I had to have a nap earlier because of a headache, and I woke up giggling to myself with this story almost fully formed. One bit took some work (you’ll see which). If you like it, you can buy it for 99 cents at Smashwords, Kindle (US) or Kindle (UK), but you can, of course, just read it for free here.
The Shakespeare Code
I hated the theatre sometimes. I didn’t even know why my dad had given his patronage to that bunch of prancing ninnies, but at least when he had it had been for his own pleasure. I, on the other hand, got lumbered with them at the reading of the will. “Congratulations! You have inherited the baronetcy, the houses, the money, oh, and a bunch of players.”
It was, frankly, the least welcome gift I’d received since that wench gave me the pox. Bad enough that on his deathbed he turned down being made Earl of Wiltshire – all very romantic, all that “as you did not count me worthy of this honour in life, then I shall account myself not worthy of it in death” stuff, but what about accounting me worthy of it? – but to land me with the patronage of a, frankly, third rate bunch of actors was going too far.
It wasn’t even as if they showed me any respect. Oh, they called me “my Lord” to my face and were deferential enough, but behind my back they called me ‘the youth’. Youth! I was forty-nine years old! But in this, like in so much else, I could not step out of the shadow of my father. Why he had to tarry until he was seventy before dying I shall never know, but now I was finally able to run my own affairs he kept haunting me.
Of course, I didn’t actually have to run the day-to-day affairs of my players, just lend them my name (and how they griped when they found I would not automatically become Lord Chamberlain as my father was. “Lord Hunsdon’s Men just doesn’t have the same ring to it”, they complained) but even that was a burden. My dad didn’t mind having his name associated with these scum, but personally I think anyone who spends that much time dressing up in women’s clothes has something wrong with them. I wanted to make something of myself, not spend my time worrying that some foppish actor was going to drag my name through the mud.
Nonetheless, one has obligations, and so I called for these men to perform for me. They did competently enough, I suppose, though I am no great judge of these things. They did a play called King John, which they said was new, but I could have sworn I’d seen it, or one much like it, only a few years earlier. Nonetheless, they were adequate enough, with one exception – a hopeless bearded oaf with a West Country accent so thick he was barely comprehensible.
I spoke with the actors afterward, and asked Kempe, the funny one, why they’d allowed the provincial dullard to remain with their troupe.
“Well, my Lord, it’s a funny thing, but he’s tremendously well-connected. He knows all sorts of people. Writers, mostly.”
“Writers? How do you mean?”
“Well, he knows Francis Bacon, and he used to be good friends with Kit Marlowe.”
“What good does that do anyone?”
“Well, he gets them to write plays for us, doesn’t he? Every few weeks he’ll come over and say ‘here’s a new one by Ben Jonson’ or ‘Bacon wrote us this one, we’d better get practicing it.’”
“Ah, I see. So he is not so much an actor as a go-between, a person who will solicit plays from playwrights?”
“Not just from playwrights…”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought you’d know, being a nobleman and all, with your connections in court…”
“Well, some of the plays he brings are secretly by the Earl of Oxford.”
“Oxford? But doesn’t he have his own troupe of players?”
“Well, that’s why they’re secret, see? And he’s not the only nobleman to write for us. Well, I say nobleman, but she’s not exactly a man, is she?”
“The Queen writes plays for you?” I was astonished. Elizabeth had never seemed to have the slightest interest in literary matters.
“Oh yes. She wrote one for us just the other week. We’re practicing it at the moment.” He handed me a bunch of paper. “Here, have a look.”
It was headed The second part of Henrie the fourth, continuing to his death, and coronation of Henrie the fift. With the humours of Sir John Falstaff, and swaggering Pistoll, by Her Gracious Majestie Elizabeth Queen of England.
I suddenly realised – if the Queen were writing for my players, that was an obvious means of advancement at court for me. A few flattering words about her poetic style, a couple of phrases from her work dropped casually into the conversation, and that Earldom would be mine after all.
“Do you mind if I borrow this and have a read of it?”
“Oh, not at all. I never bother learning my lines anyway. I just make stuff up. That’s why the crowds love me!”
(I forbore from saying that while the crowds loved him, his fellow actors clearly didn’t. The glares he’d got from the beardy brummie at times had been enough to turn the blood to ice.)
I took the play back to my rooms, and began to read.
Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
It was going to be a long night, but with luck it would pay off.
* * * * *
The next day, I attended court, and was granted an audience with the Queen. It didn’t go quite as I had hoped.
“You wished to see us, Hundson?”
“Yes, your Majesty. I have speeded hither with the very extremest inch of possibility.”
“And for what purpose do you wish to see us?”
“I come to praise you, your Majesty, for you write your fair words still in fairer letters.”
“We do not understand.”
“Your play, Majesty.”
“Your play about your glorious ancestor, Henry the fourth.”
“What play is this?”
“You speak nonsense. I believe the pox that is rotting your face may now be addling your brain.”
“You may leave us.”
I left, utterly despondent. How could I have messed this up so badly? I was quoting from her Majesty’s own play, using her own words, to praise her. How could she have completely misunderstood my intentions? As it was, a shadow would be over me at court. I should have to claim that I was still grief-stricken for my father, and had temporarily lost my wits.
I decided to send a message to the Earl of Oxford, asking him what he knew of the Queen’s writing. As a playwright and poet himself, he would naturally have spoken with her Majesty, and maybe even given her advice. Oxford was at the time recovering from a particularly serious illness, and was resting in Byfleet, a day’s ride away. While I awaited his reply, I read the play again, because something had seemed odd about it.
In particular, one line stuck out for me – “Which I with more than with a common pain”. This seemed an oddly malformed line for such an otherwise well-written play. Why would there be two ‘with’s in a single sentence? Surely her Majesty would have written a line like “Which I with more than just a common pain”? It would have scanned as well, and would have made more sense.
I puzzled at this for some time, but was still getting nowhere when reply came from Oxford two days later.
He had no knowledge of the Queen ever having written a play in her life.
Not only that, but he denied ever having written anything for any group of players other than his own, and said he had never met this Will Shaxper, Burbage’s talentless but supposedly well-connected actor friend.
This Shaxper had made a fool of me at Court, and I determined to call him to account, but I would first need to find some proof.
And then I saw it, in the very line I had been wondering over for two days. I knew who had really written this play.
* * * * * * * *
I called for Shaxper to come and see me, and he arrived soon after, looking wary.
“What can I do for you, my Lord?”
“You can explain who really wrote this play.”
“What do you mean?”
“Who wrote Henry the Fourth, Part II?”
“Oh, that’s easy, my Lord. Her Majesty the Queen wrote it.”
“Then why does she disavow all knowledge of the play?”
“Oh, that’s easy sir. She couldn’t be seen to consort with lower classes such as us poor players, your Lordship. She writes out of a love of the art, not out of any desire for money. And she has all the renown she wishes, as monarch of the greatest country in the world. What desire could she have to be known as a mere spinner of tales?”
“I see. And how about King John? Who wrote that?”
“Francis Bacon, your Lordship.”
“Then how come he says he knows nothing of any of these plays?”
“He’s a very modest man, your Lordship. And he is also worried that some of the plays may offend some of those at Court, so he asks that we perform them without his name.”
“So you’re sticking to the story that the Queen wrote Henry IV, and Bacon wrote King John?”
“It is no story, sir, but the facts.”
“Then let me read something to you.”
I read him a short extract from Henry IV, Part II:
My gracious liege,
You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be:
Which I with more than with a common pain
‘Gainst all the world will rightf’lly maintain.
He looked sick, but said nothing.
“So, you have nothing to say to that?”
“It’s a good speech, isn’t it? That line about ‘with more than with a common pain’ needs a bit of work, though.”
“And that’s all you’ve got to say?”
“What else is there to say, my Lord?”
“Do you think me a fool?”
“No, my Lord.”
“Then don’t treat me like one. You gave yourself away with this very verse.”
“My Lordship, I assure you, I don’t understand.”
“Do you think I know nothing of ciphers and anagrams? Think you not that all of us in court pay attention to these things, after Scottish Mary was put to the chop for such codes?”
“This is a transparent anagram! The letters, when rearranged, say ‘I, William Shakespeare, enticing wit, great’st poet in England, wrote this play. I, Will, am often mimmic moure than common playwright , hiding this via nib so thy art, youth, will not gues who.’ You write a play under my patronage and hide insults to me in it?”
“My Lord, I beg your forgiveness. You are obviously a much greater mind than your noble father. He would never have noticed such a small clue as that.”
I sighed. “Look, just tell me the truth. Did any of your noble friends write any of these plays?”
“No, your Lordship.”
“Not any of them?”
“How about your playwright friends, Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson? Did they write any of them?”
“No, your Lordship. I wrote them all.”
“So the plays of Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, the Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth are all really by William Shakespeare of Stratford?”
“Yes, your Lordship.”
I sighed again. “Do you have any idea how difficult this will be to cover up?”