't know, Will…you're the actor, not me."
"Then write your own. It can be anything at all."
"Perhaps I'll just stay here." He kissed Will again. "Shovel shit and hay for a while."
"You ought to get far from London, where you won't be recognized."
"I know." Marlowe sobered. "Just stay for a bit, will you? Another hour. Then I'll make up my mind."
They settled down in the hay with their arms around each other.
"Do you want to know where I end up going?" Marlowe asked.
Will thought for a bit. "No," he decided. "Then there's always the chance I'll meet you accidentally. And then I can come to know you all over again."
"It could happen," Marlowe agreed.
"But not just yet." Will tucked his head under Marlowe's chin and closed his eyes. "Let's just stay here a few minutes more."
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
—Helena, All's Well That Ends Well 1.1