From The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare

Prologue

“Granny! Gran, look what has come for you!”

With the greatest effort I lift my eyelids; each one seems weighted with a stone. I peer through the rheumy blur to find Lizbeth’s face, anxious as always at my fast-failing health. How fortunate I am, as I lie here dying in my second-best bed, to have one sweet soul, this dear granddaughter, to care for and comfort me. It almost makes up for the pain, the gnawing aches in my joints and toothless sockets, the useless hip that confines me to my mattress and piss pot. I lick my chapped lips and twitch my mouth to smile for the pretty child. Oh, to be dead, to be dead. Have I not lived long enough, sixty-seven years in this year of Our Lord 1623, to have earned my eternal rest?

Or have I died, and this Lizbeth is a vision that shines like a lamp above me? Fifteen and the freshness of youth upon her, as if dewdrops might spring up where she treads. Her eyes are the color of cinnamon, her hair ripples like sunlit wheat. Never mind that she is small breasted. She has a tender disposition and dancing butterfly hands, and as the only child of Dr. John and Susanna Hall she is, in Stratford terms, a bit of an heiress. Why, she’ll have New Place, the Henley Street house, and all the plate and household goods, since Will left almost everything to Susanna. We certainly couldn’t bequeath the properties to Judith, not after the scandal she brought upon us with that lout Thomas Quiney. A crook, a drunkard, a pox-ridden betrayer. Oh, my poor younger daughter, what a low choice you have made! But neither can I trust either the glassy bright excellence of Susanna and John. There is something awry when a healthy man and woman produce but one child in sixteen years of marriage, as I myself can attest.

“Gran, see the package? It’s from London—with your name! I’ll take off the wrapping…Oh, Gran, look!”

Lizbeth’s gasp reaches my ears, and in her excitement she holds a large, rectangular shape too close to my face. Then seeing my confusion, she draws it back inch by inch to catch the point at which my eyes will focus. I force a nod from my stiff neck when the exact distance is reached, and even that mere movement sends a crick of pain down my spine, dispelling the blissful notion that I am indeed deceased and Lizbeth an angel leading me to heaven’s gate. I stare hard at the object before me, then it becomes clear. It is the book, the Folio, so long awaited. Tears start to my eyes.

“Show me,” I rasp.

Eagerly, Lizbeth scrapes up the chair beside my bed, the seat whereon she sits to feed me broth and puddings and other soft stuff. When her mother is not by, she sneaks me spoonfuls of marzipan paste, which I savor and dissolve on my tongue, and tots of spiced wine. I am only two years shy of the age achieved by our great Elizabeth, that old orange-headed lion, and by the time she died her teeth were black stubs, and the makeup on her face was a permanent mask of white paint and vermilion a half inch thick. A pretty corpse indeed. I suppose I shan’t look much better, but never mind, never fret. The book exists!

“I don’t see a note,” says Lizbeth. “Maybe the publisher sent it? Did you know it was coming, Gran? Look, gold trim.” She settles the book on her lap and opens the leather cover. “The title page reads: ‘Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies.’ Can you see the picture?”

She shifts it toward me. And there you are, Will. That domey, bald head, the silly snippet of beard, the starched collar and mild, serious mien. Seven years dead.

“Shall I read you the dedication?”

I blink my consent. That Lizbeth is highly literate is due entirely to me, for Susanna barely got beyond the alphabet and Pater Noster on her hornbook, and Judith’s brain proved impervious to even that humble object. Only Hamnet, God rest his innocent soul, showed the propensity for learning one might have expected from a poet’s offspring.

“Oh well, our daughters won’t need letters,” Will had said, shrugging off the girls’ disinclination for schooling. “They will have husbands to take care of them.”

As you have taken care of me?

I bite my tongue. I have spent a lifetime biting my tongue; there must be scars thick as stars in the firmament of my mouth from all the secrets I have kept. But at least where I failed my two girls, I have requited myself in Lizbeth, tutoring her in summer on the garden bench here at New Place, in winter reading by the hearth. Thinking a little learning harmless, Susanna did not protest. It never occurred to her I might have more than a little learning to impart. Besides, it kept the child from running loose in John’s study, smudging his casebook and breaking the urine bottles of important patients. I sigh that we shall soon become as enamored of education for our daughters as for our sons. God’s blood, is this not the seventeenth century?

“Gran, did you hear what I read?”

No, I missed it. I make a disappointed sound, and Lizbeth pats my hand.

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell it short. First is a dedication to the earls of Pembroke and Montgomery written by Mr. John Heminge and Mr. Henry Condell. They compare their humble offering of the volume to a leavened cake set out at a temple for the gods.” Lizbeth chuckles. “What flattery to the earls!”

“Sticky honey traps best,” I croak, hooking my finger toward the mug on the bedside table. Lizbeth braces my shoulders so I can drink. Water—Susanna may return from the market at any moment, so no spiced wine today, alas—but it wets my throat and lets me speak. “Read on.”

Lizbeth settles me and resumes. “Next there comes an epistle to the readers, exhorting them to open their purses. ‘You wil stand for your priviledges wee know: to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first…whatever you do, Buy.’”

Lizbeth tilts her head in laughter, and I content myself with an inward smile. Good men, John Heminge and Henry Condell. I am not sure how the project fell to them, but it being the style of dedications to fawn and supplicate, I will not twit them for the great service they have rendered me. Now they call Will “a happie imitator of Nature…a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.” Not true, but heartfelt. I like it.

Lizbeth turns the page, scanning. “Here is a tribute from Mr. Jonson. Why, I remember when you had me send him that bundle…” She pauses, her forehead puzzling, but I motion her to go on. “‘To the memory of my beloved, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare…I confesse thy writings to be such, As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much…’”

Tears gather in the child’s eyes. Her grandpapa was her beloved too. She was but eight years old when he died. When she was even smaller, her hands in ours, we would swing her between us as we walked through town. But what’s this, Ben? You only “confesse” to the plays’ quality? You couldn’t declare, proclaim, announce, pronounce, assert or avow? You had to have it wrung out of you like a sinner in a confession box?

“‘Soule of the Age!’” Lizbeth’s voice soars. “‘The applause! delight! the wonder of our Stage!’”

That’s better. Don’t tell me words don’t mean exactly what they say.

“‘And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke,…’”

What? Ben, you know very well that Will’s Latin was the equal of yours. He was the star pupil of Stratford grammar school and there had hard masters and Latin drills from sunup till sundown, and anyone who thinks we live as illiterate country bumpkins is an uninformed city snob. As if anyone will stage your plays a hundred years hence! Lizbeth reads on, but my anger has cost me my place. Wait, wait, was that something about Kit? Damn, I missed it! And shake a spear, shake a stage? No, no, not that old pun again!

Lizbeth reaches the end. “I like this line,” she says quietly, “‘For a good Poet’s made, as well as borne.’ That’s very true, isn’t it? But of all Mr. Jonson has written, here is the best: ‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’”

Really? Ben said that? I want to stop and savor it, but Lizbeth, face aglow, searches on for more. A trio of short and not very good tributes follows. I don’t recognize the names of the men who wrote them. So many of those we first knew are gone: Kyd, Peele, Nashe, poor jealous Robert Greene who lives on only for his pathetic pamphlet. Remember when they wouldn’t let Will join their club of University Wits? Only Kit was our friend from the start, the muse’s and my darling, such a brilliant light extinguished, murdered, so treacherously young. Shall I see any of them in the hereafter? Since Her late Majesty officially abolished Purgatory and its attendant buying and selling of indulgences as a greedy popish invention, I tremble to think where my soul must go. Sins do blot my papers—please, God, you will grant me a little mercy and allow it was you who formed me thus? Can I help what you wrought? Oh please, do not let me burn!

“Gran! You are shivering!”

Lizbeth bustles with my blankets, scolding herself for negligence. I am not supposed to call her Lizbeth, by the way. Susanna has decreed anything else than the full Elizabeth to be undignified. But when my granddaughter comes, she sings up the stairs, “Gra-ann! Your Lizbeth is here!”

“I am all right,” I say and manage to shoo my hand. “Don’t fuss over me. Read more.”

“The plays come next. Which one?”

“You pick. Dip in.”

She wets her lips, a child faced with a tray of delectable treats. With all the plays now published in one legitimate volume, they will be protected from future piracies and careless copiers, and I expect Will can stop turning in his grave. Or rather, that I can stop twisting on his behalf. Have you seen that bust of him in the church? Hideous, him looking like a provincial burgher, all ruddy and prosperous. But Susanna approved the likeness—it was so respectable—and since I must live under her roof, I went along.

“Am I tiring you, Granny? Is it too much?”

I shake my head, though I haven’t heard a word, and Lizbeth does tend to prattle. Still, I taught her not only to read and write but also to appreciate, for they are not one and the same. Anyone can become literate—as Sir Thomas More feared—and perhaps this is not, after all, a good thing. For then many will read and write but few will appreciate, and we shall have no end of hack poets and second-rate playwrights churning out drivel to clog the mind. No, to appreciate is essential, for it requires discernment and sensitivity, qualities often lacking in the mob at the Globe. Though I do not condemn outright our penny groundlings; dullards sit in equal measure on their cushioned bums in the galleries looking down. Whereas my Lizbeth feels what she reads. She draws it into her heart, bids it pulse through her veins, lets it quicken and enthrall her, then pass out in a breath of understanding that is both heartbreak and delight.

“Listen, Gran. I remember when you used to read this to me. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven…’” Lizbeth sighs. “It is true what Ben Jonson said, isn’t it? Grandpapa will be remembered as long as time shall last!”

“I hope the plays shall be remembered,” I say, but she is too carried away to catch my feeble remark.

“And writers will forever honor and respect him. How I wish I had not been such a child when he died! I rue that I have so few memories of him.” She bounds up and walks about the room, pressing the book to her bosom as if she could absorb it through her skin. She is imagining herself Portia, Juliet, Miranda, Rosalind, and she twirls till it seems the room itself must join in her delirious spin. “And you, Granny, how lucky you were to have married the genius of the age! Why do you so rarely talk about him? You should have told me everything, everything, so I may tell my children and they tell theirs. I know it is hard on your throat, and you would never boast, but tell me just one wondrous thing…”

She flits back to my side, eagerly anticipating. She who is my last heartbeat and will be my sole mourner. Shall I, shall I reveal…?

“Your grandfather did not write the plays,” I whisper. “Not all of them. Not exactly.”

“What?”

She stops, not quite having heard me. I am surprised to hear myself. Her highly fluent Majesty Elizabeth is said to have spoken six languages, or so she once bragged to an ambassador to her court. When he commented that it was a great accomplishment for a princess, the queen replied that the real marvel was to make a woman hold her tongue. Well, I have been that marvel for more than thirty years. And why? Why should a woman hold her tongue? Why should I, any longer?

“He did not write them,” I repeat, and it is as if the scars in my mouth, all that bitten flesh, are suddenly opened and raw. But it cleanses as it hurts me, and now my tongue remembers how to work, how to shape and cleave and utter the purging sounds. At last someone will know the truth before I die here in my second-best bed. “William Shakespeare is not who you think.”

My granddaughter’s eyes open wide. Then she gives a merry laugh. “Don’t tease, Granny. You make sport of my silliness. I should behave with more decorum, I know. But if I did, who would bring your marzipan and spiced wine when Mother’s back is turned?”

“No, no sport, Lizbeth.” I push myself to sit upright.

“Gran, what are you doing? Do you need your chamber pot? Oh no, what have I done?” She snatches up pillows and props them behind me, but I fend off her ministering hands.

“Lizbeth, listen to me. The plays…there was another author.”

“But Grandpapa wrote them.” She points to the title page. “It is published, right here.”

“His name, yes. But that is not how it was.”

Lizbeth draws back, doubting my sanity, her curiosity piqued. She tries on several faces to see my reaction: the disapproving look of a mother with an obstinate child, the pout of a skeptic daring to be proven wrong, the bafflement of a young woman trying to make sense of a contention all known evidence declares to be false. I reach for her hand, and she sits beside me, her soft white palm offered in return.

“Granny…” She smiles, willing to forgive me, but I shake my head.

“I swear on this my deathbed that what I speak is true.”

Lizbeth’s face pales. We both know a deathbed is no place for a liar. She leans forward intently, and after so many years, oh, what peace, what relief, what vengeance at last.

I speak each word with utmost clarity and care. “William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon did not write all the plays that appear in his name.”

My granddaughter’s reply is a taut whisper, urgent for truth.

“Then if he didn’t write them, Gran, who did?”

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