Stratford had seen its share of traveling farces, religious pageants and puppet shows, but it had never seen anything like The Famous Victories, with its clever mix of comedy, tragedy and history.
When John Lyly agreed to pay him an extra incentive for tickets sold in advance, William Shaxper became a relentless promoter. He impressed his neighbors with the importance of seeing the same play that had delighted the Queen, and warned them that companies like Lord Oxford’s Men would bypass the village in the future if it didn’t support the players. Fortunately, the hardworking people of Stratford appreciated a good diversion. Tickets were quickly sold and Lyly was pleased. William could hardly wait for his introduction to the Earl of Oxford.
As the money poured in, he began to envision himself a theatrical impresario, garnering hefty profits by importing the latest cultural sensations into Stratford. Even his skeptical wife Anne admitted that his trip to London had emboldened him. The growing popularity of the playhouses proved that theater was indeed a lucrative business, despite John Shaxper’s insistence that it was a godless waste of time.
Beyond that, William never lost sight of his ultimate goal: a proper introduction to the Earl of Oxford, with whom, he had come to feel, his fortunes rested.
His hopes for an impending meeting were quickly dashed when he learned that Lord Oxford would not be traveling with the company. In spite of this sudden disappointment, William’s strong determination allowed him to carry on with his plans.
Excitement spread when the play wagons rolled into Stratford. The villagers applauded the motley juggler and the small black dog that jumped through a row of hoops. A crier waved The Curtain’s enigmatic flag and shouted that The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth would be performed the very next day at Shaxper’s barn on Henley Street.
No one was more startled to hear that than John Shaxper. Barely recovered from a drinking binge, he cornered his son behind the pub.
“What do you mean by renting my barn to those heathens?”
William ignored the bitter words and wiped the old man’s face. “You’ve been drunk for a month now, Father. The ale is leaching out of your pores. Don’t you think it’s time to stop?”
“Bloody hell! I’ll drink when I please, and I’ll not have my boy telling me to stop. Show me the respect I deserve as your father.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you whipped it out of me years ago. And what you did to Mother was a disgrace.”
“I never hurt your mother, not once –”
“No, not once, but many times,” William said. “You foolishly lost her inheritance and forced us all into debt. You were seen drunk in public and dismissed from your post as alderman. You tormented our neighbors by piling a dung heap next to their door. You were disgraced and jailed so often, it broke Mother’s heart. Well, I’m not going to follow in your footsteps. See this, Father?” he asked, dangling a purse in front of him. “I earned all this money in one week - in one week, for selling our neighbors tickets to a play! And I’ll earn even greater riches, now that I’m working my way into Lord Oxford’s good graces. You should be proud of me, Father. I’ve made a neat little profit for myself and this is only the beginning.”
John Shaxper grabbed for the purse. William tucked it safely into his own pocket.
“When I was a boy, I knew you loved me, Father,” he said. “But everything changed when you came back from London bruised and battered, and the decent life you had worked so hard to build crumbled all around you. You found your courage in kegs of ale, but I don’t believe that’s how a man should live in this world. I found my courage with the players, Father, and I’m determined to work hard for the rest of my life to make a name for myself. I am terribly sorry for whatever happened to you behind that playhouse, but as long as I live, I swear I’ll never drown my sorrows in hogsheads of ale the way you do.”
“You think you know what the world is, boy,” the old man grumbled, “but you’re a blind, stumbling puppy in a pack of hungry wolves. You’ll learn what evil is, if you persist in associating with that deviant band of miscreant players --”
John Shaxper lunged at his son, lost his balance and fell.
He lay on the ground in a heap, waiting for William to pick him up and dust him off, and perhaps pay him to go on his way as he had so many other times. He was such a good boy, William, a regular milksop, driven by the same gentle compassion his mother showed even to the smallest of God’s creatures.
“Get along, Father. Go home, and give this money to Mother.”
“No, not yet . . . best swallow more courage before The Bull closes tonight.”
John Shaxper grinned and turned away. He spat on the ground and lurched off towards the pub.
For two straight days The Famous Victories drew appreciative audiences. When the final performance ended, William watched as the theatrical illusions vanished before his eyes. Gone was the envisioned battlefield. Actors were no longer princes or warriors, but ordinary men spending their pay at The Bull. The local tailors and carpenters drank and supped beside them, as if the play itself had forged them into a company of brothers. Props and costumes were packed onto wagons for travel the next day.
With the closing of the play and the barn emptied, William felt abandoned and useless. Things hadn’t gone the way he’d planned, and he longed for a happy ending to his own story. Now he was even more confused about how he (or any man) could undertake a career in the theater. If there were books to read, he would find them. If there was a school to attend, he would apply to it. If he had to serve an apprenticeship, he would slavishly endure it. But if his path to success was barred, he would be trapped in the pitiful existence his termagant wife and drunken father had carved out for him in Stratford.
Worst of all, it seemed as if John Lyly had forgotten to commend him to the Earl of Oxford.
The town grew quiet. Lanterns flickered in the descending night. Suddenly, a stentorian voice boomed from a nearby tent.
Perhaps His Lordship had come to Stratford after all!
William struggled to control his excitement as he ran towards the tent, aware that he couldn’t miss this miraculous opportunity. It had already been proven that he couldn’t count on John Lyly to put him forward. He must take matters into his own hands, as the proverb said, and manage his own destiny.
Words whirled in his head like chaff in the wind. He imagined explaining his numerous ticket sales to Lord Oxford, followed by an ardent declaration of his love for the theater and why it would make him an excellent player. And then Lord Oxford would graciously accept him into the company, and his fortune would be made for the rest of his life. William was sure it would work; and then he hoped it would work. And finally, he had to make it work before his certainty faded altogether.
William straightened his shirt, ran his fingers through his hair and hesitated at the entrance. He said a prayer to bolster his confidence, eased the tent flap slightly and peaked inside.
In the shadows, he recognized William Browne, the distinguished actor who had portrayed Prince Hal, removing his makeup in front of a mirror. Browne gently slid off Prince Hal’s false nose, revealing his own underneath. He pulled off his bowl-cut wig and shook out his reddish-brown hair. He peeled off round cheekbones to expose his angular face. He mimicked lines from the play to John Lyly, who stood nearby.
“If it please your Grace, the crown is taken away.”
“Good my Lord of Oxford, go see who hath done this deed. No doubt ‘tis some vile traitor that hath done it, to deprive my son. They that would do it now would seek to scrape and scrawl for it after my death!”
William quickly realized that Browne had dissolved, and in his place was the Earl of Oxford, the elegant courtier who had opened his arms to embrace the audience at The Curtain. John Lyly stood by, holding a pair of gloves and a walking stick.
The great nobleman had disguised himself to come to Stratford with the actors; but why? William chose to eavesdrop on the strange scene unfolding before him.
“The Roman god Janus had two faces; but for me as a player-within-a-player, it’s a difficult task,” Oxford said.
“Quite so, my lord,” Lyly replied, “and once again, you’ve skirted the Queen’s ban. I can only imagine how she’ll feel about it, if she finds out.”
“I’ve skirted her before and she never complained,” Oxford laughed, offering a double meaning. “At least she can’t dispute the historical accuracy of the play. The Earl of Oxford fought beside King Henry V at Agincourt.”
“But he was the 11th earl, my lord, and you are the 17th. And if you persist in ignoring the Queen’s ban against noblemen acting and playwriting, you could be the last.”
“I’m not afraid of that,” Oxford sighed. “God knows, it might be a relief to be a little less noble and a little more common so that I can move about my life with greater ease. This time I wrote my noble name Oxford into the play instead of on it, which covers my identity as playwright and suggests it, all at the same time.”
“Even so, my lord, if the public discovers that you indulge in base pursuits--”
“Base pursuits? By my word, Lyly, whether I perform at Her Majesty’s Court or in the public playhouses, what royal tastes find sweet won’t sour in the public appetite.”
“But acting in barns? You must admit that’s quite beneath your dignified rank. You shouldn’t have done it, my lord. It’s demeaning. You shouldn’t have come to Stratford.”
“Nonsense. I played the role of a great king.”
“Rank is rank,” Oxford said, “and it smells rank when I’m forbidden to live as I please.”
“If you anger the Queen, she’ll spike your head on London Bridge.”
“Oh, I think not. Heaven knows I’ve given her cause many times, but Eliza has always protected me, ever since she cloaked my translation of Ovid under my Uncle Golding’s name so it could be published without scandal. She has loved me since I was a boy -- in more ways than one.”
William was astounded by the bawdy tone of the innuendo. He strained to hear Lyly’s reply.
“The risk is great, my lord. Your words have a unique stamp. You reveal yourself with each one and spare neither friend nor foe in your comic satires. The Queen barely tolerates it.”
“Perhaps Her Majesty is offended because I taunt everyone equally.”
“Prince Hal is the perfect example. You boast that your play is historically accurate, and then you write in it that Prince Hal and his men robbed the King’s receivers at Gad’s Hill. Well, that never happened, my lord. From the time he was Prince Hal until the time he became King Henry V, he did no such thing.”
“That’s true. Prince Hal and his men never committed robbery at Gad’s Hill.”
“No, but you and your men did,” Lyly whispered.
“It was a theatrical event, a staged outdoor performance.”
“It didn’t amuse Lord Burghley. It was his money stolen. He complained to the Queen.”
“And do you know what she did? She laughed herself silly during our pillow talk! She mocked Burghley’s complaint and then laughed when I went to the foot of our bed and portrayed how his men groveled, dropped the money and fled. It was probably my money that we stole back, for he winnowed a large part of my inheritance away from me over the years. Gad’s Hill will always be a sacred place for me, Lyly,” Oxford sighed dramatically. “It was there that I witnessed the miraculous conversion of Lord Burghley’s men from receivers into givers.”
“That’s all well enough, my lord, but I do wish you’d take my concerns seriously.”
“There is nothing to fear. The Queen has sworn to protect me.”
“For as long as she lives, my lord, and who knows how long that will be with her health so precarious?”
“Come now, you know it’s against the law to contemplate the death of a monarch . . .”
Realizing he’d heard too much, William turned and tripped over a tent spike. He winced as he hit the ground.
“What was that?” Oxford asked. “Did you hear a noise?”
“Indeed, my lord. It was close by. I’ll have a look.”
William pressed himself into the grass, wishing the night would render him invisible. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lyly a few feet away, moving a lantern from side to side. Its rays sought William, but by some miracle, the light didn’t betray him.
“Nothing there, my lord,” Lyly reported. “It must have been the wind.”
“I suppose it’s safe for me to leave under the cloak of night,” Oxford said. “Please pack Prince Hal carefully. Verily, he is a man of parts, with his nose here and his cheeks there and his bowl-cut tresses resting on the table.”
“I’ll take good care of him, my lord, and meet you back at the inn.”
William stood up and dusted himself off. As he did, his elbow lightly brushed the tent.
“Who are you, sirrah? Speak before I strike you!”
“Forgive me, my lord. I didn’t mean to trespass on your privacy.”
“I should gut you like a salmon and toss your fishified flesh into the river. Who are you? Who sent you to spy on me?”
“N-no one,” William stammered. “I’m not a spy. I’m the man who rented you the barn.”
“And so he is,” Lyly confirmed. “He’s been pestering me for weeks for an introduction to you.”
“So, sirrah, you have met me,” Oxford said. “Tell me, is this the cordial encounter you desired? It occurs to me that you eavesdrop behind curtains in the same tedious fashion as my father-in-law. You must be one of his spies.”
“No, my lord, I am not. I came to talk with you about joining your acting company. I am very sad to learn that you’re forced to disguise yourself --”
“This man is mad, Lyly. He’s imagining things. We must send him to a madhouse or cut his throat so he won’t distress anyone with his wild ravings.”
“On my honor,” William said, his voice creaking with fear, “I’ll swear an oath never to reveal anything I saw or heard here.”
“I don’t believe you. You look like a man who’d sell his mother to the devil for a ducat, and then join him for supper on her parboiled remains.”
“Please!” William sobbed, as Oxford pressed the knife deeper. “I’m just a grain merchant with a wife and children. I’m nothing, I’m nobody! Please let me go.”
“Swear on your mother’s virtue that you’ll keep silent.”
“On my mother’s virtue, I swear I’ll never utter a word!”
An eternity seemed to pass before Oxford released his grip and pushed William from the tent.
“Get out of here, villain, before I learn that you’re a liar and your mother is the town whore!”
William fled amidst the sounds of mocking laughter. Lanterns flickered as the night distorted familiar landmarks into ghostly silhouettes. He cursed himself for looking like an imbecile in front of the Earl of Oxford, for losing his chance to join the players, and for failing at everything he tried. What, he wondered, had ever deluded him into thinking he could better himself?
The answer came to him, and he stopped in his tracks.
The road to his success was paved with a courtier’s secret.
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