Shakespeare is here
Conspiracy and last plot
In 1609 the Plague is sweeping through London once more. Outside the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, there is only one horse-drawn carriage.
My co-actor Richard helps me closing the large doors of the theatre, as ordered by the government. We carry my travel chest to the carriage where the coachman has his face half-covered with a black mask.
I shout to him, ‘To the docks please!’
When the whip crackes, I turn once more to look back at the large wooden amphitheater that has recently been covered with plaster and a thatched roof. On this summer’s day we drive past the flowering rose gardens and further on, the stench from the soap factories and the tanneries are quite unbearable. I give my colleague a fragrant sprig of thyme to hold under his nose and I tie my own scarf across my nose.
The brothels and the arenas where bears and bulls are bitten by dogs for cheap entertainment are completely deserted. The horse’s hooves clatter loudly as we cross London Bridge and turn left onto Lower Thames Street. The stench here appears even worse.
'William look, corpses on the streets and even of children in the porch doorways!'
The whip flicks and the horse goes from trot to canter.
'Yes, let’s get out of here, this is horrible!’
After some time, the carriage stops at a busy intersection. Here I disembark and Richard will travel on to join our theatre company,‘The King's Men’, who will sail along the coast to perform in taverns and in covered courtyards. We say farewell and I step into a larger carriage with several other passengers heading towards Gateway. Everyone looks straight ahead keeping their nose and mouth covered.
In the harbor I’m fortunate to find a large galleon, the 'Cedo Nulli' which will sail today.
I fear the officials for I have hidden gold nuggets in the hollow heels of my boots, very ingeniously invented by my father, the glove maker. Only by tapping sideways, you can loosen the heels. If inspectors discover that I am carrying out a lot of gold, it will certainly be confiscated. This happened to my hero Erasmus, the best friend of Thomas More.
I stay calm and pretend to converse with the person behind me in the queue but I cannot suppress the sweating of my body.
'Gouda in the Netherlands, via Delfshaven and Rotterdam.'
By answering extensively, I hope to give the impression of not hiding anything.
I have to take off my doublet and I put my hat on the shafts of my boots. The officials inspect my purse, books, goose feathers, rolls of paper and even the ink pots do not remain untouched. I pretend that I don't care about the rummaging through my belongings, standing half turned with my back towards the inspectors. I keep talking to a fellow traveler about contemporary theatre performances and suddenly one of the men is pounding with my wooden pipe mold on the table.
'Are these weapon flasks?'
'No gentlemen, I use these wooden molds to make pipes. In that leather rag you will find some clay and wait, I'll put a white-baked pipe in half a mold for you to see.' They shake their heads disinterested and then one asks, ‘Is that gunpowder in those bags?’
I laugh nervously, 'It is hemp seed gentlemen.'
They look at me sharply for a few moments, hopefully judging me as an average peddler.
Finally I am allowed to go on board and drag my old sailor's travel chest towards the ship. A porter helps me onto the gangway to walk further along the deck and descending into the hold.
I lower myself exhausted into a hammock and whistle with relief.
Through a porthole I see that the sky is blue and some flags of boats are fluttering cheerfully in the breeze. They indicate a perfect westerly wind.
Finally, it is possible to travel to the continent since the war with Spain has ended. This spring the Habsburgs signed a truce with the Dutchmen in Antwerp and they say, it will be the end of Dutch piracy.
I am longing for Gouda, known for its tolerance and the place where Erasmus was born. This city opened its gates wide to refugees from England and Flanders.
A Dutch sailor informed me that there are several potters in Gouda, but no pipe makers. It would be nice to relax during some manual labor and earn my living until the lockdowns have ended. In my imagination I see a sturdy Dutch woman appear in my mind and out of habit I fill my pipe. After asking for fire in the galley, I find on deck a spot in the sun at starboard.
It strikes me that this new ship has a window in the vaulted opening in front of the mizzenmast. Handy for the helmsman to keep an eye on the sails in all weathers. At the foremast and the bowsprit the last sails are now hoisted and I breathe in the fresh air to the fullest while seagulls skim around the vessel.
It might not be smart that I'm leaving my theatre group now that they are touring, but I'm tired of the mutual bickering and the packed travel. From the beginning of the plague in 1593 many poets and writers died, which caused my breakthrough. During the lockdown I survived by writing sonnets, now I only have to write new comedies and tragedies. Since the new property right is in force, I earn well and despite the lockdowns, the demand for plays is growing. I’m longing for a quiet writing place, preferably in the Emmaus Monastery where Erasmus became a priest.
This beautiful June day inspires me greatly, causing the right words to unfold in my head forming a sonnet. Thinking of my beloved Anne, I hesitate between the words erotic and serene. So much has changed in our marriage since the death of our beloved son Hamnet. In the middle of his youth he fell prey to that cursed plague. Anne became angry with God and tired of life. Our marital sponge has been just a place to sleep. Where we used to play, laugh and make love, now nothing remains but a friendly pat from Anne on my hand or a cool kiss on my forehead. My allusions are no longer accepted and after a soft goodnight, she invariably turns her back on me. Yet I still have warm feelings of gratitude. What beautiful children she has given me. Lets write on this June 18, sonnet 18.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee
Reading the sentence, ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’, once more the images of the children's bodies in the porches loom again and my happiness ebbs away. Like dark clouds, my thoughts drift home, where my dear Anne lives with Judith, one of the twins. We named them after their godparents, our best friends, Hamnet and Judith Sadler. Even though they all live safely in the small community, I'm not comfortable since the plague knows no boundaries. The image of our son's bubonic body appears repeatedly in my mind and Anne's intense grief was unbearable. Maybe it is one of the reasons that I fled my family. I fish Anne's last letter out of my pocket and read again how sad she is now that the risk of infection keeps me away from home again. She writes that father John is still highly regarded as a recusant since he refused to attend church services. Here in the dirty, overpopulated capital, they cannot track my attendance at church gatherings. Anne also reports that even the Gunpowder Plot from 1605 troubles John and he is also suspected of fraud in his wool trade. I sigh and look for a while how a seagull is gently gliding above the boat.
Anne comforts me with the good news that a large harvest has been reaped from the lands which I recently purchased. For the coming winter the pots of dried vegetables are already in the cellars and the cured meat with the smoked fish are hanging in the attic. The cattle in the fields thrive very well and the practice of our son-in-law, Doctor John Hall, flourishes very well like the giant rhubarb, which he uses in his prescriptions. John recently discovered an old Viking brew, a miracle medicine, which dates back to the ninth century. According to John, the best recipe for many diseases and health conditions. The ingredients are very simple, a little onion, garlic, wine, ox bile and birch bark. The brew works only in a secret composition and in measured doses. Suppose that the remedy also works against the plague, then our son-in-law will become even more famous than Shakespeare in London. Although Anne teases me, I sincerely do hope so for John. I will write to her that since King James succeeded the old Elizabeth, everything has changed. In the past, we actors were seen as vagrants and now, our company The King's Men is respected with great prestige. Thanks to the King, we have the right or the duty to parade in a scarlet royal livery on ceremonial occasions.
I omitted to inform Anne that James granted us thirty pounds during this lockdown as assistance for our maintenance which I am now using for my trip to Gouda. I often wonder if they still miss me at home as the kids don't know any better. Even though their grandfather is scheming recklessly, he fulfills my paternal duties better than I ever could.
The caress of the wind, the heaving of the boat and the familiar flapping of the sails, causes me doze off.
Even the roar of the ship's horn at departure escapes me. Only on the open sea I wake up when the ship tilts to port side and I tumble over. The skipper laughs and jovially shouts that we can be in Rotterdam within two days with this western wind. As a former sailor I doubt it, for as soon as the weather changes, we may land on Texel, Zierikzee or God knows where on the seabed.
At night it is extremely hot in the hold and I wake up sweating from a nightmare in which the Globe Theater burned down completely. Performing Macbeth strange things always happen as if the devil plays with us. Outside it is cool and a starry sky sparkles down on me. It is convenient for the helmsmen to determine the course more easily but I notice that the wind has abated and all sails hang limp.
I ask the skipper if he expects this to be the calm before the storm and he shakes his head.
He is right, for more than a day we float around aimlessly, but precisely this silence inspires me to brood on a totally new concept after all my historical plays. 'The Tempest' would be a striking title as a ship gets stuck on an unknown island after a storm is evoked by demons.
Now that I've recently had my sonnets published, I hope they sell like hot cakes as 'Adonis and Venus' or my debut 'The Rape of Lucretia'. Titillating literature, wrapped in a historical costume, always sells very well. Readers can thus secretly enjoy erotic stories seeming to be of high-quality. I have also seasoned many of my sonnets lustily with connotations, but only the real connoisseurs know how to appreciate and enjoy this entertainment.
On an old sail, spread over a roll of strongly scented tarred ropes, I enjoy reading 'In Praise of Folly' by Desiderius Erasmus. Since his work was on the Index of the forbidden books in Rome, everyone wants to read it. One sentence in particular arouses my interest, ‘It is bad to be deceived, but it is even worse not to be deceived.’
What did the scientist mean by this?
Please give your review below:
It has been my great privilege and honor in assisting with the translation and correcting of this very delightful book. I recommend everyone to read it.