In Search of Shakespeare

A thirtieth century scholar stakes his reputation on an obscure poet called Shakespeare.

Kendall looked up nervously when his name was called by the gentle electronic voice. ‘Dr Kendall, Dr Sheldon will see you now. Please follow the blue trail-lights.’ The lights led him down a long, softly lit metallic corridor to a door that quietly swooshed open as he approached.

His old adversary, Crecy Sheldon, stood to greet him as he entered. ‘Henrik, how good to see you after all these years. I was so pleased when the University asked me to review your manuscript. It’s been interesting reading.’ Sheldon’s grin did nothing to hide his insufferable arrogance.

Kendall tried to smile politely as he stretched out a hand to Sheldon. A misstep at this point of the proceedings might stymie his academic career forever. ‘I’m flattered that they would ask the best in the field to look at it. It almost repays all those years of work.’

‘I hear you’ve been at it for fifteen years, Henrik. Quite a large chunk of time to devote to so specialised a subject,’ Sheldon remarked as their armchairs moulded themselves to their bodies.

‘It is specialised,’ Kendall admitted, ‘but I think it is a most important one. I believe that Garrick’s Playbook holds a collection of the most remarkable and powerful works of the English Literary Renaissance. Christopher Marlowe could not equal a King Lear nor Ben Jonson A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I feel it is essential that we know the identity of the genius who wrote them.’

‘You’ve set yourself quite a difficult task, Henrik. Academics have debated this point for hundreds of years. They’ve put forward a myriad of candidates: playwrights like Marlowe and Jonson, scholars like Francis Bacon and even aristocrats like the Earl of Oxford. They can’t even agree if they were all written by the same man. What made you try your hand?’

‘I thought I could look at it with fresh eyes.’ Kendall didn’t need to tell Sheldon the real reason, that the field of Ancient English Literature had been so thoroughly raked over that any scholar wanting to make a name for himself had to ferret out some hitherto untouched corner that he could call his own. The question had been debated, but not recently and no definitive answer had ever been found. Kendall was sure he had found the real author of those plays, had given him a name and a biography and that name, together with Kendall’s own, would go down in history.

Sheldon smiled sympathetically. ‘After seventeen hundred years, it must have been almost impossible to find any fresh evidence. So little is left from that period. Even Garrick’s own original scripts are lost.’

‘Yes, it is such a tragedy that so much of that vibrant literature was suppressed with the closing of the theatres by the Puritans. And so much more must have been lost in the Great Fire of London. The little that remains is heartbreakingly tantalising. If it were not for Garrick’s enthusiasm, we might have lost it all.’

‘So,’ Sheldon began, passing from the chatty to the business mode as he turned to the screen on his desk, ‘let’s see what you’ve got here.’ He sighed as if he regretted what he was about to say. ‘You’ve based your conclusions on some very thin evidence here, Henrik. A short passage in a literary review by an obscure clergyman, a Frances Meres, who says a certain Shakespeare was “the most excellent among the English” for Tragedy and Comedy. Hardly the most esteemed critic of his day. You can’t even be sure he was ever in London.’

‘His opinion of Shakespeare is hardly the point, Crecy. What is significant is that he attributed all of those plays to the one man. The same man who wrote Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and The Sonnets. Eight of the plays he lists are in Garrick’s Playbook. If Shakespeare wrote eight of them surely it is feasible that he wrote the remaining four.’

‘Well, no other contemporary ever attributed those plays to Shakespeare, or even referred to Shakespeare as a playwright. But granted that it’s possible that the poet could have turned his hand to writing plays, this is only one reference. If he were such a genius, surely someone like Jonson or Chapman would have mentioned him.’

‘Robert Greene mentioned him.’

‘Ah yes. In a bitter tirade against actors and the theatre he refers to an “upstart crow” who thinks he can “bombast out a blank verse as the best of you” and who considers himself the only “Shake-scene” in the country.’

‘Yes, “Shake-scene”, a name that can only be a parody on Shakespeare.’

‘Do you really think so, Henrik? It sounds to me more like a disparaging term for an actor.’

‘Exactly. He is clearly referring to an actor who writes plays in blank verse. Greene is quite emphatic on that point in his deathbed pamphlet.’

‘Yes, but hardly flattering to your genius.’

‘He was jealous of Shakespeare. If anything such envious remarks should be evidence for his genius, not against it.’

‘Nor does he show any respect for this Shakespeare as a poet.’

‘The poems were published after Greene’s death. He could not have known him as a poet.’

‘Well, perhaps this actor did write a few plays that have since disappeared, but your identification of the actor Shakespeere with the poet Shakespeare is tenuous at best. It’s inconceivable that a man with this poet’s erudition should have appeared on the stage as a lowly player.’

‘Christopher Marlowe was reputed to have acted on the stage.’

‘…as a student or an amateur perhaps, but never as a professional. It would have been beneath the dignity of a real scholar.’

‘But the name, Crecy. How could there have been two men of the same name writing at the same time?’

‘Henrik, you say yourself that the name Shakespeare, or variants on it, was not uncommon. You even found two William Shakespeares being granted marriage licences on subsequent days. It need not be the same man; which is why I believe you have overreached yourself when you equate your Shakespeare with one William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon on the flimsiest of evidence.’

‘My argument is based on logic and a thorough knowledge of the period. This William Shakspere comes from Warwickshire, the same county that James Burbage comes from. As you know such ties were important then. It is more than just feasible that the William Shakespeere who joined James Burbage’s company would be someone who comes from his home county.’

‘How could this corn-trader and money lender have had the education behind Venus and Adonis or even Titus Andronicus?’

‘We underestimate Elizabethan education, Crecy. Even a grammar school boy got a thorough grounding in Latin and the classics.’

‘But how can you be sure it’s this grammar school boy?’

‘By a careful search of the records. This William Shakspere was absent from Stratford-upon-Avon at exactly the same time as William Shakespeare was writing his great plays in London. And there are no records in Stratford that account for where he got the money to buy all the property he acquired in the town.’

Sheldon’s little grin reappeared. ‘Perhaps not in Stratford, Henrik. But even you cite several references to a William Shakespeare in the London records that show him evading his taxes and being summonsed to keep the peace. Apparently his victims were in “fear of death.” For all you know, your Warwickshire burgher could have been a gangster in London.’

‘I believe I have thoroughly addressed those issues in my manuscript.’

‘Yes, you’ve put a very romantic spin on them. The out-of-work actor temporarily embarrassed. A man grieving for the loss of his son out on a bender. But it proves nothing about the authorship of the plays.’

Sheldon turned to Kendall, steepling his hands and looking terribly concerned. ‘Henrik, my dear friend, others before you have tried to attribute the plays to the poet Shakespeare, but the documentary evidence, even as far back as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was so fragmentary that their conclusions have always been considered eccentric to say the least. And I’m afraid you’ve taken it beyond the pale by conflating the poet with an actor and then throwing in a money lender for good measure.’

Provoked beyond caring, Kendall stood up. ‘I have had enough of this, Crecy. I take it, then, that you have not recommended that the University publish my book.’

Sheldon tried to look sympathetic. ‘I’m sorry, Henrik. I can’t. I can understand how you feel about it, but without further, and to be honest, better evidence, your thesis just can’t be maintained.’

‘Then I’ll ask you to be so kind as to return my manuscript.’

Sheldon extracted a slim cylinder from his computer and handed it to Kendall. Kendall was too angry to shake Sheldon’s hand before turning and storming out of his office.

As the landscape rushed past and disappeared behind his personal transport capsule, Kendall felt as though he were watching his own life disappear. His career, his life’s work, everything he had striven for since he was a schoolboy had come to nothing. And for the verdict to come from Crecy Sheldon, a man who had never done a moment’s original research in his life, who had risen to his position on the back of others’ achievements, including Kendall’s own, was more than he could bear.

Further, and to be honest, better evidence. Where was he to find new evidence? He had spent the last fifteen years scouring all the records, had found every existing reference to Shakespeare and any variation on it. There was nothing new to find. All the original documents had long since disappeared. All that was left was what had been digitised in the twenty-first century, and it was by sheer luck alone that even that had survived all that had happened since.

He was destroyed, totally and utterly destroyed. His life was over. But in his despair one thought came to him, one audacious and forbidden thought. If he were ever found out… but, then, what more did he have to lose? Nothing, and he would show Sheldon what a real scholar was capable of.

***

Kendall sat, strapped into his chair, in the tiny black cubicle of the time machine, listening to the high pitched roar of the antimatter engines as they built up the power required to take him back to London circa 1600. For fear of interference with the time lines, it was forbidden for anyone but trained and licensed operatives of the History Department to use the time machine. If he were found out, Kendall and the technician to whom he had paid a small fortune could spend the rest of their lives in jail. But Kendall didn’t really care. It couldn’t be any worse than the professional oblivion he already faced.

But he would not think of such an outcome now. He breathed deeply, readying himself for the journey, going over his plan. It would depend on what year he landed in. If he were lucky enough to land within Shakespeare’s lifetime he could seek him out, get to know him, or if he should land any later he would seek out the people who had known him, and then, armed with that knowledge he would come back and find the evidence, construct the arguments that would convince even the greatest sceptic.

He was dressed in the conservative, nondescript black robes of a scholar or a clergyman, clothes that could pass in a wide period. His Elizabethan English should pass muster, but if anyone were to ask, he was a foreign scholar come to London to find plays to take back to his own country. Inside the folds of his robe he clasped a slim cylinder to ensure it stayed with him all the way.

The roar rose to a pitch that overwhelmed all his senses. For a moment the darkness became a searing white light, then there was silence and darkness again. He sat still while his mind and heartbeat settled, then he tentatively undid his fastenings, stood up on shaky legs, opened the door, and stepped from a hovel into a crowded, noisy, smelly cobbled street.

Kendall had made a few discrete enquiries to ascertain that the year was 1638, had exchanged some of the gold he had brought with him for local currency and had asked directions to The Globe Theatre on Maiden Lane in Southwark. His heart skipped a beat as he stepped into the unroofed pit surrounded by three galleries and looked up at the stage that jutted out into it, a stage where plays by his literary heroes might still be performed. But at present the theatre was empty, and its only occupants carpenters and labourers who shouted at him to get out of the way and not stand there gawping.

A tall, gaunt man in his forties came out to greet him in response to Kendall’s request to see the manager. ‘I am he, sir, one James Burbage. Why do you ask for me?’ He had to be old James Burbage’s grandson.

‘I come enquiring after William Shakespeare.’

‘Will Shakespeere has long since died, sir. What is your interest in him?’

‘It is not as much his person that I am seeking, as his writings, his papers.’

‘His writings, sir. What manner of writings?’

‘His plays, his poetry.’

‘I am afraid, sir, that I know of no such writings.’

‘Well, I daresay you were very young then and may not remember.’

‘I remember Will very well, sir. He played the comic parts. He was renowned for his ready wit, sir, but never for his writings. I fear you have the wrong man. Now, sir, if you will excuse me, we have much work to do here today.’

But Kendall called him back as he turned to leave. ‘Mr Burbage, please be not so hasty. If you would but give me leave to peruse any papers you may have from the period.’

Burbage stopped and returned to face him. ‘I do not understand your interest, sir.’

‘The interest of a scholar, a mere scholar.’

‘What interest would a scholar have in Will Shakespeere? He was a plain man, sir. He did not dabble in matters that might interest a scholar.’

Kendall was losing patience and called on his most authoritative tone. ‘Ah, Mr Burbage, I assure you he did. Now, all I ask is that you allow me to peruse your papers.’

Burbage paled and his resistance faltered. ‘The playhouse burnt down in 1613. There is little left from that period.’

‘Then I shall peruse what little is left.’

Burbage led Kendall behind the stage and up several flights of steep, narrow wooden stairs to a small room overlooking the stage. ‘You will find everything we have left from the period in this trunk. Would you have me stay with you?’

‘No, thank you, Mr Burbage. You must return to your work.’

Burbage hesitated, then bowed and left. Kendall opened the trunk with hands shaking with anticipation, but Burbage had been right. There was little there of much interest amongst the papers grey with smoke or yellow with age. But as Kendall sorted through the invoices and inventories of props and costumes he came across two pages that did interest him.

One was a list, obviously written from memory by the number of scratchings and interpolations, of the plays staged in the years immediately before the fire. Some, such as Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, were familiar, but many were not: Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest. Kendall’s pulse quickened at the thought of more plays yet to be discovered.

The other promised to be even more exciting, a letter signed by W. Shacksper requesting payment of his share of the capital value of The Globe as he wished to withdraw as a sharer and retire from the theatre. The letter cited his many years of friendship and service to the Burbages as an actor, but said nothing about the writing of plays. For a moment, Kendall hoped that the ornate language of the letter and neat script would give a clue to the writer’s character and education, but then he realised that the scrawled signature could not have been by the same hand. The letter must have been written by some lawyer or his clerk. Nor was there any address to show where the writer lived. Nothing that linked the actor either with the playwright or the money lender.

Kendall was studying the letter with a failing heart when Burbage came to the door.

‘These plays, Burbage,’ Kendall asked, showing him the list. ‘Do you know who wrote them? Do you have the scripts?’

‘They are old scripts, sir. We hardly play them anymore. And anything that may give offence has long since been removed.’

‘Nonetheless, I must see them. Where are they?’

‘I manage the Globe, sir,’ Burbage replied tautly. ‘I have naught to do with scripts. For such matters you must look to the company.’

‘Where is the company?’

‘As befits the King’s own men, sir. At the Court.’

‘Where else might I find these scripts?’

Burbage hesitated. ‘You might try the stationers, down by St Paul’s.’

Before Kendall could ask about the letter there was a commotion below and Burbage was called away. Kendall reread the letter. It gave him no help, but it had been read and touched by Shakespeare. It was a link to the man to whom he had devoted fifteen years of his life. He could hear Burbage’s footsteps approaching him again. He slipped the letter and the list under his robe.

‘You were right, Mr Burbage. There is nothing here of Mr Shakespeare’s writings. Please forgive me for disturbing you at this busy time.’ Kendall allowed his host to accompany him out of the theatre into the crowded street where Burbage watched him until he was well away.

***

The elderly bookseller came up from the basement carrying a small pile of quarto volumes. ‘Here we are, sir. Plays by Mr William Shake-speare. Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, The Life of Sir John Old-castle.’

Kendall opened the dusty covers. ‘I have Hamlet and Twelfth Night. I’ll take the other two. Is this all you have, Mr Cochran?’

‘Not much call for the old plays these days, sir. I remember when Mr Shake-speare was right popular, but he’s fallen out of favour now. He’s a bit too rough and ready for today’s audiences, I expect. Do you have a particular interest in Mr Shake-speare, sir?’

Kendall was too enthralled by Macbeth to pay the bookseller much heed. ‘I believe Mr Shakespeare to be the most powerful playwright of his generation.’

‘Powerful, sir?’

‘Yes, he has the power to take an audience wherever he will, be it heaven or hell.’

‘I can’t remember Mr Shake-speare writing much on religious subjects, sir.’

‘Oh, but all subjects are religious, and Shakespeare is the master of them all. He had the devil’s own gift,’ Kendall breathed as the witches wove their spell.

Cochran coughed uneasily. ‘Do you say so, sir? Well I should think a scholar such as yourself would know these things.’ He carefully dusted the books down and totted up the price. ‘That’ll be four shillings and threepence, sir. But we’ll make it a round four shillings. I expect these are the last of Mr Shake-speare’s plays I’ll be selling.’

***

Stratford-upon-Avon was a pretty, small town of half-timbered houses and a square-spired Gothic church in which Kendall now stood over a grave on which there was engraved no name, but a short piece of commonplace doggerel. Were these the last words written by the great poet?

‘Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
 To dig the dust encloséd here,
 Blessed be the man that spares these stones, 
 And cursed be he who moves my bones.’

The little old man beside Kendall chuckled around his pipe. ‘I told you the lad had a fine wit, didn’t I, sir?’

Kendall felt his stomach sink. This loquacious old man was the only person he had spoken to who could remember anything of Will Shakspere.

‘Aye, a ready wit, but not witless otherwise, if you get my meaning, sir. He knew the value of a shilling and knew how to hold onto it and make it multiply, our Will. Happy to lend he was, sir, on favourable terms, if you get my meaning, but woe betide you if you couldn’t repay. He was quick to have the bailiffs onto you, right quick. Though they do say he worked hard for his money.’

Was the old man finally going to give him something useful? ‘How did he earn his money, pray tell?’

The old man sucked on his pipe. ‘Can’t rightly say. All I know is he went to London and came back a rich man, buying up houses and fields. Here and in London, they say.’

‘I have heard tell he was an actor and playwright in London, a poet even.’

The old man chuckled. ‘Oh, aye, Will had a fine wit and was always ready to declaim in the tavern after a few ales. But a London actor, sir? That I cannot say.’ The old man took another long draft of his pipe. ‘I tell you what, sir, why don’t you go see Widow Hall, Susanna Shakspere that was? Mayhap she can answer your questions.’ He chuckled again. ‘An actor and a poet, well now, fancy that.’

***

The small woman who looked at him with brilliant but wary blue eyes wore her snow-white hair pulled back into a tight bun. ‘Aye, sir, I am the Widow Hall. If you are looking for my husband, Dr Hall, he has been dead these three years.’

‘It is you I wish to speak to. You are, are you not, the daughter of William Shakspere?’

‘Aye, sir, his eldest.’ Despite her caution, Mistress Hall had invited Kendall into her house.

‘I come to ask a great boon of you, Mistress Hall. I am a humble scholar and I am seeking the papers and writings of Mr Shakspere.’

Susanna Hall smiled. ‘His papers, sir? He had few papers, apart from deeds and such for his business. What kind of papers do you seek?’

‘His plays, his poetry, diaries of his time in London.’

Now Susanna’s delicate laugh lines became deeply etched around her clear eyes. ‘Plays, poetry? My old dad? My father was a jolly fellow who loved to declaim a merry ditty, sir, especially when in his cups. But a poet?’ She laughed again.

Kendall gave it one last try. ‘Did he leave any papers, Mistress Hall?’

‘I doubt it, sir, unless he left some to my husband. I still have all of his.’

‘May I look at them?’

Susanna sobered now and studied Kendall’s face before answering. ‘My father was a good man, sir. Surely there is no cause, so many years after his death, to go digging up old transgressions. Surely whatever he may have done cannot be visited on us now, after so many years. My husband was always a sober Puritan as you are yourself, sir, and I have taken Protestant Communion every Easter for nigh on thirty years, now.’

Kendall was quite bewildered by this speech. ‘Please Mistress Hall, be assured, I wish you and yours no harm. I am but a humble scholar.’

Susanna hesitated a moment before leading Kendall into an inner room. ‘All my husband’s papers are in this chest, sir,’ she said, after spending a good ten minutes searching out the key. ‘Nothing has been touched since his death.’

‘Have you not perused them yourself, Mistress Hall?’

Susanna smiled. ‘How could I, sir? I cannot read. My husband taught me to sign my name, but I had not the patience to learn to con my letters.’

‘Did your father not teach you?’

‘He, sir? He was not at home to teach me. There you go, sir,’ she sighed, having finally wrenched the chest open. ‘I hope you find what you are looking for.’

There was nothing in the chest besides Dr Hall’s own papers: jottings on symptoms and remedies, and his casebooks in two heavy tomes. Kendall opened the one that covered the period up to 1616. Dr Hall mentioned his father-in-law quite often in the last three or four years as the older man seemed to have suffered from many of the ailments of middle age, including some he had acquired during his bachelor existence in London. Dr Hall’s notes were very circumspect, giving the impression that he knew more about his father-in-law’s London business than he was willing to confide to the page. But there was nothing to identify what kind of business it might be, and nothing about Shakspere’s writing, either poetry or plays.

On the occasion of Shakspere’s death Dr Hall wrote:

‘My father-in-law died last night, calling for a papist priest, but his wife would not heed him. I took the poor man’s hand and together we prayed God to forgive him for a life of worldliness and avarice. My wife weeps for him for she has come to love him in these last few years.’

As he read this last entry, Kendall felt the emptiness in the pit of his stomach grow. Perhaps if he had the time to read it more thoroughly, to decipher some of the notes in Latin… Hoping Mistress Hall would not have occasion to open it again for many years, Kendall replaced everything in the chest except the casebook and locked it, grateful again for his voluminous gown.

***

Mistress Hall had commended Kendall to their family lawyer, Francis Collins, in his search for more documents about her father. Mr Collins had hesitated at first but then acquiesced to what he was led to believe was Mrs Hall’s sincere request.

‘I am afraid I have very little here. I did not act in his land dealings as I was new to Stratford. But I do have his will and a few documents of the time,’ he said as he laid them out carefully on his broad oak desk. He would have stayed with Kendall, but left him alone when his clerk knocked on the door to announce the arrival of a client. Through the door left ajar, Kendall could hear the beginning of what was likely to be a long, rambling narrative. He would have ample time to examine the will closely.

It was a long and detailed will, a careful businessman’s will, disposing of every penny and chattel he owned, even down to his second best bed, but it mentioned no books or manuscripts, again nothing that might hint at a career in literature or the stage. Kendall studied it thoroughly, desperate to find something, some clue, some mention of a London friend, but there was nothing.

The recitation in the next room went on and on. He could hear Mr Collins intervening occasionally in a bid to cut it short, but the man would go back over the point the lawyer had interrupted.

The will was for the most part neatly written, a clean copy, but it still had a few last minute alterations squeezed in between the lines of script. Would one more be noticed? Kendall eyed the quill sitting in its inkwell just within his reach. Collins’ client would keep him tied up long enough for the ink to dry. Kendall doubted the lawyer would re-read the will after he left. There was one provision for small legacies to friends for the purchase of gold remembrance rings. Giving the door a furtive glance, Kendall took the quill and, carefully mimicking Collins’ hand, added to the list:

‘…and to my fellows John Heminges, Richard Burbage and Henry Condell, 26s 8d a piece to buy them rings.’

***

Kendall sat at his desk in his study examining the books and papers he had brought back from the seventeenth century. What had possessed him to acquire them? He could never acknowledge them. Nor did any of them support his theory. Indeed, none of the documents he had seen in 1638 supported his theory. He needed time to think. For now he would lock them away securely. Perhaps once his manuscript had been published he could find some way of bringing them to light.

He had crossed the line, he knew, but at least his conscience was clear on one matter. None of the documents he had taken or tampered with appeared in the digitised records. He had not interfered with the time lines.

Tomorrow he would submit his manuscript again, and wait, again.

***

The door quietly swooshed open as Kendall approached it and Crecy Sheldon stood to greet him as he entered. ‘Henrik, please come in and take a seat.’ Sheldon sat down and turned to Kendall, steepling his hands and looking terribly concerned. ‘Henrik, the University asked me to review your manuscript. It’s been… interesting reading. I’m told you spent fifteen years on it.’

Kendall cleared his throat. ‘Well, yes… you see… I… I believe that Garrick’s Playbook holds a collection of the most remarkable and powerful works of the English Literary Renaissance and I feel it is essential that we know the identity of the genius who wrote them.’

Sheldon’s brow creased. ‘Henrik, what is Garrick’s Playbook?’

‘D-David Garrick, th-the actor…’

‘I know David Garrick. He’s credited with the revival of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, but there is no book of anonymous plays. We have long since attributed all the plays Garrick performed, despite his extensive rewrites. And… and I’m afraid to say that none of them were written by this… what is his name? Ah yes, um, Shakespeare.’

Kendall felt his blood run cold.

‘I’ve asked around all the experts in the field, Henrik and none of them have ever heard of this poet Shakespeare.’ Sheldon looked at Kendall sympathetically. ‘Henrik, your manuscript is very well written. It’s a… a delightful fantasy. Perhaps you might like to recast it as a novel. But I’m afraid the University couldn’t possibly publish it.’

Sheldon extracted a slim cylinder from his computer and handed it to Kendall. Kendall was too bewildered to shake Sheldon’s hand before turning and floundering out of his office.

***

What had happened? Had he come back into an alternative present? Frantically he searched the records again. It was as Sheldon had said. Garrick’s Playbook had gone. The whole controversy Kendall had meant to resolve had never happened. No one mentioned Shakespeare in any context. Desperate now, he returned to his original source, a late twentieth-century thesis on Frances Meres from an obscure American college. He looked for the passage about Shakespeare. It was still there, but the annotation had changed.

‘A virtually unknown Elizabethan poet and playwright. The only other reference in the literature is by Samuel Pepys, who, after another disappointing night at the theatre, recounts a conversation with an elderly fellow patron who laments that Shakespeare is no longer played. Apparently his plays were popular in the old man’s youth but fell out of favour especially when it was rumoured that the author was a dangerous heretic. None of his works survived the Puritan Interregnum.’

***

In 1622, Old William Jaggard peered though his milk-veiled eyes at the top page of the pile of almost two thousand pages that Kendall had dropped on his desk. ‘My, this must be ye life’s work, Mr Condell?’

‘Not my own, sir, but of one whose genius must be preserved, Master William Shakespeare.’ Kendall stroked the pages that had taken him months of scanning and copying, sorting and discarding, editing and re-writing to produce. The ageing printer could not conceive that each page had not been laboriously written by hand in ink, rather than created by a future technology that could reproduce any document and replicate any medium, nor could his almost blind eyes detect any minor flaws.

‘I believe I can recall Mr Shakespeare. Quite popular he was in his day. What became of him? Is he still alive?’

‘No, I’m afraid he died some years since.’

‘Oh, well, as ye say, Mr Condell, his genius will live on. So, ye want all this printed in one folio.’

‘Yes, Mr Jaggard. Five hundred copies at my own expense.’

‘What of the frontis piece, Mr Condell, and the dedication? Ye cannot print such a hefty work without a pretty dedication and a fine engraving.’

‘What a happy thought, Mr Jaggard, a dedication. Who should I ask to write it, do you think?’

‘Why, the best person to do it would be the most popular playwright of the present day. Why not ask Ben Jonson? He’s always ready with a witty epigram, is young Ben.’

‘That I shall, Mr Jaggard. Give me a day or two and I shall return with it.’

‘Oh, there’s no hurry, Mr Condell,’ the old man chuckled. ‘It’ll take more than a day or two for young Martin and me to set the type. But stay, Mr Condell, why not let young Martin, my apprentice, do the engraving? He fancies himself an artist.’

‘But Mr Shakespeare is not here to sit for it.’

‘Not to worry, Mr Condell. You just sit with young Martin for a spell and tell him what Mr Shakespeare looked like. Martin can do the rest.’

A few days later, when Kendall dropped off the dedications he had concocted not only from Ben Jonson, but from Shakespeare’s colleagues, Heminges and Condell, and even a couple of obscure poets he had found in his researches, young Martin was eagerly ready with his engraving. It was a clumsy piece, but Kendall didn’t have the heart to reject it. In fact, he found it amusing that it looked so much like himself, complete with receding hairline and dark stubble. Not that there was any other image of Shakespeare with which it might be compared.

While he waited the many months it took for the printer to complete his work, Kendall commissioned a stonemason to build a monument to William Shakspere, Gent, to be placed in the parish church in Stratford where he was buried. He enjoyed framing the inscription so that it would be tantalisingly cryptic. If it still existed in his own day, he would take great pleasure in deciphering it to the amazement of all the competing pundits.

It was well into 1623 when Kendall placed the folio with Mr Cochran, the bookseller, on consignment. No doubt, it would be several years before Cochran would need to bestir himself to unearth whom to pay, and most of the large, clumsy volumes might end up in his dusty basement. But that was all according to Kendall’s plan. All he needed was for a handful of copies of the folio to survive the Puritan Interregnum in a few aristocratic libraries, for it to be mentioned by an unknown diarist or remembered by a curious antiquarian. It would be enough to wipe that arrogant grin off Crecy Sheldon’s face.

Now Kendall could submit his manuscript to the University and take a holiday where no one had ever heard of Shakespeare, or cared one iota for the English Literary Renaissance.

***

The door quietly swooshed open as Kendall approached it and Crecy Sheldon stood to greet him as he entered. ‘Henrik, how good to see you after all these years. I was so pleased when the University asked me to review your manuscript. It’s been interesting reading.’ Sheldon smiled sardonically at Kendall as he took a seat. ‘To tell you the truth, Henrik, I didn’t believe you had it in you. I never took you for a practical joker.’

‘Joker?’ Kendall gulped.

‘Or is it satire? We academics are a dusty old lot and we could do with a good shake up now and again. Well, however you meant it, congratulations. I haven’t laughed so much in years.’

Kendall’s mouth opened and closed.

‘It’s a good angle,’ Sheldon continued. ‘Let’s pretend we live in a world where no one knows who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, as if Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the whole Shakespeare industry didn’t exist. Priceless!’ Sheldon laughed outright. ‘Of course we can’t publish it, a serious University like us, but as a satire I’m sure you’ll easily find another publisher.’

Sheldon extracted a slim cylinder from his computer and handed it to Kendall. Kendall was too stunned to shake Sheldon’s hand before turning and blundering out of his office.

© Pauline Montagna 2012