After the sound of three clarion calls, the prologue man emerges in his black velvet cloak. On the stage there’s a stack of books and decor of a white timbered wall.
When the drummer on the balcony starts to beat in three-quarter time, the curtains open. I am beckoned to come up in my taffeta costume with the crisp, clean collar and white stockings. I stomp on the boards with my heels to the rhythm of the drums and stare into the gaping maw of the audience. Then I take off my hat, spread my arms wide and to the fast beat of the drummer I call out in a loud voice:
'My name is William Shakespeare, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564'. I bow, walk stately backwards and disappear behind the scenery on the right.
After a daring silence I come out on the left and sit upon the stack of books.
I now let my voice lift an octave higher: 'My name is William Flut, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564.'
My own laughter rolls through the room and reverberates against a rock of incomprehension.
'My pieces are performed all over the world and they seem to know everything about me, where and when I was born, where and when I would die. To die or not ot die, that’s the mystery.
I bow again and with a jaunty wave I leave the stage.
The drumming fades while in the background, a large stage set of the Globe Theatre is pushed forward by one of the Kings Men.
In 1609 the Plague is sweeping through London again. Outside the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames stands only one horse drawn vehicle.
My co-actor Richard helps me to close the big doors of the theatre, all by order of the government. We carry my travel chest to the carriage where the coachman has his face half covered with a black cloth.
I shout to him, ‘To the Docks please!’
When the whip cracks, 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 is quite unbearable. I give my colleague a fragrant sprig of thyme to hold in front of his face and I tie my own scarf across my nose.
The arenas where bears and bulls are bitten by dogs for cheap entertainment are completely deserted. So are the brothels.
The horse’s hooves clatter loudly as we cross London Bridge. We turn left onto Lower Thames Street and the stench seems to get even worse.
'William, look, corpses on the street and even dead 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 get off and Richard will travel on to join 'The King's Men', our theatre company. By boat, the group will sail along the coastal towns to give performances 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 and keeps the nose and mouth covered. Im lucky for in the harbour I am told that a large galleon, the 'Cedo Nulli' will sail today.
I fear the officials for I have hidden gold nuggets in the hollow heels of my boots. My father, the glove maker, did this invention very ingeniously. Only by tapping sideways, you can loosen the heels.
If inspectors discover that you are carrying out a lot of money, it will certainly be taken from you. This happened to my hero Erasmus, the best friend of Thomas More.
I stay calm and pretend to converse with the person behind me but I can hardly suppress the shaking and sweating of my body.
'Tergouw in the Netherlands, via Delfshaven and Rotterdam.'
By answering extensively, I hope to give the impression of not hiding anything.
This time I have to take off my doublet and I put my hat on the shafts of my boots. The officials not only inspect my purse, but also the books, goose feathers, rolls of paper, 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 talk to a fellow traveler about contemporary theatre performances. Suddenly one of the men is pounding with my wooden pipe molds on the table.
'Are these weapon flasks?' 'No gentlemen, I use these wooden moulds 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 one asks, if there is gunpowder in those bags.
I can’t help to laugh. 'Hemp seed gentlemen!'
They look at me sharply and are probably 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 and I walk further along the deck to descend in the hold. I lower myself exhausted into a hammock and whistle between my teeth with relief.
Through a porthole I see against an almost blue sky, some flags of boats fluttering cheerfully. They indicate a perfect favorable westerly wind.
Finally, it is possible to travel to the continent now the war with Spain has ended. This spring the Habsburgs signed a truce with the Dutch in Antwerp. They say, it will be the end of piracy.
I am longing for Tergouw, the town where Erasmus was born and which is also known for its tolerance. Since the last century, this city has been opening its gates wide to refugees from England and Flanders. On the galleon a Dutch sailor informed me that there are several potters in Tergouw, but no pipe makers. How nice it would be to relax my mind during manual labor so that I can earn my living until the lockdowns have ended. In my imagination I see sturdy Dutch women appear in my mind and out of habit I fill my pipe. After requesting for fire in the galley, I look for a spot in the sun on deck 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 who can now keep an eye on the sails in all weathers. At the foremast and the bowsprit the last sails are hoisted and I breathe in the fresh sea air to the fullest. Seagulls are skimming around the vessel.
Ah, it's not smart that I'm leaving my theatre group now they're going on tour along the coast, 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. In the beginning I survived by writing sonnets and now I only have to write new comedies and tragedies. Since the new property right is in force, I earn well. Despite the lockdowns, the demand for new plays is growing. I’m longing for a quiet writing place, preferably in the Emmaus Monastery where Erasmus became a priest. The thought inspires me on this beautiful June day. The right words flow and carefully unfold in my head into 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. Since then Anne has become angry with God and tired of life. Our marital sponge has been just a place to sleep ever since. Where we used to play, laugh and make love, now nothing remains but a friendly pat from Anne on my hand or sometimes 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, I write sonnet 18.....
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