The liquid apology brought the necessary forgiveness to loosen the playwright’s tongue in response to more crafty questioning.
“I saw Lord Oxford at a history play once,” William said. “Is it true, what they say about him?”
“Is what true?”
“You know . . . the buzz of those vile and persistent rumors.”
Greene looked confused, and then suddenly, his drunken words fell like withered leaves.
“The rumor-mongers feed on his defiance like parasites. They know Lord Oxford leads a scandalous life, thanks to his father-in-law’s public bruiting of it. Lord Burghley is furious at his son-in-law’s antics, and never knows what secrets he’s going to reveal. Did you know that the Queen supported a ban against publication by noblemen? It was meant to stop Lord Oxford, but it hasn’t worked. He simply conjures his poison and hides it under a different label.”
“What poison? What label? I don’t understand.”
“He pays us to act as his go-betweens,” Greene whispered. “We sign our names to his work so it can be approved for public performance. Several recent books have noted that the Earl of Oxford writes excellent comedies, if he could be allowed to take credit for them. But a nobleman cannot be seen as a clown, making people laugh at the expense of his rank. So he dons a disguise. He plays the chameleon.”
“You mean he writes under someone else’s name.”
“Aye, or as the more widely-known Anonymous. Bear in mind that Lord Oxford is also a serious writer. He transforms ordinary words into iambs, turning leaden prose into golden poetry, like this: daDA daDA daDA daDa daDA,” Greene said, banging out five beats on the table. “His Lordship tries to teach us how to write full plays in iambic verse, but so far none of us have come up to his standards.”
“I saw his players perform The Famous Victories in London and in Stratford.”
“Ah, then perhaps you know who wrote it.”
“It was an anonymous play, I believe,” William said, trying to recall the precise wording of the handbill.
“Aye, all according to Her Majesty’s orders,” Greene chuckled. “She knows Lord Oxford wrote every word of it. She’s afraid of exposing his authorship, even though audiences don’t care who a playwright is, as long as he offers a motley swarm of bawdy fools and vile assassins. Never mind that Lord Oxford draws his characters from real life. They’re all people he knows, some of them quite well, like Lord Burghley.”
“I can’t imagine any man being so brazen as to make an enemy out of Lord Burghley.”
“Imagine it, sir, and that man would be Lord Oxford,” Greene said, pleased at having snagged William’s curiosity. “The two men had a terrible falling-out that started years ago, when Lord Oxford was orphaned and sent to Lord Burghley’s home as a royal ward. The old man objected whenever the spendthrift youth wrote and presented court masques for the Queen. He didn’t care that a courtier’s duty is to give Her Majesty expensive gifts and tributes, and that she desires a rousing entertainment more than anything else. The Queen owns all the gold and jewels she could want, and even as a youth, Lord Oxford was the only one among her noble bucks able to devise a provocative diversion.”
“But you said she banned his plays.”
“Not at the royal court,” Greene explained. “Those masques are very private affairs. The after-dinner audiences are small and selective, entirely different from the hoi polloi at the public playhouses. I watched a court masque once, from behind the curtain on the gallery stairs. It won’t do for our nation’s commoners to learn the truth about their superiors in a comedy, tragedy or history play -- even though, as they say, the truth will out.”
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