EVERYONE AND NO ONE: A Story
At twenty-something he went off to London. Instinctively, he had already trained himself to the habit of feigning that he was somebody . . . .
-- Jorge Luis Borges, “Everything and Nothing”
The town was an ocean of faces and noise. He stood in the
He translated himself, at first to a player named Shakspere. Yet soon
enough he found the stage no sufficient platform for his imagination. Grounded on its boards, scuffing the hard, splintery wood with his boots, he felt cribbed and confined to a sameness, despite the variety of roles he was given to play. He yelled and waved a wooden sword as an English soldier, hobbled as a doddering, cane-clutching senex, raised his eyes prayerfully heavenward as a wimpled nun. Always, disappointed, he sensed his own body under his costume, and cursed it for betraying, in its singleness, the multitudinous vagaries of his fancy. In his most-preferred roles, he sat as a king, his limbs briefly at rest and unassertive, his mind unfolding in rich, regal speech, his head at ease under its crown of tin. A ruler, godlike, able through words to make, unmake, and remake. Yet even at such times, much as he inwardly begged his audience to grant authenticity to his King Cambises -- to him, King Cambises -- he could sense that they held something back. They saw not just the part but the actor who played it. He was a king and no king.
Of course, all this time he continued to write as Shake-spear. From Shake-spear’s sharp quill leapt, like fire, the humpbacked monster Richard the Third, the furious wordsmith Kate the Curst, and the tragic alien moneylender, Shylock. And one night, borne by some nameless wind of inspiration, Shake-spear fashioned two star-crossed lovers named Romeo and Juliet. Then he gave them an accessory, a character named Mercutio, a youth driven to the brink of madness by poetry. A sword-wielding wit.
And from this Mercutio, he took an idea. Until the day audiences might grant that the things they saw on the stage were no more false than anything outside the playhouses, he might gain the drug of their utter credulity by playing in the street those authorial roles he had fashioned in fancy. Thus, merging his dreamed author and dreamed character, combining his Marlowe with his Mercutio, he ventured, disguised, now and again into taverns and alehouses as a witty and scandalous imp, uttering blasphemies, declaring a vaunting and boundless ambition. When he tired of the role he enacted his own death in a tavern brawl, seeming in front of several shocked spectators to drive into his eye a dagger that was actually retractable and stolen from the Rose theater.
Who next, then, now that “Marlowe” was dead? Who else to play besides "Shake-spear"? Having a taste for complementarities, he refashioned himself now as a satirist with the solid, socially rooted name of “Jonson.” In this identity he penned comedies in which Marlovian aspirants to power and glory were made the laughingstocks of playhouse audiences; indeed, were made the more humorous by being played by adolescents of the newly popular boys’ companies. He went further, and made sure to mock in these satirical comedies specific lines of verse which he himself, writing as Marlowe, had authored some years earlier. At the same time, writing as Shake-spear, he completed As You Like It, planting in its fictive forest the melancholy Jaques, a character parodically based on “Jonson,” and for that play supplied dialogue which made sport of his previously invented confrontation between Jonson and the dead Marlowe.
Now he could not stop. Busy and animated in his cell of a room in Southwark, he laughed aloud, brandished his quill, and created ex nihilo several new authorial identities. He penned plays from “new playwrights,” wherein the new ones themselves ridiculed the plays of his other fictive authors. With an energy that came from nowhere, he invented a detailed and purely stage-bound, wholly enacted rivalry between Jonson and a new playwright he called “Marston,” a name-pun suggestive of this alleged new playwright’s threat creatively to “mar” the poetically virile Jonson’s creative testicles, or his “stones.” To his vexation, even those Londoners most entertained by this contrived playwrights’ war seemed not to apprehend this pun, though Shake-spear took special care many times meaningfully to pronounce his second invented satirist’s name “MAR-stone” when drinking with theater folk at occasional suppers.
Of course, the author-roles he had fashioned demanded at least a few corporeal appearances in London. Marston was furtive, and often out of town (according to stories put out by Shake-spear). But Jonson (he added) was usually about. Shake-spear enjoyed parading as Jonson, whom he made a prideful philosopher, blustering loudly about the depravity of women and the stupidity of audiences and the absurdity of poetasters, and quoting Horace (in Latin) in stentorian voice. He would spend an hour prior to each such performance patting putty on his face and dotting his cheeks with a pen to make a bulbous nose and a few pockmarks, then would don heeled boots and a low-brimmed hat and march forward, out into the streets, in search of the fast-growing cult of friends of brave “Ben Jonson.” The ruse grew particularly complex when Shake-spear’s acting company began purchasing comedies from “Jonson” at meetings of business which Shake-spear, as a company sharer, was required to attend. Pleading weak kidneys and the need to “pluck a rose” in the alley, he would rush from the taverns where such business was conducted, exiting sometimes through the scullery, and re-enter a few minutes later by means of the front door, in a new cape and hat, as Jonson. He would then repeat the operation in reverse, minutes later, when Shake-spear’s signature was required on a document, below Jonson’s. These exits and re-entrances, with their hasty costume changes, were to him of a piece with his departures through a stage trapdoor as Hamlet’s father’s ghost and his re-entries above, minutes later, as Claudius. All the world was his stage.
None of his fellow actors were fooled by him, naturally. They were complicitous, and indulgent. His boundless need to create and perform matched their insatiate desire for the work he produced, as Shake-spear, as Chapman, as Jonson, as Marston. And so they winked and stayed mum about all of it. They were the secret sharers.
All this role-play was innocent enough until Shake-spear’s inescapable compounding of the real with the fanciful world led him to imagine that a particular play-loving lord, for whom the players were performing, one night, at his Oxford estate, might be killed in his sleep (fit punishment for some lines of bad verse uttered at a manorial supper) and then rise, none the worse, to resume the role of poetaster at breakfast the next morning. The tide of blood that leaked from the bed and onto the floor of the lord’s rich chamber was unexpected in its volume, and difficult to clean up, though Shake-spear managed it, and managed also the secret burial of the body, with the assistance of a bribed chambermaid (all the while taking from these lively experiences some ideas for a new play). After this he himself was forced for the ensuing year to pretend to be the lord Edward De Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. As De Vere he would ride in a plumed hat and a coat with gold buttons (“borrowed,” again, from the playhouse stores) through the streets of London and, sometimes, of Oxford, at a time when the demands of his fellows that he produce the work of four, nay six, nay ten playwrights was most intense. Sometimes he himself wondered how he found the time to be so many. Nonetheless, his resourcefulness and energy were limitless, and he would have continued as Oxford, but was taken the next year by the whimsical desire to stage his own death once again -- which he did, in a ghastly fashion, before a group of horrified household retainers at De Vere’s Oxfordshire estate, spilling even more fake blood than had issued in real form from the actual earl’s body the year before. The spectacle was managed with the help of that same earlier-bribed chambermaid (who worked gratis on this occasion, never having liked the De Veres), and was followed by the grand ceremony of the lord’s funeral. Fewer than twenty people knew that the body in the coffin was a suit of armor stuffed with straw.
Perhaps what had forever blurred for him the line between real and enacted death, and made possible his shameless murder of De Vere and that subsequent mockery of a funeral, had been a corrupting event which took place a year before the real De Vere perished in his bath of blood. In early 1603, as the faltering old queen of England lay senseless in her embroidered sheets of lawn, and all London buzzed with worried speculation regarding her successor, Shake-spear was drawn into a private conversation in a lord’s box at the Globe by a highly placed official, one of the queen’s most intimate counselors. This man hinted at the likelihood of royal patronage for Shakespeare’s acting company should James of Scotland – a man with whom this particular official had been in frequent contact in recent weeks, and from whom he'd received certain promises – be granted the succession. “The queen herself is past choosing,” the official said sadly. “Alas. Alas. And yet . . . in the dim light (for her ladies will not have bright candles about her) . . . with powder . . . and bewigged . . . . something could be done.”
Shake-spear sat silent, his eyes fixed on the man’s face, his heart beating quickly, merely waiting. The official became slightly nervous. His voice turned vaguely threatening, like a knife sheathed in velvet. “Preferment at court is not a natural occurrence, but the work of many hands behind a curtain. Do you think you, in yourself, can command recognition from our next ruler, whoever that ruler may be?”
Shake-spear’s eyes glittered, but he still said nothing.
The man shrugged with an indifference that the playwright(s) could see was feigned. “I think otherwise. Your old style of play grows musty and stale. Brooding heroes and bloody endings!” His face was a mask. He hinted darkly. “There are other players. And are there no other playwrights? Think of Ben Jonson. Think of the younger men, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. Your stage grows crowded. In view of this fact, you might think yourself fortunate to be asked to perform what I do ask you to perform. If you will not do it . . . .” For an instant, his mask fell, and he looked at Shake-spear with naked curiosity. “Are there not other playwrights?”
Of course, his threat did not compel Shake-spear, because Shake-spear knew the answer to his question was “No.” There were no other playwrights. There was only he. Chapman, Marston, Jonson, Beaumont (“beautiful mountain,” yes, a perfect name for an author of pastoral comedy): these were himself. And Fletcher, meaning “maker of arrows”: a fit title for one who wrote romances rich with love, in which Cupid’s dart figured prominently. Though, sadly, to audiences “Fletcher” had proved as impenetrable a jest as “Mar-stone.” Playgoers could be blockheads. Perhaps “Jonson” was right about them. At any rate, “Fletcher” was also he. So no king’s privy counselor could frighten him with images of banishment and rejection. Always, Shake-spear could re-enter the scene as someone else.
Yet in the end he did what was asked of him, not out of fear, but because of the yearning that never had left him: the will to flee into roles of power, to perform stage-play in the world, and thus to earn the genuine, whole faith of all who regarded him. He craved death and rebirth, but rebirth only as someone more powerful, most powerful. He wanted to be reborn as a god. And here was a chance to come close to godhead, by playing the most powerful of all human selves: a true monarch, one who was not only aged but dying, and thus bound for resurrection in her successor. The queen is dead! Long live the king! He panted for his part.
So he did it. The real queen’s breath having been stopped with a pillow, her poor corpse being cleaned and dressed by a suborned surgeon in a secret room adjoining her closet, he, the actor, shrouded in near-darkness, plastered with ointment, and crowned with a nightcap, dying-queened it before a knot of hushed, gathered noblemen. He had only to make a gesture and say a few words. But these were words of ultimate power, words which engendered what they described. Words that made a king.
Years after this triumph, after the grand funeral of Elizabeth, the sumptuous coronation of James of Scotland, and the swiftly ensuing murder of Oxford, the privy councilman who had offered him the great role, and who was Francis Bacon – or rather, who was Jack Pepper, an itinerant player who’d chosen a false name and lineage in keeping with his courtly ambitions, and who therefore understood the playwright well – quietly left court to become, once more, a player. Pepper could see that money and an infinite variety of possible identities lay in, and perhaps only in, the theatrical occupation. He left his court name to Shake-spear, who then added “Francis Bacon” to his repertory of parts. As Bacon, Shake-spear had access to rooms at King James’s palace of Whitehall, and there, in his new guise of statesman and courtier, he penned (posing as Bacon posing as Shake-spear) his last great characters: a wizardly mage on a desert island, a living statue named Hermione, and a queen, as ever-dying and deathless as the Nile, who, like a torch, burned brightest at the point of her expiration, calling for a robe, a crown, and immortality.
(This story was first published in The Shakespeare Newsletter 60:4 (282), 2011.)