Monday, May 15, 2006

My Short Shakespearean Fiction

I wrote this on a lark a few years ago as I became more intrigued by the thin history that remains of the Shakespearean acting company.
Obviously much is fictitious but, as my Afterword says, much is also true.


A single blazing torch throws a cozening light around the empty balconies as evening darkens the sky above the open roof. Long gone now are the groundlings, the merchants, the lords and ladies. The floor of the theatre is now occupied by the silent beggars who come in after every performance to pick through whatever is left in the dirt. Bits of turnip or apple, sometimes a tiny hunk of unknown meat, shreds of cloth, on rare occasions a penny, treasures to these poor souls.

One person remains in the stalls. In the flickering torchlight, unmoving he sits, eyes focused on the bare stage below. A smallish head and face, bearded above his lace ruff, with hair swept straight back from his forehead, chin propped on arms folded along the rail of the stall, he sits.
His eyes flick to various points on the stage, now here, now there. His lips move though what words he may be saying cannot be heard. Now and again a finger lifts to vaguely wave toward the stage.

At last removing his arms from the rail he sits back. Rubbing his face with both hands, he stands, stretches and leaves the stall where he has been sitting for what seems like hours. Moving slowly, as if weighted down, he proceeds down the stair, across the now bare and empty grounds and up to the stage.

He gently strokes the bare wood of the stage floor with his right hand and looks slowly from one side of the squared forestage to the other. Abruptly he slaps the floor and calls out through the fading echo.

“Gilbert, lad, are you there?”

“Aye, Master Shakespeare, I’m here.” comes a thin voiced reply from a skinny boy of 10 or 11 emerging from the darkness behind the pillars at the rear of the stage.

“Gilbert, are Masters Burbadge and Heminge departed yet?” Gilbert thinks for a moment.
“I don’t think so, sir. I think they’re still in the tavern. Shall I fetch them for you, sir?” Gilbert enjoys fetching players from the tavern because there’s usually a scrap of food to be had and he is always hungry.

“If you would do me that kindliness I would be grateful, Gilbert. Ask them to meet me in the quill room.” Shakespeare calls to the boys retreating back.
“I see he found you all right.” Shakespeare greets the two men, Richard Burbadge and John Heminge, as they come through the door of what all the company had come to call the quill room because of the broken ink-stained quill pens that litter the floor.

“More like he followed his nose to our roast capon. He says you wished to see us and without drawing breath asks for the leg on the platter. The boy is bottomless.” Burbadge, a burly man with a prominent nose, speaks through a full mouth as he is still eating what appears to be the capon leg Gilbert did not acquire.

“I was about to leave for home, Will. Can this wait for the morrow?” Heminge, somewhat fat and ruddy, does indeed look tired and is barely stifling a yawn.

With a thoughtful look at Burbadge Shakespeare says quietly, “I have come to the conclusion that the time has come to achieve an end on Master William Kempe’s association with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. We can talk about it tomorrow if you’d prefer but Master Kempe will not act in another play written by William Shakespeare.”

“Heaven be praised.” Burbadge mumbles through a grinning mouthful of what remains of his capon leg. He eats more quickly.

“Do you have any sack, Will?” Heminge asks. “A cup of sack would be quite welcome just now.” He sits on the chair at the further end of the desk and examines Shakespeare closely.
“I do. Richard, you as well?” Burbadge nods, chewing furiously. Shakespeare pours and hands them the filled cups, one for each.

“Why now? That’s what you’re asking yourself isn’t it, John?” Shakespeare asks Heminge who nods. “For the reasons Richard has in the past listed for us. Kempe’s refusal to play as a company member, his refusal to play the words as written.” He pauses and drinks before continuing more quietly. “Also I have it in my mind to write a clown of an order I do not believe Master Kempe has either the skill or the will to show to me.”

Heminge sits forward eagerly. “You have another play, Will?”

“I have more than one other play but the matter of Master Kempe must be resolved first. Kempe has no subtlety. The clowns I have in mind to write will require a talent beyond the ability to scamper beneath another players skirts and make farting noises.”

Burbadge has finished his capon leg and added the bare bone to the quills on the floor. He adds, “Or putting on flea ridden donkey’s ears and braying at the groundlings.”

“Above even these will be the ability to speak my words as they were written, in the order they were written. To make entries and exits as indicated. To be where he is supposed to be when other players enter. As in today’s calamity.” Shakespeare’s face has begun to redden and he has begun speaking faster. “ How many times have I told Kempe of the importance of Dogberry’s position for the re-entry of Leonato in five and one? How can he think that my play is made better by Dogberry snatching a sausage from a nearby vendor and lewdly stuffing it down his maw to loud guffaws from his beloved groundlings? Well, no more. Calmly, calmly.” He takes a deep breath and glares at the other two men. “And no more damned jigs! Kempe will not perform in another play by William Shakespeare.”

“We shall have to pay him out, Will, a costly proposition. And Kempe will not be pleased to depart knowing that you have new plays and new clowns. It may be very difficult to dislodge him.” Heminge is ever the pragmatist.

“I know, John, I know. Therefore I propose not to tell him of new plays and new clowns. I will tell him that there are now sharers in the company who will no longer play with him due to his unpredictable ways. I propose to name Slye, Condell and Burbadge as those players for each has spoken to me at one time or another of their dissatisfaction with Kempe.” Shakespeare turns to Burbadge. “Richard, what say you? And what of Condell and Slye?”

Burbadge smiles broadly. “You needn’t be the one to tell him, Will. I have been eager to do so myself. Slye and Condell would stand with me and be my smiling chorus were I to ask. They have often spoken to me of their desire to see the last of him.” He drains his cup of sack and reaches for the bottle.

Shakespeare turns to Heminge, who regards him silently and holds out his empty cup for Burbadge to fill. Looking from Shakespeare to Burbadge with a slight smile, he says, “Is there any reason we shouldn’t send Gilbert to the tavern to summon Kempe here now? I must be present for this. Kempe will need to hear from me that I will do an honest bookkeeping and pay him out fairly. As the decision’s made, why wait?”

“Gilbert!” Burbadge shouts, startling both other men. “Come to the quill room.”
Gilbert pokes his head around the door and says, “I’ll fetch Master Kempe shall I?”
All three men burst out laughing and Shakespeare says, “Aye, Gilbert, do that, but you don’t know why I’ve sent for him do you?”

“Of course not Master Shakespeare, I’m just a boy. I don’t know anything.”

The three men laugh again as Gilbert dashes off but soon enough become grimly silent as they wait. Burbadge is the first to speak.

“You will write clowns for Robert Armin to play now won’t you, Will? It will be Armin.”

“Got it in one, Richard. And my own private pleasure will be in giving my clowns more fitting names than Dogberry or Bottom now that I will no longer have Kempe and his clumsy bumpkin buffoonery hanging around my neck like an anvil.”

“What will be the first new play, Will? A comedy?”, asks Heminge the keeper of the company purse.

“It will indeed be a comedy, John. I have no firm title for it yet but it will be a comedy about love, about how unexpectedly it can inflict itself upon us and how complicated it can become.”

Just then from the hall is heard a voice calling out. “I know, I know, you didn’t care for my turn with the sausage in five and one.” Kempe, a vain and impeccably barbered man, appears in the doorway, Gilbert peeking around him. “Oh ho! He is not alone, Gilbert. He has his henchmen with him. You didn’t tell me, you ruffian.”

“Thankyou, Gilbert. Off with you now.” Shakespeare says to the boy who departs with a disappointed air.

“No, Master Kempe, I did not care for your turn with the sausage. You are quite right. I imagine you knew as you were doing it that I would not like it and that you and I would be having another talk about your turns. But this time our talk about your turns may take a turn of it’s own.” Shakespeare now looks from Heminge to Burbadge before continuing, watching Kempe carefully.

“I have decided that I will not have you in any more of my plays. Heminge and Burbadge and I have therefore come to the conclusion that it is time for us to pay you for your share of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men in order that you may seek opportunity elsewhere.”

“Is it so? Is it so?” Kempe leans against the wall and crosses his arms. “Well, in truth I cannot say I am surprised. It’s been clear to me since we began preparing this play that you were not entirely pleased with me. Indeed, it’s been clear for a while that neither are you, Richard.”

“That is true, Kempe. It is also true for Slye and Condell. We are weary of trying to guess at what you may do or say next and looking like bumblers as we do.”

“Well I am weary of being surrounded by players who have not the wit or speed of thought to keep up with me. I am weary of players who are slaves to text. I am weary of scoldings. I am weary, too, of not being appreciated. The groundlings, most of them, come to see The Lord Chamberlain’s Men in order to see me. In order to laugh at me. Unlike you, Will, the groundlings loved my turn with the sausage.”

“I grant you that, Kempe. Still, following the play I was approached by a certain member of court who asked me how I came to write such a scene. This member of court felt it to be, in her words, “out of tune” with the rest of what had been presented. Especially did she mention the turn with the sausage although she did say she liked your dancing well enough. So you see, Kempe, while the groundlings may indeed love you, the groundlings do not buy my meat at supper.”

Kempe has turned white. “The Queen dislikes my clowning? She has said so to you?”

“I did not say it was Her Majesty, Kempe. That is of your own making.”

Heminge and Burbadge are looking at each other with astonishment. Neither had heard before of private conversations between Shakespeare and The Queen. Neither were in any doubt as to who Shakespeare meant, his protestations notwithstanding. Each of them appeared to be wondering if Her Majesty had ever spoken to Shakespeare of themselves.

“Her Majesty dislikes my clowning. I don’t know what to say.” Kempe appears near tears. “But you say she expressed admiration for my dancing. I did hear you say that, did I not?”

Shakespeare hesitates, glancing at Burbadge for the briefest of seconds, “Yes. Yes, she did say that. She did. Fully what she said was that she could imagine you dancing for days and days it was such a pleasure to observe.”

Burbadge and Heminge are entirely agog now. There is a lengthy silence all round as Burbadge, Heminge and Kempe each regard Shakespeare and one another. Curiosity, doubt and awe seem to play across each man’s face. Shakespeare remains stone-faced. Finally, a sort of hope begins to light Kempe’s eyes.

“Do your book-keeping, Heminge, and send what I am owed to me in Norwich, to my home there. And any papers I must sign. I have to leave London. I must think on this. To not clown, perhaps, but to dance. For the Queen, perhaps.” At which Kempe reaches for Shakespeare’s right hand and grips it tightly. “Thank you Master Shakespeare. I see I must indeed leave The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as you have suggested. I wish you Godspeed in all.”

Burbadge and Heminge in their turn are equally so thanked and Kempe, without so much as a backward glance, departs.

Heminge, unable to contain himself any longer, bursts out, “Will, when did you and Her Majesty begin to have private conversations?”

“I have never spoken privately with Her Majesty. Especially not here at The Globe, for as you are well aware she does not come to The Globe. What I said was that a member of court had approached me. She’s a young daughter of one of Her Majesty’s Ladies-in-Waiting. I met her for the first time today.”
A slow, sly smile spreads across his face.
“Though the matter of Master Kempe seems to have been resolved, wouldn’t you say?”

Shortly after leaving The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in early 1600, William Kempe did a Morris dance all the way from London to Norwich, a distance of approximately 160 kilometres. He went on to write a book about it entitled “Kempe’s Nine Daies Wonder” which became a modest best seller of the day. The English language acquired the phrase “nine day wonder” from this.

Shakespeare’s clown characters underwent a change following Kempe’s departure. Gone were characters like Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing) and Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to be replaced by those like Touchstone (As You Like It), Feste (Twelfth Night) and King Lear’s nameless wise Fool. Shakespeare’s clowns hereafter became known for their subtlety and their wisdom. Robert Armin played them all.

There is no direct evidence that Kempe’s departure from the company was for refusing to speak only the words set down for him. There is, however, some speculation that this is the case and that some of Hamlet’s so called “Advice to the Players” (III, 2, 40-47) is based, at least partly, on Shakespeare’s experience of working with the clown William Kempe.

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