By David Finkle
The weird little man standing next to me had been muttering to himself since the play began. The sound effect was that of a storm gathering in the far distance, but since the rumbling-like mumbling didn’t suggest a storm traveling all that quickly, I paid him little mind.
I was much more involved with where I was and what I was doing. It was an English June, and I was at the new thatch-roofed Globe, a theatre built in 1997 and modeled after William Shakespeare’s original Globe (1599-1613) when it burned to the ground, was rebuilt and then shuttered for inflammatory political reasons (1614-1642). (I’m using the English spelling of “theatre,” because it only seems right under the circumstances.)
The reason for my being there—not just in London but there on hallowed Shakespeare territory—was simple. I’m a young (all right, all right, young-ish) playwright with one semi-hit to my credit, and breathes there a playwright who isn’t interested in Shakespeare? It’s practically a requirement, no? There’s another reason: writer’s block. I’d been confronting it to no avail and had decided a trip to Shakespeare might do me good.
Ever since I’d heard that at Shakespeare’s plays there were such things as groundlings—at all the works written for the public and not introduced at court—I wanted to be one. I wanted to see for myself how Shakespeare’s writing took in the groundlings, how their presence affected his manuscripts.
For those who don’t know, the groundlings were the poorer theatre-lovers who paid a penny to stand on the open area in front of the stage and brave the elements, while those who could afford a few more pennies remained under the thatched roof in the seats forming the famous “O” to which the opening Chorus of Henry V exuberantly refers.
Stop me if you’ve heard all this before.
The new Globe had been in operation a few years before I was able to get there. (For its construction I had sent in a few pounds that paid for a single brick. Maybe the name Edgar Chapman is on a list somewhere; maybe it’s on a brick.) But I had finally arrived, had paid my five pounds for groundling status and was standing in the hot afternoon sun, wearing a paper hat offered free for sunstroke avoidance.
It was a performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, not my favorite of the comedies. Much Ado About Nothing has that distinction. I’d switched allegiance from As You Like It some years earlier.
Too much information? I’m a playwright. Naturally, I’m free with the dialogue.
Here I was, at last understanding from the reaction of the people around me—many of them pressing against the stage and locking eyes with the actors—that Shakespeare had exactly this kind of give-and-take in mind when he was putting quill to vellum.
I would have been having a great time if not for the man next to me, sputtering unintelligibly. Every once in a while, I could make out a bit of what he was saying. “Not right,” he’d say. At other times, he wasn’t commenting on the language or the performances but was saying the lines along with the actors. “From whence did they obtain that phrase, i’ troth?” was the only time I heard an entire agitated sentence and only subliminally noted it was in iambic pentameter.
Finally, during a scene where Titania is gabbing with the fairies—Peaseblossom, Mustardseed and colleagues—my fellow groundling gave out with a sharp, “No, no, no, ’t’isn’t it, ’t’isn’t it.”
Decidedly prosaic as opposed to iambic pentameter, and spoken with such vehemence, I finally turned to look at him. As I say, he was short—about five-foot-seven or eight, thin and wearing what, considering the comedy we were observing, I might call well-worn rustics’ clothes—lendings, in the Shakespearean vernacular, that weren’t far from what could be purchased nowadays at an Urban Outfitters.
Like many men at the turn of the 21st century, he had a mustache, a goatee and a gold ring in his left ear.
I leaned over a foot or so and said into that left ear, “Do you mind? I’m trying to hear the play.”
“And swich am I,” he said, “but I hear not the play I wrote.”
“Swich,” I thought. Uh-oh, I thought. I know about the Jerusalem Syndrome where pilgrims in the Holy Land suddenly think they’re Jesus or John the Baptist or the Virgin Mary—sometimes all three—but I’d never heard tell of the Globe Syndrome where Shakespeare pilgrims suddenly think they’re the man himself. Now it seemed I was being brought up to date the hard way.
I did have a recourse. I was a five-pound groundling—not my weight but the price of a ticket reflecting 21st-century inflation. Among the many benefits of those few pounds was my ability to move away from the man. But before I departed, I thought I’d give him another close eyeballing so that if I found myself near him again, I could quickly ankle away, or if I saw him coming towards me, I could nimbly veer out of his path.
After telling me about not hearing “the play I wrote,“ he’d turned back to the stage. What I saw in profile again was the high forehead, the beak-y nose, the less-than-damask cheek, the mustache, the thin lips tightened in rising disgust, the goatee. I saw the gold earring, glinting in the mid-afternoon sun.
Funny, I thought to myself, this Globe Syndrome is getting to me, too. Not that I suddenly thought I was William Shakespeare and felt a pressing urge to write King Lear. (If only.) I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking the man at my right did resemble paintings and reproductions of paintings I’d seen of William Shakespeare.
I also thought, this is nuts. No two supposed likenesses of Shakespeare even resemble each other. Almost anyone with a narrow face or, for that matter, a broad face and a mustache and goatee or no mustache or goatee and a gold ring in his ear or no gold ring in his ear could be said to resemble what people think Shakespeare looked like.
Put a goatee and a gold earring on me and I could pass myself off as a Shakespeare lookalike. So I was just about to inch off from him, when the man turned to me and said, “Do you suppose I jest? O, I do not. The whoresons have played fast and loose with me.” He had deep-set black eyes that abruptly turned to fiery coals. “Perhaps they think my death has left them free to alter what I’ve written as they choose.”
He supposes, I thought, to con me by continuing to ladle on the iambic pentameter. I also thought, I may be a fool, but I’m not that big a fool. If he was going to take me for a fool, he’d learn to take me for a Shakespearean fool, the kind that’s wiser than everyone else in his immediate vicinity.
“Look, Shakespeare,” I said to myself, “you’re disturbing me. I’m trying to hear your play, and you’re not making it easy. If you don’t want people to enjoy it, why did you write it in the first place?”
But what I thought I was saying under my breath had turned into a hiss, and the people around us were giving me dirty looks as they edged away. I turned back towards the stage, and as I did, I started sidling to the left.
He sidled right along by me. “I took my quill in hand,” he hissed back at me—while irritated bystanders shushed us—“because I did indeed effect a happy end. Ne’er did I count on varlets changing what I orchestrated for the stage.”
I made that adamant statement out to be something more like iambic multimeter and was at a loss as to how I might answer it.
No answer was necessary. Having unburdened himself of his thought, he took a few deliberate steps’ leave of me and resumed watching and listening to the actors with basilisk eye and gazelle ear. I could see he’d resumed muttering to himself. I, too, went back to watching the play and assumed our exchange had ended.
An incorrect assumption, because when the intermission (the interval, that is) came and I was standing in the courtyard with the other milling playgoers, I was caught off-guard by my groundling friend coming on me from behind and saying, “I wrote my plays in five acts, and they present them in two. God’s wounds, they do not ken the basic elements of my writing.”
“Excuse me,” I said, “but why are you telling me this?”
“Because you addressed me as Shakespeare. You seem to know who I am.”
Me and my big mouth. I decided this had gone on long enough. “That was a joke,” I said.
“I fail to see the humour in calling a man by his rightful name,” he said.
I write “humour” in the English spelling, because he pronounced it in something like two and a half syllables, giving the second-syllable “u” just the merest blip of recognition.
I suppose that’s how they pronounced it in the Elizabethan Age, I thought to myself facetiously but said to him, “I think this has gone on long enough, don’t you? Shakespeare died in 1616. We’re already in the 21st century.”
“You are as surprised as I that I am here,” he said. “I did not expect to be talking to you any more than you expected to find yourself talking to me. One moment there am I in gleeful orb, then find myself on earthly turf once more.”
“You’re saying you’ve come back from the dead,” I ventured.
“I am saying I am back from the removed,” he said. “I all but had it right with Hamlet’s father. There is a sense of hovering o’er the land.” He still seemed determined to speak in iambic pentameter. He said “hovering” as “hov’ring.” If the man at my side is truly William Shakespeare, I thought to myself, perhaps he can’t help himself.
The bells calling the audience to the play were clanging. I headed back to my role as groundling. My 16th-century companion headed back alongside me. “I like to be called Will,” he said and held out his hand.
When someone calling himself Will Shakespeare and, from certain outward appearances could be, wants to shake hands, you do the polite thing. I held out my hand and reluctantly said who I am. I said I was Edgar Chapman. (I didn’t say that my parents, Shakespeare lovers themselves and especially partial to King Lear, had named me Edgar after Gloucester’s good son.)
We shook. He had a small hand but a firm grip. This, I thought to myself, could be the hand that wrote Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors. Unless he was left-handed. In that case he would have written Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors and All’s Well That Ends Well and Timon of Athens et al with the other hand.
When we got back inside, I said, “I’m going to stand in the back here.”
“What you will,” he said. “I need to be closer.”
I watched him slip through the crowd with agile movements until he was right at the lip of the stage. It came up to his forehead. Watching the actors return to the stage, I thought they would undoubtedly be aware of him chattering to himself and might even hear his expletives.
Apparently they did, and more. Not long after the second act began—he would have said the fourth act—the actor playing Bottom spoke a line as if directing it to the audience. This was in keeping, I had begun to see, with the original Shakespeare’s notions about engaging the spectators.
Having no idea what he was letting himself in for, the actor had aimed his speech at my interval partner, who must have said something snappy in reply. The actor paused, laughed and then spoke his next line—a line that seemed to catch the other actors off-guard. But only momentarily. After taking this Bottom in for a second and then casting fleeting looks towards the man calling himself Will, they continued the scene.
I noticed that throughout the rest of the performance, the actors would steal occasional glances towards where my new friend was standing, but though I could see his mouth moving in the three-quarter view I had, he didn’t appear to say anything else explicitly to any of the ensemble members.
When the play finished—when Titania and Hippolytus were reconciled, when Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius were sorted, when Puck had asked indulgence and bid adieu—the audience cheered as one. Or almost as one. Will stood silently at first and then, without much apparent conviction, slapped his small hands together four or five times, turned and headed for an exit.
I headed for a different exit, hoping to get lost in the retreating crowd. No such luck. Will appeared before me, his dark eyes piercing the space between us. “You enjoyed the play?” he asked.
“Very much,” I said. “I hope you won’t mind my saying it’s not my favorite of your comedies, but I think this is a good production.” I didn’t know if I was joking or being sincere.
“It’s not my favorite, either,” he said. “I wrote it in 1594 and in my usual haste. I improved as the century’s candle wax waned, but I can also advise you that as I wrote this one, it’s better than what you just witnessed. I lost count of the discrepancies between what I set down and what I feign watched.” In his need to criticize, he was shifting from lilting poetry into heavy prose.
“Is that so?” I said.
“I’ sooth,” he said. “It got so I finally had to do something about it. Did you chance to see me speak to one of the actors?”
I acknowledged I had and that everyone else in the theatre also had—the actors as well as the audience.
This had no effect on him. “I wanted to assure,” he continued, “that he spoke it as I wrote it and not as any miscreant folio reproduced it. And I was telling him to speak the ensuing lines more trippingly on the tongue than he had the previous ones. I was gratified he took my advice. You heard its musical felicitance.”
He’d returned to iambic pentameter.
“‘Felicitance?’” I said.
“You don’t have the word, do you?” he responded. “‘Felicitance,’ meaning unexpected and felicitous. The adjective form is ‘felicitant.’ You don’t have either because I didn’t give them you. It gladdens me to hear you have many of the words I coined. I’m sorry you don’t have that one, but perhaps now you’ve heard it, you can pass it along. Although I meant to use it, I could never work it into any of the plays or sonnets. I had it in the first draft of Twelfth Night but took it out. I never got round to it again.”
A light came into his dark eyes. “I mightily enjoyed the game of words and liked inventing them apace. I have a long list I never used. I’m very fond of ‘recontrilate.’”
Hard as it is to credit, I realized I wasn’t only going along with this, I was getting a kick out of it. I was beginning to succumb to believing I was in the real William Shakespeare’s company.
We were now walking along the Embankment, talking like old acquaintances. “What does it mean?” I asked.
“‘Recontrilate’? It means what you think it means—as do all the words I fabricated.”
“Spell it and use it in a sentence,” I said, feeling for an instant as if I were back in grammar school.
He said, “You understand I never even settled on a standard spelling of my own name, and neither did anyone else. Nevertheless, “recontrilate”—r-e-c-o-n-t-r-i-l-a-t-e. Used in a sentence—The gentleman regarded me and longed to speak but only could recontrilate.”
“I see,” I said but didn’t. Well, I sort of saw. According to him, recontrilate must mean desiring to say what’s on one’s mind but unable to muster the courage to say it. Or something along those lines.
“‘Andreony’ is another favorite I never got round to using,” Will said. “A-n-d-r-e-o-n-y. Licentiousness is not my joy in life, but andreony is. Malacious. M-a-l-a-c-i-o-u-s. Yon knave hath a malacious look in his eye. I’ve got a milliand of them. M-i-l-l-i-a-n-d. A million one hundred thousand.”
He paused to massage his goatee, then said, “But disseminating neologisms is not why I’m here.” He seemed to have plunged into deep and painful thought.
“If you’ve got lists of words you never put into the plays,” I said, “I’m wondering if you have plays in your head you’ve never written down.”
“Does the queen sit on a gilded throne?” he asked. (I assumed he was referring to Elizabeth I, but maybe he was referring to Elizabeth II. Maybe both.) “I have numerous plays still to write, but why should I write them if they’re only to be called the work of someone else, some young pup alive and enerthetically wagging his tail now? I will not. Oh. Enerthetic—e-n-e-r-t-h-e-t-I-c, meaning with excessive athletic energy.”
Whatever this folly was had me intrigued. “Then why are you—,” I started to ask.
“Why am I here?” he cut me off. “I think I know. I think there’s only one explanation.” Then he cut himself off. “Do you have time for a drink?”
“Uh, yes,” I said, dragging the vowels out to indicate uncertainty and suspicion.
“Good,” he said. “I know a pub near here.”
He knows a pub, I thought. If he’s Shakespeare, any pub he knows is likely to be long gone. But I’d played along this far. Why stop then? After all, any pub he knew might have Falstaff in it.
We’d been walking in the direction of the Southwark Cathedral. He took a right turn and then a left. “There it lies,” he said. And, indeed, at the next corner was a Tudor building with a pub on the first floor. “There was an alehouse at this location for years before I knew it. As long as there is ale and men who take their joy in drinking it, I suppose there will be an alehouse on this hallow’d spot.”
We reached it. He pointed at the sign swinging above the door in the slight breeze and said, “How felicitant. There. I’ve used it—such a handy word.”
The sign read “The William Shakespeare.”
“In my day it was The King’s Stallion,” he said, “but otherwise it looks almost as it did then.”
On entering, I realized it was a working man’s pub, and curiously enough the clientele were not dressed that differently from my new comrade.
“Hail, fellows, well met,” he said to them and was greeted by a round of hearty “Cheers, mate,” which seemed to satisfy him.
“It has not changed, I’m pleased to say,” he said. He looked at the other patrons, who’d returned to conversing loudly among themselves and punching each other on the biceps.
We ordered a couple of beers from a bartender who did look Falstaffian to me, but I decided that had to do with the off-kilter frame of mind into which I’d been drawn. I blinked and looked again. He still looked like Falstaff and gave enriched meaning to the phrase “belly up to the bar.” (Not a phrase, I think, that Shakespeare manufactured.) Taking the bartender in, I half expected Prince Hal to issue from the Gents.
Will and I carried our beers to an old table into which all sorts of carvings had been made. He rubbed his fingers along some of them and suddenly said, “Clap eyen on this.” He was running a thin forefinger along a “W. S.” that had been incised. He took a swig of his beer, made a show of enjoying it and said, “I remain amazed to be here.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said, “seeing as you’ve been dead for close to four hundred years.”
“Time is not a factor where I have been drifting. ’Tis all one.”
“What brought you here?” I asked, very much looking forward to the answer I might get.
“I fear I cannot tell you rightly, sir,” he said. The iambic pentameter he slipped into frequently was beginning to unnerve me. I’d started repeating the lines in my head and tapping out the measures with the fingers of my left hand. It was like a tic. I worried I might not be able to stop.
What was clear to me, though, was that it was as natural for him as breathing. Come to think of it, he probably breathed in iambic pentameter. I realized I was beginning to.
He went on. “One minute I was hovering. Next minute I was near the slowly flowing Thames. But though I cannot tell you how I am here, I think I can tell you why. You see, my good man, word reached me, as it always does with a man of words, that the authorship of my plays is in dispute.
“In the present age, an increasing number of scholars and would-be scholars are claiming to have amassed evidence that my plays were not from my hand. You can imagine how that grates. I will not claim that all my works are art, but each of them was writ with caring heart and often also with necessant speed. Thus, if somehow my offerings offend, it has not been deliberate, my friend.”
I was listening—and tapping so consistently I could have been sending an S-O-S to all the ships at sea.
He caught me at it, and his tone changed. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Don’t mind me,” I said. “It’s just a nervous habit I have.”
That assuaged him, likely because he was envisioning weightier matters, which he went on to express. “How prophetic the title Love’s Labour’s Lost has turned out to be. By which I mean to say the labours of my love could be lost were they to be attributed to others. What misprision! The names they toss about as if they were a juggler’s colored balls—Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Edward, Lord de Vere. Lord de Vere! Would that they had spake with him anon, his dithering had disabused them, sure.”
He was becoming more agitated. He made fists of his small hands and was waving them. “What gave them leave to t’impute my plays to Kyd, or Marlowe, for that matter? Damn the churls! Did it ever occur to them that I might have written Kyd’s plays or Marlowe’s or, at the very least, contributed to them? Which devoutly, I did do. We were colleagues. Verily, we made suggestions one t’other. But write each other’s plays? Never!”
He was on a genuine Shakespearean jag. He stopped waving his hands and gripped both my forearms with so much force I thought he’d cut off the circulation. He looked me in the eyes. “How much do you know about me?”
I hadn’t expected to be asked such a direct question and fumfered. “I guess I know what everyone else knows,” I said. “You were born in 1564. You came from Stratford-on-Avon. You were married to Anne Hathaway. You acted with the King’s Men. You wrote the plays.”
I was trying to remember any other fast facts, but I was drawing blanks. What I knew were the plays. One of the things people do know about William Shakespeare is that there isn’t that much known. “There isn’t that much known about you. I know that historians lose track of you completely from about 1585 to 1592. It’s all speculation. They think you might have been acting with obscure troupes.”
My forearms were beginning to hurt. I must have winced, because he let go and gave them each a cursory rub. He was massaging his goatee again and shaking his head. I could tell he was thinking about what I had just said. What I was thinking was that in my hurried remarks, I was making free with the pronoun “you”—as if I’d ceased to have any doubts he was who he said he was.
“Acting in obscure troupes,” he said. “That gives my innards a twist. Indeed, I was acting and obscurely but not with traveling players. I was ta’en with learning my trade. Were I to write plays, I knew I had first to live life. Where did these fools imagine I acquired my knowledge of men and women? By doing work where I could observe them, that’s where. I became an itinerant. I served on farms, in monasteries, at doss houses and homes of the rich, at sea, on land. I spent profitable hours with courtiers, soldiers, rustics, lawyers, lovers, thieves, musicians, merchants, scholars, philosophers, cooks, astronomers, mountebanks, tinkers, ostlers, doctors, clerics, beggars, necromancers, servants and rulers. I toiled in Lord De Vere’s stables. There’s the origin of that rumour.” (As he had with “humour,” he blipped on the “u” in “rumour.”)
He stood up to draw himself to his full height and pounded on his chest. “I wrote my plays,” he said. “I had done the research.” He said—no, bellowed—“I was fully qualified.”
His voice was an arrow splitting the air. He had a trained actor’s projection. The men at the bar applauded him. He removed his cap and gave them a low bow, sat down again and in modulated tones said to me, “My outrage is the cause of my return. I see my purpose plain before me now. What my accusers haven’t reckoned with is solid evidence to prove them wrong.”
I was tapping to beat the band.
“Your nervous habit,” he said and looked at me with what I took to be Elizabethan pity.
“Right,” I said. “I’ve tried to stop but haven’t been able to as yet.” But I wasn’t so distracted by my tapping that the phrase “solid evidence” zoomed past me without my taking it in. “Solid evidence?” I repeated.
“Yes,” he said. “Do I need to spell the words and use them in another sentence?”
“No, the first sentence will suffice, if you explain what you meant by it.”
“I would have thought the meaning was quite clear,” he said. “I kept early drafts of my plays. I kept notes I jotted down whenever I got ideas for characters or situations. I kept records of progress I made. My papers are my proof, and you may be intrigued to hear that among them are two nearly completed plays.”
“But surely they’ve been destroyed,” I said, by now way past having any gnawing doubts about the identity of the man with whom I was speaking. “Otherwise, they would have been found long ago, centuries ago.”
“You cannot find what is well hidden,” he said and took a long draft of his beer.
“Hidden?” I said.
“To be sure,” he said. “They were my private papers. They were for my eyes only. So I hid them where no one would find them. I buried them, and now I only have to dig them up to establish my authorship beyond dispute.”
“Where did you bury them?” I asked. “I hope you didn’t conceal them anywhere near the old Globe. It was destroyed a second time twenty-six or twenty-eight years after your death and is now only partially preserved and surrounded by modern flats.”
“How you mistake me,” he said. “If you know my plays, you know I saw little future for the Globe. I predicted its eventual demise at the end of The Tempest when I referred to its having no more durability than a dream. I was far too clever. I buried them where they would not be disturbed until I chose to recover them.”
Looking to right and left and behind him to the bar where the patrons were absorbed in their own conversations, he beckoned me closer and whispered in my ear.
That clandestine confidence was how I came to be meeting him after nightfall not two hundred feet from the William Shakespeare publick house, where he had devised a scheme and implored me to join him in it.
Was I going to say no? What if he did retrieve the lead box he claimed he’d sunk into a hole dug in a garden by the St. Saviour parish house that is now Southwark Cathedral?
He’d explained that when in 1610, he was considering leaving London, he decided it was time to inter his papers below ground and reasoned that if there had been a religious edifice of one sort or another at the St. Saviour parish house for a thousand years, there would be a religious edifice of one sort or another in the hallowed spot for another thousand years and more. He reasoned that his belongings were safer there than in any bank.
He’d reasoned correctly. For now Southwark Cathedral, renamed from St. Savior’s in 1905, stands there, as does the garden and the ancient tree near which he’d buried the precious lead box.
He hadn’t reasoned, more’s the pity, that there would be a wrought-iron gate around the garden and that it would be locked at night, which we only discovered when, dressed in dark clothes and furnished with a shovel (his contribution) and a flashlight (a torch—my contribution), we reconnoitered near the garden.
“What do we do now?” I asked after we’d ascertained that no one was near and I’d tried the handle on the metal door with no luck.
He was undeterred. “I once worked as a locksmith’s apprentice,” he said. “I never made him a character in a play, but I remember everything he taught me.” Within minutes he’d located a thin piece of scrap metal, and, Bob’s your uncle, we were entering the parish garden, shutting the gate behind us without securing the lock. There were only three trees there, and Will went to the one by far the oldest.
He looked around to position himself correctly. “I was also apprentice to a gardener,” he said, “and learned the rudiments of gardening. I put him in Richard II—act three, lines 23 to 123, they should be.”
He gave me a few seconds to recall the scene before continuing. “When this tree was a mere sapling, I took into account how it would grow. I wanted to make certain that the box containing much of my work would not become displaced by its burgeoning roots.”
He walked three paces from the trunk and with the shovel’s handle pointed at a spot on the ground. “I surmise the chest of lead lies here,” he said.
I was struck by a thought. “After four centuries,” I said, “isn’t it possible there has been a build-up of earth and that the, uh, chest of lead is much deeper than it was when you buried it?”
“I’d say the possibility is strong,” he said, “but full prepared am I to labor long. I cannot think the box is sunk so deep that it will not be found ’fore russet dawn.”
With that he bade me stand aside the gate to give him warning should someone intrude. (Now I’m writing in iambic pentameter—it’s catching.)
So far I may be giving the impression that I was taking this all in stride. If so, it’s a false impression. I was shaking in my running shoes—in part because it was a chilly night but mostly because I couldn’t see how we would escape being discovered.
Before we had descended the staircase from the pavement above, we had cased the joint—if a cathedral simultaneously elegant and hulking can be called a joint. I had suggested that security guards might be lurking. (Will was familiar with the concept of guards, although he didn’t know the term “security guards.”) We saw none. Nor did we see policemen on foot. Only an occasional pedestrian passed near where we stood obscured by night and shadows.
All was quiet on the cathedral’s eastern front—and remained that way for an hour or more, during which I must have checked my watch at least fifty times. Almost as often I asked Will if he’d struck anything.
He hadn’t, but he never betrayed the slightest sign of worry about his mission. On the couple of occasions when I volunteered to spell him, he took no time telling me he wasn’t at all tired and would keep digging as long as needed.
Sometime after three, when the traffic was so light that the sound of an automobile or night bus barely interrupted the silence, I had turned away from the gate to ask Will again if he wanted me to take over from him. He said no, that he liked the work assignments as they were.
So I turned back to cover the gate and standing in front of me, having appeared from nowhere, was a man I figured to be at least six-foot-four or five and weighing three hundred pounds or more. He had broad features which, when I shined the torch on him from below, gave him the look of a heavy-duty bruiser.
Pushing past me into the garden, he asked, “What do you think you’re doing?” It was a question for which there was no answer. Yes, there was the honest answer: “That’s William Shakespeare over there. He’s digging up a lead box in which he’s stored papers that will offer so much incontrovertible proof he wrote all his plays that, once and for all, certain contemporary suspicions about authenticity and attribution can be laid to rest.”
But in this instance honesty wasn’t guaranteed to be the best policy. I did think of something. Stuttering it out, I said, “My friend and I were in the garden earlier today, and he dropped a ring he’s trying to find.” I thought of something else. “It’s not a valuable ring, not gold or anything, no diamond in it. But it does have sentimental value for him.”
I must have sounded like a blithering idiot. I certainly sounded like that to myself. The hulking intruder looked at me as if I were a meringue he could crush beneath his huge feet. He gave me another shove and headed towards Will. As he did, Will raised his shovel high and said, “You ask what I am doing here, old salt. The better query is what you might want.”
The moving mound of flesh and bone stopped in his tracks and said, “I don’t need to explain myself to you. All you need to know is I’m a copper in plain clothes, telling the like o’ you to clear out o’ ’ere.”
That’s all I had to hear. I stared at Will with what I hope was a “let’s do as he says—and do it pronto” look. But Will wasn’t looking at me. He had walked up to the mammoth interloper and planted his much smaller self directly in front of him. Instead of continuing to hold the shovel aloft, he rested on it as if he were a toff with a walking stick.
He bent his head back in order to gaze into the glaring fat, round face and said, “’S blood you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried-newt’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish. O for breath to utter what is like thee, you tailor’s yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing-tuck, you sanguine coward, you bed-presser, you horseback breaker, you huge hill of horse meat, get ye gone.”
When it was clear he’d finished, the man—who had backed off a foot or two or three during the peroration—said, “Hold on, mate. No need to get personal. I was just ’aving a right bit o’ fun in the middle o’ the night. I’ll be gettin’ along now. I ’ope you find your ring. I know what them kinds of things can mean to a bloke.” With that he did a clumsy about-face, went out the gate, which he then very carefully closed behind him.
Will gave me a knowing look.
“You just took quite a chance,” I said.
“No swich thing,” he said. “You forget who I am. Will Shakespeare. I write plays. Could I not see into the minds of men, I nothing am and must lay down my quill. Or my shovel.”
He held it up and said, “I knew him for a bounder at first glance. His manner and his bearing were the clues. I recognized his cunning, as you see. And now, my liege, I hie me back to work, and you to your watch at the iron gate.”
The digging resumed until the mound of dislodged dirt was several feet high and his head disappeared below ground level. It wasn’t more than half an hour, however, before I heard him give a cry and then heard the tapping of metal on metal. “’Tis found,” he said.
I left my vigil on the instant to peer down at him furiously freeing what was a narrow box about eighteen inches long, twelve inches wide and about six inches deep. When he had unearthed it, he handed it up to me. It weighed perhaps ten pounds, and dirt clung to it. It had a hasp but no lock. I set it down and gave Will a hand up from the hole he’d dug.
I was eager to open the box, as was he, but he only raised the lid to reassure himself that its contents were intact. He allowed me a peek, and what I saw did appear to be old papers tied with old ribbons.
Then he insisted I return to the gate while he filled the hole in. This took less time than the digging had, and it was no more than another half hour before he replaced the grass square that covered it so that it all but appeared it had never been tampered with.
By that time the sky in the east was beginning to get light. It was dawn, but so far not russet. We left the garden, closing the gate behind us, whereupon Will wangled the piece of scrap metal in the key hole and once again the gate was locked.
I held the box while he did that, but when he’d finished with the lock, he took the box back and pointed towards the Embankment, which was only sixty or seventy feet away. He was indicating it was there where we’d examine the contents of the lead box more thoroughly.
What seemed like seconds and a lifetime later, we were seated on a bench with only an occasional early-morning jogger going by. Though Will looked as if he could use a shower and I undoubtedly looked tired, there was nothing about us to make anyone take an unusual interest.
With no ado about much, Will finally raised the lid fully. There lay the papers about which he had spoken. He picked up one sheaf and untied the ribbon. I saw the handwriting—tall, thin, febrile letters leaning towards the right as if running to catch something down the block. I saw a sheet of paper, the writing on which began, “I, Will Shakspear.”
He lay that sheaf aside and removed another and then another and then another. After removing a half dozen that seemed indisputable proof he had—as he maintained—written his plays, he picked one up and said, “Here ’tis. The one nearly completed play about which the waiting world knows nothing.”
He handed it to me.
I looked at the title—Love’s Labour’s Won.
Just as I did, the first rays of sun shot over the Thames from the east, and something that could be deemed tragic in itself occurred. The manuscript I was holding disintegrated in my hands. So did the sheaves of paper we had stacked neatly next to us on the bench. And so—because Will had unfortunately tilted the box eastward—did everything else therein.
All that was left were grey ashes. My hands were covered with them. So were Will’s. So was the bench. So was the inside of the lead box.
Will and I looked at each other. On his wedge of a face was an expression that went far beyond dismay. “But you saw my authorship approved,” he said to me as he set the lead box on the bench.
“And did I so and can attest as much,” I replied in my own consoling (I hoped) iambic pentameter.
“That is all I need,” he said, “someone who can speak on my behalf. And so to you I bid a last farewell.” With that he vanished, leaving behind only the lead box and grey ash that was already blowing away in the now-russet early morning breeze.
And leaving me behind to speak on his behalf—to defend him and the authorship of every one of his plays good and bad or, since this is the Bard, extremely good and only slightly less good. Since I see no reason to recontrilate, I’ll come out and say what that incorrigible punster Shakespeare might have said were he here to speak for himself: I got it straight from the whoreson’s mouth.
What else did I get? The urge to write a play about a playwright struggling with writer’s block, who overcomes his problem when he meets Shakespeare at a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m thinking of including mistaken identities in the plot.