I don't want to say too much about this project, as it's something I'll probably get back to at a later date, though perhaps in a very different form. But William Shakespeare's "lost years are a continuing source of puzzlement, so I thought I would have some fun with them. One
Lancashire, July 18 1586
I don't want to say too much about this project, as it's something I'll probably get back to at a later date, though perhaps in a very different form. But William Shakespeare's "lost years are a continuing source of puzzlement, so I thought I would have some fun with them.
In the long and amusing history of inauspicious beginnings, few can rival that of Will. Let us for a moment ignore his humble origins, spotty schooling, and that early luckless brush with Law. If instead we focus upon his first play (‘tis the thing he’s famous for, when all is said and done), we must agree that the likelihood of his ever attempting such a thing again was on a par with a Scotsman ascending the English throne. It happened, yes – but to this day no one quite believes it.
Which is all to say that Will’s first play was a mitigated disaster.
Firstly, Lysistrata’s balls were dropping, utterly ruining her song. Myhrinne insisted on missing her cues, and Calonike kept pulling off her wig. When Will chastised her for the third and a half time (the half having been a successful expulsion of air rather than proper words), she replied, “But Master Falstaff, I doesn’t wants to be a girl!”
“Fitting,” replied Will tartly, “as I’m fairly certain she doesn’t want to be you even more. But you’re not a girl – you’re a woman, a fine young woman that all the boys long for.”
All the boys giggled, and Calonike flushed. “Why doesn’t Booby-Tom play the girl?” she demanded, pitching the offending wig at Booby Tom for further emphasis. “
Booby-Tom wasn’t paying attention, as he was occupied at the window with his hand down his points. Rather than call attention to this, which experience informed him would only disrupt his class further, Will decided to try reason. He stepped closer to Calonike, or Hemmings, as he was properly called. At once Hemmings covered his bottom with his knuckles, thus hiding the two most often misused bits of him. But Will did not use the cane – he tried words instead.
“Master Hemmings,” said Will, “theatre is the gateway to understanding. It is not about story – stories can be told in a thousand ways, through song, through prose, even through dance. No, theatre is about character. It is the act of bringing people to life, and keeping them alive. This play was written nearly two thousand years ago, as we count the calendar. But each time it is performed, these people breathe again, as does the playwright. Can you imagine what a smith, a cobbler, a wainwright or carpenter would give to know that their craft would come alive again two thousand years from now? As an actor, you are a god, breathing life where there is none. And you grant the playwright a kind of immortality, the only kind that matters. The story may be silly, but the words are not – they are spoken by people.”
“Death ain’t a person,” cried another objector. “Nor is Love, nor Hope, nor Chastity…”
“I hope she’s not real,” cried Hemmings, which made the cruder boys laugh.
“You’re quite correct,” said Will, flouting their laughter by agreeing with the objection. “Those plays are not about people, they’re about ideas. Which is why they won’t last. No one likes ideas – at least, not the kind that they are forced to listen to. But men will always respond to plays about mankind.”
“This ain’t about men, is it?” asked another. “S’about women.”
Will could have argued further, drawing out the distinction between man and mankind. But he realized that he was growing guilty of the very thing he was objecting to in Passion Plays – promoting ideas rather than people. He had to make this more personal. “Hemmings, think of it this way – theatre allows you to be something else, to pretend. Make free with your mind.”
Hemmings scratched at a louse. “Sounds like lepers and thems what don’t think well.”
Will sighed with an ironical smile. “It’s the well that makes it art.”
“Eh?” Hemmings had found the louse, plucking it free and eating it.
“Eh?” echoed Will snappishly. Mastering his temper, he attempted one more assault against a willful won’t. “Isn’t it better than just memorizing Virgil and parroting it back?”
“No,” retorted Hemmings, “it’s just the same, only some of us gots to wear wigs and kits.”
“And kiss!” cried another protestant, eliciting huge negatories from the rest of the class. Though one or two boys didn’t object too strongly.
Stymied, Will unleashed his final weapon. “If you don’t perform your parts this moment, we shall perform this play again tomorrow – and invite your fathers.”
A tremor of fearfulness rippled through the room, bringing about a wonderful silence. Slowly Lysistrata began again to croak out her song. Myrhinne came in on cue, and Calonike recovered her wig.
Which left Will as the sole auditor to the travesty that was his first play.
Yes, Disaster was the word. The only thing that kept it from being an unmitigated disaster, indeed the only cheering part of the whole affair, was that he did not have to endure the totality.
Mitigation came in the form of an interruption. “Master Falstaff,” said a little boy called Booby-Tom. “There’s a wench being swived outside. May we go watch?”
Cheeky. But anything to end the thespianic night-terror. Striking the Booby’s pate as he passed, Will left the front pew and crossed to the door of the one room schoolhouse that was his abode. Home it could never be – his home was far away, and he was barred from it. Lord, did he hate being a schoolmaster. He often wished that some great plague would come and exterminate his bully pupils, or else a flood that would sweep him away from this place.
Little did he know, as he opened the door, that his wish was about to be granted.
Outside it was indeed as Booby-Tom had described, at least at first glance. Two men had dismounted and were now groping and fumbling at a woman’s clothing. To the childish eye, it certainly looked as if they were making a clumsy attempt at disrobement. But Will knew that if fornication was the aim, there were simpler ways to circumvent a woman’s raiment. No, as he stood in the doorway watching it appeared, oddly enough, that the two men were looking for something hidden on the poor wench’s body.
Until this moment the girl’s face had been hidden from Will, turned away behind a curtain of curling rich midnight tresses. But when her struggles and kicks turned her about, Will felt a sword enter his breast. Breath left him at the sight of her, his liver began to throb and his lungs turned to stone.
She should not have been beautiful. She was too dark, both in hair and eye. She was a raven, with the same mournful mockery in her eyes. Her skin was naturally fair, though until recently a trifle burned by the sun. She flicked a look to Will, standing in the doorway not far from where she stood protesting her molesting on the road. She did not cry aloud for aid, but the plea was present nonetheless.
“Hemmings, fetch my sword. Quick now!”
The boys’ excitement, already aroused at the prospect of watching the unwilling dalliance in the road, grew to Cathedral height at the idea of their schoolmaster intervening. No doubt they would see him whalloped, then watch the conclusion of the raven’s rape.
Waiting breathlessly for Hemming’s return, Will listened to the grunts and cries from the road. The woman’s words were curses, and those curses were far more creative than any Will had ever heard. The cries of “*********” and “****-********” only made him respect the Dark Lady more. So too did her struggles, which were so far effective that only her bodice had torn at the shoulder and her over-skirt rent a little at the hip.
The varlets’ utterances, in contrast to hers, lacked all originality. Only they repeated, “Where be it?” though once they varied it by adding, “Whore” to the end.
Hemmings returned, pink and glowing, from the loft above that contained Will’s truckle bed and basin. In his hands was a rapier, the hard scabbard bruised and nicked. Accepting it, Will didn’t bother to fasten the sheath to his belt. Tripping lightly down the hill to the road, he removed the blade from its home. He gripped the wooden scabbard in his left hand as his right forefinger and thumb found the trigger-guard. It was a poor sword, with only flat quillons to the guard and a single arcing knuckle-bow. But it was keen and shiny and far from neglected – Will never knew if the Law would succeed in tracing him to Lancashire.
Leaping the short stone wall, Will landed in the road. Keeping the weapon’s tip pointed down and the scabbard hidden behind his left leg, he said, “Release her, you varlets!”
It was said in his best voice, the one he had learned as a boy playing Aeneas – low but carrying, with the slightest edge of a growl. He wished he were dressed for the part, instead of in his ugly master’s robe. But his stance was perfect, and his tone remarkably commanding.
Grasping the Dark Lady by her shapely hips, one man covered her mouth and pulled her close. The other turned to face Will, his hand dropping with alacrity to the double-ringed hilt of his own rapier.
At this close distance, it was obvious to Will’s eye that these cads were something more than footpads. They wore matching uniforms of leather and rough silk, and their boots were tall and matched as well. Someone’s personal guard. Will felt himself quail in his slippers, but managed not to tremble openly.
The front man told Will to sod off, though his language was a shade courser and more vehement. The second, less voluable still, grunted his assent.
With forced ease, Will brought his blade up into the basic invitation – feet shoulder width apart, right foot forward and the left angled a trifle out, knees at demi-plie. His scabbard played the part of a dagger on high, while the rapier aimed loosely for the talker’s breast. “I say, release the lady and be gone.”
Will’s pupils had drawn closer to hear, just to the other side of the low wall. Some of them hefted stones and nocked them into slings they were forbidden to carry. Will knew that he was just as likely a target for their missiles as his two opponents, but he chose not to share that intelligence.
The one who seemed to know his tongue from his teeth said, “What does a schoolmaster know of fighting?”
“I may wear the schoolmaster’s gown today,” said Will, not in anger but again with that unconcerned combination of authority and growl, “but that is the fault of this blade – a blade that has skewered men for less insult that you have offered today. I swore never to raise it again in anger, but so help me God, if you do not release the lady in this breath, I will use the next to sing this blade through a measure of crimson music until my blade is cadent with your intermingled sanguinity.”
As they remeasured him, Will feared perhaps he was over-playing the casual nature of his deadliness. Or perhaps they were merely negociating his language. That he had certainly over-played.
“Leave off, master,” replied the talker in a less strident tone. He was eyeing both Will’s stance and the number of slings (a quantity which in all honesty astonished Will more than the varlet). “We’re on orders to bring this thief back to our mistress.”
Will’s arm was steady, his point unwavering. “Your mistress is no lady, to send such as you to retrieve a woman in such a manner.”
“You know fut all,” said the man. “She’s a disloyal wench, and has valuable property that does not belong to her.”
“That is for the law to consider,” said Will. “If you persist, it must perforce consider your deaths at my hand. I am content to have it so. Are you?”
The students began to crow in approval. Though they had often felt their master’s cane, never had they suspected he owned such a murderously still temper. Rather than wishing him bested, they now began to hope they would watch him exercise this new and unsuspected deadliness.
The two men heard the boys’ encouragement, offering them further pause. Slings and sword together would see them ended, if indeed the schoolmaster knew what he was about.
As the two varlets studied Will’s stance, measuring his apparent skill against their own, the Dark Lady bit the hand that stopped her mouth, drawing blood. Her restrainer cursed and released her. His companion turned a mite and Will passed forward into the second invitation. Sensing the threat, both men leapt back and half-drew. This left the raven-haired mistress free to scamper behind the protection of Will’s en guard.
“We’ll be back for her,” growled one, mounting his steed. “With a proper writ.”
“You’d best have more than a writ, wit,” replied Will with a squint he’d been told was properly stern. “A magistrate, one with proper manners.”
“O aye,” said the talky one, sawing his reins. “And she’d best be here when we do.”
The other varlet articulated his emphasis with a grunt, and together they rode back in the direction of the town.
Will sighed a little and, lowering his guard, turned to the lady. At once she propelled herself onto Will’s chest, her lips locked against his. When she paused for breath, she cried, “A hero, true!” before resuming.
Will’s sword stood upright as he awkwardly accepted the kisses, even going so far as to put his hand on the shapely hip. But as there was a bum-roll in the way, he was cheated of even a hint at the body beneath.
The children smacked their hands together in wild applause. Some twirled their slings, making a ripping sound in the air before loosing their missiles into the sky.
“Take a bow, lovely,” said the Dark Lady in an unsuitably husky voice. “It’s only polite.”
Flushing in embarrassed pleasure, Will did as she instructed, breaking a leg to his students who crowed with delight.
“See now?” said the Dark Lady. “Everyone loves the triumphant end.”