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As Just A Man

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One steps into the room as into a street market or charnal house—there is a cacophony of sounds and strong scents that thicken the air and that can (at first) be slightly unpleasant. With a few deep breaths and a bracing ‘Holla!’ one gets used to both, however. Men and women whirl round the place to the music of trenchers thudding onto tables and the tang(s) of ale and mutton chops.

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‘What’ll it be, love?’ The stout woman, whose burnished-bronze ringlets frame her kindly florid face, asks. ‘The usual?’

‘What do you think, madam?’ He smiles indulgingly. She sighs and shakes her head in mock sadness.

‘So ready to change the setting of ev’ry play you’re writin’, yet ye never get a diff’rent pot o’ grog. When will you ever learn?’ A loud laugh erupts behind her.

‘I ask him the same question nearly every day, Mistress Taverner.’ She spins and raises an eyebrow at the grinning newcomer.

‘Oh, really? Does he ever answer YOU, then?’ The second man winks at her.

‘He hasn’t yet, but that don’t stop me from trying.’ She pats his cheek affectionately and leaves them, earning herself a teasing smack on the bum from the second man. The first one glares at him.

‘What on Earth are you doing, mate? I don’t require criticism from the likes of you!’ The other rolls his eyes as they search out a pair of seats.

‘Oh for God’s sake, Kit, when are you going to realise the Mermaid isn’t like one of your foreign haunts? Here in THIS country you’ve got to banter with the hostess—those smouldering good looks of yours won’t last forever.’ He grins and the other glares as they sit down. ‘Cheer up, Kit! The masses are sure to like your Edward—do stop worrying yourself about that.’ A waitress sashays by with a bottle of grog for Kit. He takes a swig moodily and waves at her to bring another one.

‘How do you know such things, Will, when YOU’RE the one pumping out new ideas nearly every day? Your three-part Henry and dastardly Richard are both marvelous. And do not start me upon Titus Andronicus!’ Will snorts, pooh-poohing the praise. ‘Besides,’ Kit adds with another gulp of grog, ‘Tis not the masses that have me worried. Tis the critics.’ Again Will snorts.

‘The Puritans? Come off it, Kit. When will you learn not to believe a single word of their rot?’ Kit Marlowe glares at his friend.

‘I DON’T believe any of that! I am speaking of the critics who MATTER. Jonson—’

‘—is a fat old man who couldn’t find a single shred of new material if it attached itself forcibly to his arse. Besides, it is me whom he hates, not you.’ Loudly interrupting Will Shakespeare,

‘Why do you persist in antagonising him?!’ Grins William,

‘It keeps me young.’ Kit gives his friend a look of exasperated fondness.

‘How much you know of human nature, Will. I cannot write it half so well, but must merely scrounge my material out of the scrap barrel.’ Will stares, shocked silent for an instant. But only one single instant.

‘Bugger; Kit, that’s rubbish! You wrote the cunning lust of Galveston and the nefarious mind of Mortimer…you renewed Doctor Faustus. It was because of the precedent of your wondrous prose that I wrote my Henry VI. For shame! Do you not know how impressive you are, Christopher Marlowe???’ The pessimistic playwright almost laughs, looking bitter.

‘You certainly possess strong feelings on this score. They are not at all true, but I thank you nevertheless.’ Will glares, slipping into familiar phrasing because he is so upset.

‘True they ARE, because thou art true to thyself in the writing. Ned!’ He suddenly shouts over to the great actor. ‘I have need of thee to settle a debate!!’

‘My favourite pastime,’ returns Ned agreeably, coming over to sling an arm around Will’s shoulders. ‘What’s got your knickers in a twist this time, Shakes?’

‘Kit here thinks he cannot write of human nature; that I am master of the art. What say you to that?’ Ned Alleyn’s eyes widen with shock.

‘What brought this on, Chris? Of course Will is an excellent acting writer—no one denies that. But you are . . . prolific! Dick!’ He bawls across the room. ‘Dick Burbage! Do you enjoy the works of Christopher Marlowe? Is he not as talented and skilled in the art of play writing as is William Shakespeare?’ Burbage snorts out some of his beer.

‘Is that even a valid question?!? Of COURSE he is! Bloody brilliant, I say.’ Will smiles triumphantly at Kit.

‘See?’ Marlowe gazes around at these ridiculous men that he calls his friends; with their earnest eyes and steadfast answers.

‘Yes, I do see. I see you are buffoons, every last one o’ ye!’ They chuckle and Will says with a smirk,

‘If I am idiotic for enjoying the plays of the great Christopher Marlowe, then I shall gladly wear a dunce cap for the rest of my days. To Kit!’ He raises his pint, as does everyone else—including the hostess.

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‘Dost thou think aught of thy family, Will?’ Christopher Marlowe asks his friend. Will Shakespeare takes a swig of ale and raises an eyebrow. The two men are well into their cups and conversing, surrounded by members of both of their companies.

‘Do I miss them, dost thou mean? Mate, am I detecting a hint of sentiment from thee? Is our lone wolf Kit Marlowe thinking to settle himself down?’ There is a roar of laughter from the surrounding company at this, and Marlowe scowls.

‘Oh bugger off, the lot o’ ye!’ He glares at Shakespeare as the man finishes off his mug of ale and waves for another pint. ‘Well?’ William sniffs and chews his lip.

‘All right, I DO, if it pleases you that much to know! Happy? Every time I go to bed with a whore, I think of my wife’s cold bed and our daughters at home, and Hamnet, my son. . .’ His voice trails off before returning after a moment. ‘I was young when I bedded her, you know. Anne. Too much of a boy to think about the consequences of what I was doing. But in a town like Stratford. . .’ he shakes his head and sucks his lips in a sigh, ‘everyone knows aught of all. The triumphs as well as the mistakes. It was a triumph to bed Anne, but a mistake to wed her, some said.’ Will takes a hearty swig of the new pint brought to him by a smiling rosy-cheeked serving wench. He barely grins back at her, and Christopher thinks mayhap he should not have started this. But he presses on.

‘And your father? The glover? What did he say?’ Will smiles.

‘I see your educated nose still turns up at that part of me, that my father is a tradesman.’

‘I was not—’

‘Ah, ah, Kit; he plies a trade and you disdain me for it. To thine own self be true.’

‘Fine!’ Marlowe says sharply. ‘Thou hast me. But thou didst not answer my question—what did he SAY?’ Will lets out a bitter laugh.

‘Truly? He bade me come to him in his workshop, where he had finished warming the leather of a glove but moments before. He put that glove upon his hand and said: “See this? This glove is stronger than thy manhood, son. And you should hold yours cheap, for that is what you are in dishonouring that poor girl.” I replied: “Father, some would say the begetting of a child on a woman is the highest honour.” I was pleased with my words until he slapped me with that glove in the face. “NOT if thou dost not partake equally in the share of honour and marry the girl.” I was amazed. “Marry her?” He stared at me, hard. “Yes—and mayhap she will make an honest man out of you.” He turned away then and shook his head before saying, low, “Let us hope she can do more than I could do.”’ Will Shakespeare goes silent.

‘God’s wounded body, what words to say!’ cries Kit Marlowe. ‘To so chide his son—’

‘Was he not aright?!’ Will shouts now, face red and eyes filling. ‘Had I not dishonoured HIM by being with HER, an honest girl? Not a—a whore?’ He slams his fist upon the table. ‘I HAD, Kit, and I knew it. I only wish to the good Lord God that it had not been that act which first prompted me to see it. My father is the better man, not more like me than I to Hercules. Twas his words that put me in mind to marry her. He is a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.’ Will covers his face with his hands for a long moment and grows silent. Then, to his horror, Christopher Marlowe hears his ever-buoyant-natured friend let out a true sob.

He is at a loss at what to do—the other actors of their company are three sheets to the wind and merry. Only Ned Alleyn seems slightly more aware; he jerks his head at the writer and mouths, ‘Chris, go to him!’ meaning, of course, to comfort Shakespeare. A pox on him for being right, thinks Kit mulishly. At least, he before I. He drains the dregs of his mug of ale and slides down the bench to sit beside Shakespeare, who is still sobbing. There is more to this than the simple fact of it being about his father’s words; Kit can tell that much. He clears his throat and awkwardly reaches out to pat his friend’s shoulder. Will falls apart onto Marlowe at that touch; his tear-streaked face going into Kit’s left shoulder. Kit keeps his own arm bracingly around Will, though his initial startled reaction is to withdraw it—and himself—from this situation post-haste. He has never known what to say or do in emotionally charged situations such as this. Especially in the case of Willy Shakes, his most boisterous and optimistic friend.

But he stays; rubbing William’s back with his hand in soothing circles and saying naught until Will raises his head up and wipes tears from his eyes. Christopher moves slightly away to give his friend space. ‘There now, Will,’ he croaks out cautiously. ‘Dost thou feel better for the telling?’

‘Nay,’ snorts Shakespeare. ‘I do feel better for th’ crying, though.’ Marlowe shakes his head and raises his hands in a gesture of surrender.

‘I shall not touch THAT, for I do not know how tis that tears can hearten thee.’

‘Can tha not?’ Will asks quietly. ‘Crying is cathartic, it seems to me.’

‘Aye, in the theatre, in community, but can it be even when tis done alone?’

‘Indeed, especially then, for tears doth heal emotional wounds wonderfully well.’

‘Tears through writing work well for me,’ Marlowe says shortly. ‘And for thee well enough in th’ Theatre—how many times hath the groundlings groaned for your Merchant or your Henry?’ Shakespeare shakes his head fondly.

‘They cry more regularly for my Mercutio than for my poor abused Shylock, I am afraid. And laud the crassest of jokes as wondrous passages of verse.’ He grows misty-eyed with emotion. ‘Kit, dost thou see how they love me?’ Seeing how deep his friend is into his cups based upon these present words and acts, Marlowe shakes his head no at the serving wenches even whilst patting his friend’s shoulder.

‘Aye, Will, but mayhap schoolboys will have much more cause to LOATHE thee!’ Shakespeare stares at Marlowe in such blurry-eyed self-righteous indignation that Christopher legitimately laughs—for just a moment—at his bewildered friend, who is hurting and balancing upon the precipice of love: for his family, for his father, and from the world at large. Kit now helps him up and claps William Shakespeare’s shoulders, pulling him close for a fierce tight hug. This man, his mate, who instinctively understands the ins and outs of human nature and of each character that he creates; of the words and ways of being a poet, if not as much a playwright; he makes Christopher Marlowe better at the craft they share by being so good at his own work. Articulating this with the hug is not enough, and so he murmurs into Shakespeare’s ear, ‘Thank’ee and God save thee, Will.’

He keeps one arm around William Shakespeare and leads him carefully to the tavern’s door, past the trencher tables and then out along the street towards Southwark. ‘Come to thy pillow and thy pen, my friend—and go visit thy father the next time th’art home in Stratford.’

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Comically, Will freezes in the middle of the darkened street and his eyes grow wide with shock as he stares at Christopher Marlowe.

‘Dost thou truly mean to walk me home, Kit? An educated Oxford boy like you appearing—at night—in S’thwark?’ He slurs magnificently and almost falls into a dirty ditch. Marlowe steadies him. ‘’M fine,’ Shakespeare mumbles. Marlowe snorts derisively.

‘Clearly. Look you, Will, I am proud of my formal education; but would be a piss-poor friend were I to leave ye t’ stumble home during the witching hour because of your limited one!’ William grows stick-straight and grabs his friend’s shirt and doublet. He growls:

‘That’s it, Kit! Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood, and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on. Soft, now, to my—’ He makes a horrific wrenching noise and heaves into the sewage ditch across from the Thames.

‘. . .Last legs?’ Christopher Marlowe offers, moving to take the majority of William Shakespeare’s weight upon his back. Will laughs heartily before growing sober.

‘Nay—not quite enough. Tis for a play in future. A darkened night, an absent father . . . a son filled with sorrow for loss of love—no, because of an o’er-hasty marriage,’ and off he goes into the mazelike magic of his own mind’s eye.

The character grows step by step as Kit Marlowe lugs his fellow actor home to Mistress Fawcett, who takes one look through the cracked doorframe at the drunken lout she calls her tenant and tsks loudly.

‘Tis late!’ she shrieks whilst opening the door for Marlowe.

‘Tis not yet one,’ the dark man returns as he helps Shakespeare over the threshold. The matronly woman shakes her head vehemently.

‘No—tis struck.” Shakespeare groans:

‘The time is out of joint! O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.’ He slumps against the stairs suddenly, and against her own inclinations and judgement his landlady is concerned. She rushes to the kitchen to procure savoury salts for him to smell, calling over her shoulder

‘Good Chris, stay with him.’ Marlowe eases Will down to the rickety steps, the mad Stratford poet muttering all the while.

‘Time indeed be out of joint for me, and the lands of my father are not worth a pin’s fee! I cannot set my life ‘pon it! But how to provide for him, for my family?’ Christopher Marlowe’s eyes widen. So when his friend had fallen to earlier in grief, THIS was in part what had upset him. It makes much sense.

Mistress Fawcett returns with salts to wave under Shakespeare’s nose. He jerks awake after she slaps his cheeks and cries, ‘Up! Up to bed with ye!’ She does not even need to ask; Kit is already pulling his friend along. When they reach the poet’s room, Will falls onto the bedstead and Kit quickly and deftly unlaces his friend’s jerkin and boots before preparing to take his leave.

‘Kit,’ William calls hoarsely. His friend leans back past the doorframe.

‘Yes, here, my sweet friend, at your service.’ Half-jesting he is, but Shakespeare’s response is utterly serious:

‘Christopher, thou art e’en as just a man as ever my conversation cop’d withal.’ Marlowe merely makes a dismissive movement in reply, but Will waves him off so hard that he nearly falls out of bed. ‘Nay, do not think I flatter— . . . . Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice and could of men distinguish her election, sh’ath seal’d thee for herself; for thou hast been as one, in suff’ring all, that suffers nothing. A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards hast ta’en with equal thanks—and blest are those whose blood and judgement are so well comeddled that they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please. Give me that man that is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart, as I do thee.’ Kit Marlowe sniffs and clears his throat.

‘Will. Come now, Will—that’s something too much of this.’

‘Nay, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp, Kit!’ he cries, even more earnest now. ‘I know not how else to tell thee true—’

‘Shh, I know’st what thine words do cry, but thou art drunk and transported—do not at me thus sigh!! Put those words down for that play in future ye mean to try.’ And as Shakespeare’s eyes sharpen and he reaches for his pen, Christopher Marlowe exits his mate’s home, not to be seen on that night again.

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The sun is setting behind the Mermaid Tavern after a successful week of show business at the Theatre and the Rose. The company had sold out of threepenny cushion’d seating for both afternoon showings of Shakespeare’s historical tetralogy—Richard III especially has many admirers willing to pay a penny extra for better seats. Lords and ladies love learning about the illustrious monarchical forbears of their beloved England—both the ones who live on in fame as well as they who live in infamy. Philip Henslowe understands the wishes of the masses well. He has been head of the company long enough to comprehend a thing or two—and right now he is well-aware of London’s great love for Master Shakespeare. And he knows just what, as a shrewd businessman as well as the head of a company of players, he needs to do about it.

Henslowe charges into the tavern as if the devil is after him in order to urge Shakespeare to write ANOTHER tetralogy of history plays. ‘I have done the books for dastardly Richard and mad Henry VI, and by Jove, Will—at this rate we can add another five shares to the company! Kempe can hire that apprentice about whom he’s always blathering on—and Condell and Heminges too. We’ve gone and got ourselves noticed because of you!’ Ned Alleyn grips Henslowe’s shoulders quickly.

‘Whoa, Phil, th’art about to rush headlong. Say just what thou meanest, mate—go on.’ The head player and bookkeeper gulps down almost an entire mug of ale in one go and gasps,

‘Well, here ‘tis, though the pressure this will put ‘pon you, I envy not.’ Richard Burbage slams his fists bodily onto the table before him and bellows,

‘Cease this babble, man; just gET ON WITH IT, YOU SOT!!’

‘All RIGHT, Dick, just keep your patience!’

‘Henslowe, you are sorely testing it!!!’

‘Well, then, how be this?’ Grandly turning to face Will, Henslowe crows, ‘William Shakespeare, you have hereby been commissioned to write a second historical tetralogy . . . by the QUEEN.’ There is a stunned silence from the whole lot. Burbage’s mouth actually hangs open. NOW who’s the sot? William blows a blast of air out of his cheeks.

‘Does Her Majesty have a request as to which kings she wishes to see? Doth she wish for another York, a Plantagenet, or Lancaster?’ Christopher Marlowe leans over to his friend.

‘Just a tick—I have already worked with the second Edward and his son. So thou may take thy pick of any of the men after that.’ Will snorts.

‘Kit, there is only one Plantagenet left in the line.’ There are raised eyebrows and murmurs from the rest—who knew how much Shakespeare knew of English kings? Marlowe watches his friend’s mind begin to work with a sparkle in his eyes. And Shakespeare’s does. ‘So I shall start with Richard II, the last Plantagenet, and work through his cousin’s ascension by betrayal and the rest, then?’ He frames it as a query to his well-educated friend. Marlowe shrugs.

‘It’s your choice, mate, but I have a piece of advice for you: do not make a history lesson out of this, or poor Philip’s tickets shall never sell.’ Will gasps, faux offended.

‘As you see, thus far I have done well.’ Kit Marlowe tsks.

‘And of course there is no chance of you getting a big head, is there?’

‘Well, Chris,’ Ned crows, ‘if he doth, twill not be near large enough to rival yours!’ The surrounding players let out guffaws that seem to shake the tavern to its very foundations. . . or mayhap it be but the shifting of Will Shakespeare’s life as he has known it—that of a trade-born playwright and mediocre actor, only learned in public school, who has written five plays and published none of them. The only work attributed to him outside of London is the romantic poem “Venus and Adonis”. Very few persons have read it; and thus, only a scant few members of the population of this world know his name.

Not so with the population of London—THESE folk know him, by God—and clamour to see his works performed and beg for more to be written! The groundlings cheer and bay for blood, and the lords and ladies are only slightly more sedate. The nine-and-twenty year old man almost longs to curl himself into a corner and weep with fear, but he is not a child anymore and so must take on this task as a man would do. It is his occupation, after all, and he most definitively does NOT wish to lose it.

So Shakespeare swallows hard and says to Master Henslowe: ‘You shall have your new tetralogy, Henslowe. It will be years in the making, no doubt; but you and the Queen shall have it. It sorts that I shall start with a Plantagenet, the last of his line—King Richard the Second, usurped by his cousin of the Lancaster line. And next, oh, let me see—twill be parts One and Two of King Henry IV.’ As he waxes poetic about this, Will sees the majority of his fellow players roll their eyes and exit the conversation in order to continue to consume their drinks. Only Heminges, Condell, Marlowe, and of course Henslowe remain to listen to his many musing words. Burbage only stays long enough to be sure that he shall play the title character in any (or all four) of the plays. Shakespeare assures him that yes, in the second and third installments, he shall play a knight of honour, Sir John Oldcastle—later to be rechristened ‘Falstaff’, and in the final play a king.

As he speaks, the playwright thinks of how to make these kings once more alive. He heard Marlowe’s advice about making them not a lesson from history and took it to heart far more than Marlowe (or even Will himself) realised he had. He yearns to make the actions REAL, and for that his kings must be human. Relatable. Will’s words drift off as he ponders this, and the other actors drift away now as well. They can tell when wee Willy Shakespeare needs his space. All apart from Henslowe, that is. He is too excited to get the hint. Business is booming because of this man right here, and must remain so until Will writes these Lancastrian masterpieces. Henslowe only wants to help, so when Will goes silent, the theatre-master is heard to blurt:

‘Well, go on then, Will! What happens next, lad?’ Will jerks and gives the other a startled glance.

‘What was that, Master Henslowe, sir?’ Henslowe is confused, right enough.

‘What was what, Will? Thou wast talking of Henry IV not more than a moment ago. And some knight named . . . Sir John Oldcastle. What of him, now? Doth he fight for the king? Or usurp him, as it were?’ Shakespeare is growing pensive and appearing attacked. Edward Alleyn recognises the signs of a perturbed playwright and now heads Henslowe off.

‘Holla, Philip! I have been meaning to enquire of you—how fares that fair daughter of yours?’

‘What, you rascal! How know you my—’ Henslowe is sputtering in shock and indignation as the charming actor drapes an arm around him and leads the elder player to a table far from Shakespeare.

‘God save you, Ned Alleyn,’ the playwright whispers thankfully as the pair passes by. Ned winks jauntily at Shakespeare in response.

And Will is now yet again alone with Kit, who seems to be ever more dark and brooding of late. ‘How dost thou, Kit? Thine eyes are veiled and cast down, but hie thee to the Rose and thou wilt hear the name of Doctor Faustus cried about the streets!’ Marlowe gives a smile so thin and quick as to not even reach his eyes.

‘Not as loud as they cry of your Richard and your Titus.’ He replies. ‘Many cannot e’en correctly pronounce the name of Mephistopheles. They, the ignorant ones, call him “Mistofelees”. Losing a syllable is disastrous, monstrous to my verse! And I must travel away, again, to Calais—’

‘What, so soon, Kit?!’ cries Will in distress. ‘But thou art only just now back!’ Marlowe jerks his chin down and sighs.

‘Aye, Will, and yet I must needs be gone again. The French are restless, and the times and winds are changing.’ He takes a hearty swig of grog. ‘I am the face of the power that wills evil yet works good. We all must sound the depths of that which we profess, my friend.’ Kit goes silent for a long moment before taking out and lighting his pipe, leaving Shakespeare to wonder what his friend means by speaking thus—and takes his words and deeds to what end?

A tavern wench attempts to dally with Christopher, and William nearly lets out a laugh. When will these wanton women learn that Christopher Marlowe likes not those of their ilk? Those that do not love pretty boys and pipes of tobacco are fools; those things solve all the ills of this world. Shakespeare had heard his friend say some suchlike phrase once. It had been GROSSLY misused against him; though when asked about those words written in the Baines letter as slander, Marlowe’s dark eyes lit and glowed with a nearly mad light and he had uttered: ‘“You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute, / And now and then stab as occasion serves.”’ Shakespeare looks up to see a similar light in his friend’s eyes now, and in fear he leans closer.

‘Dear Christopher Marlowe,’ he whispers desperately, urgently. ‘I know not what for ye go to France, but pray thee, return in a litter—not a hearse.’ A harsh half-smile lifts Marlowe’s features around his pipe.

‘Fear not for me, William, my friend,’ he replies just as quietly. ‘For I believe it shall be THOU arriving at the hellish gates with thy writing trapped neatly in here.’ Marlowe taps the side of his head with a feral smile, and Will starts.

‘That be it!’ Marlowe raises a brow in confusion.

‘That be . . . what?’

‘Thy play, Kit! Thy play—“The griefs of private men are soon allayed, / But not of kings”! You wrote that!’

‘Indeed, yes, I wrote it, Will,’ Marlowe agrees slowly, wondering where his friend’s thoughts are going.

‘Your Edward is as embattled—thronged ‘round with foes—as my Henry is. And as the lion tears at the wound in his paw, so doth your king; and so shall it be with mine, too.’ The writer raises his voice, turning towards the door that now gapes open, night-washed, and thrusts his hand toward it. ‘And I cannot sleep, for my mind is awhirl with all that Henslowe hath told me. . . . And so it fares also with King Henry.’ Shakespeare speaks slowly, wonderingly, the words tumbling from out of his head: ‘The griefs of private men allayed—“How many thousands of my poorest subjects, / Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, o gentle sleep, / Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee, / That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down, /And steep my senses in forgetfulness? /Why, rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, / Upon uneasly pallets stretching thee, / And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber, / Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great, / Under the canopies of costly state, / And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?”’ Shakespeare rises up from his place and slams one fist down upon his stool before almost shouting thus: ‘“O thou dull god, / Why liest thou with the vile / In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch / A watch-case or a common ‘larum bell?”’ Here he runs and leaps to ring the bell beside the door for fire or other emergency (only once, briefly; still, the hostess shrieks). ‘“Wilt thou,”’ Will calls to her, ignoring her angry cries and continues—the show must go on, you know—‘“Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast / Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains / In cradle of the rude imperious surge, / And in the visitation of the winds / Who take the ruffian billows by the top, / Curling their monstrous heads,. . .”’ He roars like the wind and clouds during a thunderstorm. No one can cease listening even if they wanted to. All eyes in the tavern are riveted upon William Shakespeare now. ‘“. . . and hanging them / With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds, / That with the hurly death itself awakes? / Canst thou, o partial sleep, give thy repose / To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude; / And in the calmest and most stillest night, / With all appliances and means to boot, / Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down! / Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”’

William Shakespeare opens his eyes again, out of the mind’s eye of his imagination and back into the world. Christopher Marlowe nods at him, just barely. His miniscule acknowledgement is the closest Kit will ever come to saying he approves. The tavern wenches have glazed eyes; one is almost in tears murmuring ‘That poor sea-boy. And the poor king!’ while Mistress Taverner is snapping angrily,

‘That’s it, Master Shakespeare, you’ve said yer piece and caused enough of a disturbance in here tonight—now be off with you!’ He smiles and takes her hand, whirling gaily around her.

‘But where, o where, madam, am I supposed to go?’

‘Anywhere! go finish writin’ yer blasted play! But you’ll not be disrespectin’ me or the patrons of this place anymore tonight, so begone somewhere else!’

‘But Mistress Taverner, am I not a patron?’ He wheedles. She crosses her arms over her buxom chest, unimpressed.

‘Nay, sir, for I hath not seen fit to patronise you yet!’ The other actors are agog. They cannot believe even good-natured Will Shakespeare is not angered at this point. Kit Marlowe looks plenty aggrieved on his friend’s behalf, but a shake of the head from Will is enough to settle him down. Why?

Will looks around at the patrons of the Mermaid Tavern—the wenches, the actors, the bear-baiting gamblers . . . all are looking at him too. A bar fight could begin, he is certain of it, but Will does not wish to start a fight. He decides to take the hostess’ advice and return to his home to write. Tipping his hat to the others, he grabs Mistress Taverner for a spin, kissing her on the nose, to her shock and slight chagrin. ‘Quick, Mistress Taverner, that is what you are,’ Shakespeare says to her. Letting go with a gentle pat on her rosy cheek, the poet adds ‘I believe I shall write you into my play.’ Relinquishing her for good this night, William strides over to Kit and grips his arm in gratitude. ‘Thank you, Kit, for your Doctor Faustus and your Edward II.’

And then he is gone before Kit Marlowe can say a thing. A gust of wind blows through the place as Shakespeare closes the tavern door, and there is a hush of almost awe. This lasts for only a moment before Richard Burbage bawls out, ‘Will may not be a true class act, but by Jove, he can write!!’

Chapter Text

Shakespeare begins writing that very night, scenes from what will be Henry IV Part 2. He started with the soliloquy at the tavern and continues in that vein . . . what is't that caused King Henry's head to be uneasy? It must be the antics of his son, Hal, who has been marauding about with Sir John Falstaff and a company of unsavoury sorts of late. The crown prince is fourteen years of age, and John Glouchester, his younger brother, is twelve during Shrewsbury, the battle where young Hal distinguished himself against Harry Percy, cousin and shining star. Henry had fought well for his father often before—according to historical records, anyway—but that leaves out such drama as is integral to a play. What if Sir John had become a miscreant, however, and dragged the bold young prince down along with him? Twould shake things up for the king if his heir was causing mischief with an elderly errant knight! Thus, about times in a tavern William Shakespeare writes—of old Jack Falstaff and Bardolph and Pistol and Poins, all supervised (more-or-less) by Mistress Quickly, the hostess. In this way the writer works in kindly jests and jabs from her, as well as times she throws the muckrakers out on their ears for foolishness.

He walks through the theater and gains insights—the way tiremen talk to bookkeepers in order to ensure the costume changes are on time; ducking out of the musicians' way as they climb up to the balcony to play beneath the canvas overhang and the clear blue sky; the smell of reeds and reeks of pigs' blood and burning rope—for flooring, blood, fog and cannon haze, respectively—as the heat of the sun beats down upon the painted canopy of the heavens.

He jots down verse and line ideas upon crumpled sheaves of parchment stuffed haphazardly into his waistcoat. It crackles as he moves, and the tiring men have learnt to be careful of where they tie the bladders of pig's blood around his body—once, it soaked through seven-plus pages of good work . . . Shakespeare didn't speak to them voluntarily for weeks after that.

"Thribbling" is another problem to contend with in a company that performs two plays a day, six days a week, with special extra performances on weekends. Someone—or several someones—are bound to forget their lines, if only a few. But Shakespeare detests improvisation in his works more than anything. Hamming things up for an extra laugh just is not amusing to him, a fact that he has explained to the comic Will Kempe any number of times already. He knows that Kempe will not listen, but that the new fellow, Robert Armin, does—so he takes care to give Armin bigger comic parts in his plays—the ones that do better without the thribbling.

Will knows how his actor mates work together as well as apart. He understands which parts they will gladly play, and which ones their egos will never allow them to stomach. At times, he writes parts for specific actors and exhorts his fellows to work together.

'I require thee, Ned, for one of my Two Gentlemen of Verona,' the playwright tells Edward Alleyn backstage one day.

'Oh really, Will? Who is't I must play? A monarch? A swashbuckler? A soldier home from the Turkish war?'

'A lover of such skill and duplicity as to not become enamoured with ONE lady, but two!' The actor appears startled but flattered.

'Truly, Will? He hath that much . . . game to hunt, as twere?' Shakespeare laughs.

'Truly, Ned; and he drives one maid to such distraction by 'er love, that she dresses as a young man and travels far from her native city—simply to be near him!' Ned now looks slightly uncomfortable and shakes his head with wonder.

'An outstanding specimen he must be, to inspire such loyalty. Would that I had such a power as that in this life!'

Clapping him on the back, Shakespeare crows, 'Oh Ned, you do! That is why I wrote this character for you. But think about it, wilt thou? Do!' Later in the day, he corners Burbage: 'Dick, I possess a part for thee so pure and constant as to melt ev'ry maiden's heart. A man so certain in his love that he means to spirit away his lady from her odious father's house; and, failing that, when exiled from the city takes up with a band of highwaymen to be near her.' Will can FEEL his friend's attention slipping away.

'So, he never wavers in his love, this man? Ne'er doubts or goes mad with indecision?'

'Nay—for THAT I gave to Ned, you see!'

'Oho! Why Alleyn and not me?'

'He, ah, wished to portray the power that inspires many women to love . . . which he hast not in this life, he said.' Burbage snorted.

'What good be that, if he knows not how to act it??? That is my every day, every hour. Look you, Will,' Richard Burbage stares the playwright down, 'I wish to exchange parts with Alleyn. This—constant loyalty better suits him.' Shakespeare seems hesitant still.

'Well, that I shall have to see . . .'

'Swounds, I shall put the question to him—give thy book to me!!' And he is off and running, to William's secret satisfaction, for he had wanted Ned to play the steadfast Valentine (who gets to threaten fights with Milanese outlaws, so in a way he IS swashbuckling) and for the ever-changing Proteus to be played by blustery Burbage. His success is only realised right before the day ends, when Ned returns to William's nook, reading over Valentine's lines upon banishment:

'"But, as thou lovest thy life, make speed from hence." Nay, fie upon that dukish rascal!!! For so Valentine says here, "And why not death rather than living torment? / To die is to be banish'd from myself, / And Silvia is myself: banished from her / Is self from self: a deadly banishment! / What light is light, if Silvia be not seen? / What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by? / Unless it be to think that she is by / And feed upon the shadow of perfection. / Except I be by Silvia in the night, / There is no music in the nightingale; / Unless I look on Silvia in the day, / There is no day for me to look upon; / She is my essence, and I leave to be, / If I be not by her fair influence / Foster'd, illumined, cherish'd, kept alive. / I fly not death, to fly his deadly doom: / Tarry I here, I but attend on death: / But, fly I hence, I fly away from life."' And thus the great actor stops to take a deep, shuddering breath.

'Well now, Ned, how doest thou? Was't well done?' Ned sniffs.

'Well, well, very well done, Will—very well done indeed. How—? How didst thou do it? This is the very coinage of my brain when I am not with my Maria.' Then, much quieter, barely audible, 'O how I long to see my mouse again.' Gently Will hands him a handkerchief and the actor dries his eyes.

'You forget,' the playwright says quietly, 'I have a wife too, the same as thee. And I knew Richard could not make the balance of the vehemence of love with the thready longing from the heart.' Edward lets out a barking laugh.

'Burbage? No—Burbage would roar this as if he were defending his maiden's honour, and then in one minute more, he would flout away to dally with another.'

'Exactly, which is why his character is ever-changing as the wind.'

'Proteus? Ah, thou sly dog, Will—thou didst plan this did tha not?' Feigning innocence, Will tosses his waistcoat over one shoulder.

'I know not what you are speaking of, Edward.' Ned rolls his eyes.

'Oh come come, I know thee—thou canst not hide it all. Tell me, did you write that speech for me?' Will stops and looks at the floor, mastering his emotions fiercely.

'At first I thought about my Anne, but then I did hear in't the accent of you, yes.' A brilliant smile splits Alleyn's face as he slaps his fellow on the shoulder.

'Hear hear! You shall make a soothsayer of me yet, Will Shakespeare.' With a finger tapping his long nose, the playwright enigmatically smiles.

'Ah, but that is for a FUTURE play, Ned Alleyn!' And he saunters off to write some more, leaving the other actor to wonder what on earth his reply had meant.

Chapter Text

Will is writing of loss; Hal’s loss of his Falstaff because of his duties to the realm as a king. “I know thee not, old man—fall to thy prayers; / How ill white hairs become a fool and jester! / I have long dream’d of such a kind of man, / So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane; / But, being awak’d, I do despise my dream. / Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace; / Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape / For thee thrice wider than for other men. / Reply not to me with a fool-born jest. / Presume not that I am the thing I was; / For God doth know, so shall the world perceive, / That I have turn’d away my former self; / So will I those that kept me company. . . .” And with that, the poet lost his composure for a moment and began to shake with sadness.

“When thou dost hear I am as I have been, / Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast, / The tutor and the feeder of my riots; / Til then, I banish thee on pain of death, / As I have done the rest of my misleaders, / Not to come near our person by ten mile.” Thus he gives himself an out, a way to write a scene of reconciliation between the knight and the king. But Marlowe says no—ever the shrewd tragedian, he explains thus so when Will asks him for his reasoning:

‘Thou must leave the masses wanting more. There is a reason my Mephistopheles could not save Faustus—or himself—from Hell in the end. The tragedy occurred as ‘twas meant to. Did Hal apologise to Falstaff and did the sweet knight forgive his Harry? None of us shall ever see . . . but twill be spoken of for ages, I know. Trust me.’ His friend and rival sighs in reluctant acquiesce. Shakespeare sees Marlowe’s point and understands, but he is upset by it nevertheless—he does not like it, and no doubt neither will his audiences. But such is the case in a tragedy—even those of the historical variety.

He grants Falstaff some gems earlier in the plays—Part 1 especially—as consolation for the later dishonourable disdain done to him by the Prince: “. . . honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Do th he hear it? No. Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon; and so ends my catechism.”

Honour is a mere scutcheon, a funereal coat of arms. It means naught until one is dead—and so, Falstaff’s own honour, that young Henry chastised him so rudely for to find, mattered not to him til he was dead, til the King had killed his heart. And what good was’t even then?? Will puzzles much over this; he even asks Marlowe for his opinion. Kit stares blankly at his friend for a few moments in utter surprise. Then he says, ‘One question such as that was put to us in class at Oxford.’

‘Well? Thou foundst an answer, didst tha not?’

‘Nay, Will, the query itself was philosophical, rhetorical. We were not meant to find an answer.’

‘Then what was the point of such a question?’ Kit chuckles.

‘To wonder and to ask. In the Meno, Socrates says that he doth not know answers, only asks questions so that the world must be as confused as he is. It is better to know nothing than to believe in a false idea. And that, in essence, is what honour is.’ Spinning a quill between his fingers, Marlowe adds: ‘I admit, ‘twas frustrating at first always to ask and never be answered. Such philosophies I ne’er expected to hear more outside of the university.’ Will shakes his head in fond frustration at his friend’s ever-present shock at he, Shakespeare, and his uneducated intelligence.

‘Tho I went not to Cambridge, Kit, I still have a mind of my own!’ Marlowe judiciously chooses not to reply, instead sharpening a new quill for William as a sort of apology.

Augustine Phillips strolls along by with a mug of ale, dodging one of the tiremen who is yelling at him for drinking backstage. Will attempts to steal a sip from the mug to dampen his dry throat, and Kit takes the opportunity to read from the other man’s pages. Inspiration must have been spotty; Will has written a smattering of scenes from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2—but none in any sort of consecutive order that the university graduate can see.

‘God’s teeth, man—what do you with these pages?!’ Demands Will, having given up his chase for ale and returning to see Kit holding his papers up to his eyes.

‘I only treat ye as well as your desert,’ returns Kit blandly.

‘Oh no—God’s bodkin, man, MUCH BETTER! I would not peer at thy words til they were done!!’ Hastily he grabs and stuffs the pages into his waistcoat, glaring at his rival all the while. Marlowe holds up his hands in defense and surrender.

‘I was intrigued by your thoughts on honour, mate. Can you blame me?’

‘Aye, I can, and do!’ Will raps out shortly.

‘You shall live a hundred years in your words, Will. Would I could show you how; but I won’t desert you now! The leviathan, that creature made of the ones who watch us ‘pon the stage—it mayhap puts us in fits of rage, but we are performers, Will—above all else, that is our call! And in looking at your papers and reading them through . . . no one has the knack for character that you do, for good and all!’

‘But I have not that performing flair, as do you,’ Shakespeare says, in a tone of slight regret—he is almost apologetic at the vehemence of his ire.

‘And that is where my reading this can help you!!!’ Kit is excited now; animated as he has almost never before been. If any of the other actors heard or saw him then, they would all be nonplussed—at a loss completely. Yet for Will, though uncommon, this is the passion that has power enough to beget Mortimer and Mephistopheles, Edward and Faustus and Tamerlaine and Dido, the embittered Carthaginian queen. ‘Your Hal is poignant as Pilate,’ Marlowe adds now, after his initial rant is done.

‘How, Kit, can that be?’

‘He washes his hands of poor Jack Falstaff, doth he not? He cannot say, “For forever, I banish ye” but instead he sayeth, “When thou dost hear I am as I hath been” not “if”, Will. “When”. He cannot fix a banishment OR reconciliation quite; but simply dithers away, like Pilate, to send the loathsome wretch from his sight—dost thou see?’ Will nods at his friend thoughtfully.

‘Yet this denunciation is important, for—with Jack—he renounces the world: “but sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, noble Jack Falstaff—banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” With this act, as with Pilate’s washing of his hands, Hal throws away his worldliness, his humanity.’ Kit Marlowe grows still and somber, bowing his head and saying softly as they exit the theatre together,

‘And more’s the pity for all of that.’

'Indeed, Kit; indeed.'

Chapter Text

Will sees his friend for the final time that night. Upon the morrow, Marlowe leaves for France; stopping to have a drink and spend the night in Deptford—not twenty miles from London—and on the 30th of May, 1593, Christopher Marlowe is murdered in a tavern brawl with a dagger through the eye.

The players are stunned when they hear the news. Henslowe praised the draw of his plays upon the hearts and minds of the masses; Dick Burbage expounded again upon his brilliance; Ned Alleyn said, ‘He was as excellent a fellow as e’er I knew in knowledge and in manner’ before breaking down in tears; while Will—puzzled well, utterly shocked and bamboozled Will—thinks of his conversations with Kit Marlowe and the comfort he was given by his friend, never mind the praise . . . the philosophies they pondered together and ideas he built upon.

But most of all, he sees a man who was not Passion’s slave nor Time’s fool—though those rosy lips and cheeks within His cruel sickle’s compass came. He cares not for the intervening hours or weeks—William Shakespeare knows that he shall remember his friendship with the great man Christopher Marlowe even until the edge of Doom.