All's Will that ends Will
[ fiction - june 12 ]
Five miles west of Stratford-Upon-Avon lies the ancient village of Binton, a pleasant but unremarkable place notable for having four entries in the Domesday Book and as being the birthplace of a woman recorded in the lesser documents of history as Elisabeth of Binton. However, this anonymous figure is significant as the companion of the Shakespeares in their later years, and for Anne Hathaway she proved a constant and welcome presence in her widowhood. Elisabeth could read and write, and fortunately for us practiced this advantage by keeping journals. Only parts of these documents survive, but they offer not only a unique insight into life in that market town in the early seventeenth century, but, importantly, they provide details of the life of Shakespeare’s widow in the evening of her days, and offer some brief but priceless glimpses of the winter years of the great man himself. For our purposes here, they also record strange phenomena that engulfed the Shakespeares a few days before William’s death; unnatural events that Elisabeth implies may have triggered the onset of our greatest writer’s early expiration.
Two miles above Stratford the river gently bends east by the fields of Hatton Rock then south to flow past the villages of Tiddington and Alveston, and it was from this spot on the banks of the gentle Avon that William and Anne set off on that strange adventure. For much of the classification of the flora and fauna of our kingdom and, indeed, our natural world, we are indebted to that most unique and hardy of English perennials, the amateur naturalist, the gentleman hobbyist with a stipend or small fixed income - usually a pastor or a doctor - whose real passions lay beyond the pulpit and the surgery. In this fine tradition an eighteenth century deacon and compulsive encyclopaedist the Reverend John Lydon - whose volume The Taxonomy of Flora of the Parishes of Stratford-Upon-Avon as notated by Season is a minor classic. It reveals that stretch of the Avon as at one time abundant with marigold, yellow iris, primrose, violets, wild garlic, thyme, St John’s wort, oxlip, dog-rose and buttercup. Inevitably one wonders if this is the bank that Oberon knew whereon “The wild thyme blows, where oxlip and the nodding violet grows”.
Today, Shakespeare’s wildflower Arcadia has given way to a field of cabbages, and is no more than a pleasant backdrop to the rash of houses that has spread between Tiddington and Alvington. Rowing and pleasure boats rarely venture this far from town, and the spot has a remarkable solitude. The Avon runs slowly and barely makes any sound against the hull of a rowboat. Only occasional cows tearing the grassy tufts on the west bank interrupt the peace. From there the view downriver is of a density of trees on one bank and flat fields on the other diminishing towards an infinity marked by the distant spire of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. The spire rises above the canopies of oak, chestnut and beech like a knife blade pricking that particular big English sky that always seems such a summer feature of this old, English town.
It is of the great English widow that the body of Elisabeth’s work is concerned. Whatever she has written about the Bard survives only in tantalising fragments that leave a shadowy impression of a complex and witty man prone to periods of deep melancholy, and who, unfortunately seems to have fallen away badly in those latter days. There is little shed on the writing of the plays or their original meaning, so, despite the tantalising references in Elisabeth’s pen sketches, he remains one of our great enigmas. There is no other contemporary account that can clarify what sort of man he was, and perhaps the mystery is what we want. Is there not something beguiling in this riddle that is Shakespeare the man? It certainly gives licence to all sorts of Johnny-Come-Latelies to publish their opinions and assumptions on the life of our national poet, and find their own personal significance in a field in which there can be no evidential contradiction, simply counter arguments that are also built on no evidence, but fleshed out with nothing more than other opinions and assumptions. No individual in history has provided so much work, debate, conflict and reward to so many. He is as men choose to make him, and may well be the world’s greatest source of superannuation. He lived out his time in London and Stratford, blissfully unaware of how he would bequeath shape to generations of empty lives, prestige to armies of anonymous academics, or how his inspiration might rehabilitate social misfits into actors, and put the unremarkable town of Stratford-Upon-Avon on the world map, a blessing for which many of her current citizens are eternally at pains to show their abundant ingratitude.
My family has been the fortunate inheritor of Elisabeth’s journals, but this great gift has brought a burden and a conundrum. Traditionally, my ancestors have suffered from an isolated outlook on the world, coupled with a keen sense of propriety, which partially - but only partially - explains why her writings are unknown beyond the gates to our drive. My grandfather’s literary aspirations and the depressing stream of courteous but unequivocal rejections that gushed his way reinforced this family trait. Such a mountain of self-pity and shame grew within him that he bolted all doors and shutters against the groves of academe and the publishing world. If he couldn’t be published he was buggered if Elisabeth was going to be. My father continued this aversion to the literary and academic world by only being awarded a fourth at Oxford, a failure in his eyes of such magnitude that he wiped his student days from his memory and behaved as if he had never heard of Brasenose.
However, there is another reason why the contents of Elisabeth’s gift have never been publicly disclosed. The explanation lies in the fantastical nature of the narrative relating those strange events a few days before Shakespeare took to his bed and died, events so extraordinary that to present them is to invite derision, social exclusion, and even morbid notions of Section 2 of The Mental Health Act.
That these strange and mystical events that commenced on that peaceful bend of the river that one likes to think of as Oberon’s bank, defy rational description is incontestable. They may have been a dream of Anne’s, or indeed of the old Shakespeare in which he saw things that caused such disturbance in that sensitive nature that they broke his spirit and seeped away the will to wrestle on with earthly struggles. But Elisabeth has it that she was recording something that actually happened. Perhaps they were psychic phenomena. Magic mushrooms were common in parts of the country then, and although the image of our greatest poet as some sort of Jacobean dope-head flows against the national discourse, it is impossible to tell which is the cause of what she reports - dream, vision or bad trip - because parts of her manuscript are missing. Perhaps Anne - who related this tale to Elisabeth - possessed an imagination of such richness that it bordered on the paranormal. If this were so, she was wise to be cautious. Witches still faced the ducking stool in the days of the bizarre King James. Perhaps the Lady Anne was a person who suffered intermittent dips into hallucination. While we diagnose, drug and marginalise the members of our society who are at odds with the social norms, there is evidence that many other cultures and civilisations - including earlier versions of our own - found such people a place within the whole that was comfortable and inclusive. Who knows that Shakespeare’s wife was not blessed with the visionary talents that we now determine as mental illness, but which in those days may have been viewed as the gift of prophecy? After all, the Pythia at Delphi was high as a kite when she delivered her divine interpretations.
Most members of my family knew nothing of the existence of Elisabeth’s chronicle; only those considered sufficiently compos mentis and sober were blessed with a viewing. My mother, who thinks all men are fools, first showed me this document a few years after she guessed - quite correctly - that the government department for which I was working didn’t officially exist. I suppose she deduced that by then I had learned how to keep a secret. When I read it I thought it a ridiculous hoax, and deemed it nothing more than further evidence of the family problem. But confidential scientific investigation of the journals has led one to the disturbing evidence that irrefutably they date from that time, and there has been no falsifying interference since.
I wish to state that I am not that type who wishes a thing true and therefore unconsciously guides himself into a false belief. Quite the opposite. I wished to prove these documents a nonsense and shut mother up. However, a close friend who is a forensic scientist from a research institute that shall remain nameless, after the most meticulous investigation using cutting edge technologies, remains unable to declare them false. Indeed he was so disturbed by these conclusions that it led to superficial liver damage.
By all rights I should surrender Elisabeth of Binton to the scepticism of our seats of learning. But I know some of those people and would be reluctant to present my organ donor card for verification to them, let alone a document that questions the laws of the universe and the architecture of their philosophies. My dilemma will become clear. I will say no more. I will present this story in a slightly modern version since some of her text and spelling is alien to our eye and is entirely without punctuation. I have changed no facts, embellished nothing, simply notated and explained certain things. Something remarkable happened on the Avon one spring afternoon in 1616, something that still remains inexplicable.
No one speculates what Anne might have been like; no one is interested in the anonymous wife. She has been left to languish in the shadow of her husband’s renowned invisibility, although I am informed that a feminist has recently written about her. However, in other parts of Elisabeth’s memoir she emerges as a vibrant and intelligent woman, with much to tolerate in the neglect incurred by her husband’s airy distractions down in the capital with all his court friends.
So let us return to that kink in the river, under an English sky. Anne still has days when the grief of their dear son Hamnett’s death twenty years earlier, arcs across time to deaden her. So does her husband, but she had no writing to process her grief, no late plays in which to inlay her sadness with tales of lost children and parents emerging from tunnels of tragedy and delusion. Hers were not the sonnets in which the love for a departed son could be disguised and fixed in memoriam. Her husband had the creative gift to turn his pain into beauty. She had to live with it, often alone, in Stratford by the grave. When the memories burdened her, Elisabeth records how Anne found the Litany and Morning Prayer from the First Book of Common prayer the best thing to subdue the melancholy.
That day found her drawn back to the Book of Common Prayer.
Elisabeth’s memoir opens on a heavy day in spring, with William on his back in the thick, young grass trying to remember a sonnet, a habit that brought out the worst in Anne. Apparently at this late stage he was taken to wandering the house trying to remember lines from his plays and exploding in rages or sinking into pits of melancholy when he couldn’t. Anne would point out that that he should have written them down and had no one to blame but himself. This would simply incense or depress him further. But let Elisabeth tell Ann’s story.
The Chronicle of Elisabeth of Binton
My lady tells of how our master was at odds with his memory of a sonnet that she knew full well and could have prompted him in but chose not to, rather letting him “swill in the stew of his glory”.
It is called “The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet” and is one of my sweetest pieces in his works and I am very fond of it, and it lilts through my head of its own will on some days, but according to my mistress, her husband was in near fits about the lost words this day. He lay among wild flower, but his body was stiff with vexation, and verse seemed to whisper hotly, stop up, then burst out as in a cannonade:
Ti tumti tum... ti... that... tum... faster? Fillies,
Lilies that... something smell... faster fetter! FESTER!!
Lilies that fester smell far worse than feet sweets mede feeds weeds...???
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
And he was finished and milady who had found her breath stopped up sent a sigh upon the river that turned her husband’s head away, for he was in no way given to support her in her sadness that day, being instead impatient with his own concerns. He turned to closely watch a caterpillar make its wearisome way up a stalk of grass, bending in a loop then stretching to cling and pull herself into another loop as is their way, and lady Anne observed her husband stretch out to this small creature as she struggled up that blade of grass, and instead of the gentleness with which he was wont to treat the animals, birds and insects of the world - but not the dogs of which he had an awful fear - and instead of taking the creature on his finger to feel the pleasure of its company upon him as he was wont in more vigorous days, he flicked that finger with a violence that loosed the poor thing across the grasses as if already winged, and then he turned and slumped upon his back again.
She read the prayers awhile then watched him stare at clouds, a habit which in younger days had charmed her as a pleasing thing from childhood, but now brought naught but irritation to her. He may have dreamed his plays up there above the world but now his pen was laid where it would not be picked again and no reason left to seek in shifting clouds for any shape except foreboding of her foot delivered to his chartered arse.
Then Will was up and everything was thrown into the basket - trenchers, bread, fruit, cups and crumbs, and milady commanded him to gather all and leave nothing in the grass. He soured at this motherly command, as he did sometimes, for milady was older and there was a shadow of the young boy with the mother skirting the edges of their union, even in his greatness. The linen was thrown without fold into the basket and he rose and lifted all to the boat. There the basket was dropped and the boat shook as if wakened roughly from slumber. Little wavelets flowed from its moving sides to the banks and out into the heart of the slowing river. Lady Anne was not inspired to say aught as William was about ending things and stood with his hand limp and stretched for her to step aboard. Thus she did and he followed, but his nimbleness was a memory and milady had to grip both sides as the boat bobbed and bucked like a startled calf under the weight of his clumsy tread.
When settled there was next a conflict of oars and rowlocks, which resisted our master’s wish to make the two conjoined. He rose to anger swiftly at their insolence and when the long oars finally found their place, struck them violently on the rowlocks repeatedly and again, and with oaths that had my lady turn her face, to remind oar and rowlock of their place as servants of his will and such disobedience would ne’er be countenanced of mere wood and joinery. When the disciplining of oar and rowlock was abated, he pulled off from the bank and the gentle river claimed them.
Milady was caught by the sunlight on the water and how when the oars, which had caused her master such vexation, lifted from the water they trailed droplets that sparkled, and she indulged an imagination of them as diamonds or unknown precious stones, cascading from the blade of an oar in Elysium. Her husband coughed. Troubled by some vapours in his chest of late, the single cough first walked, trotted, cantered, then broke into a thundering herd that had him drop the oars to slap the river and wet milady’s front. His face, which now was ruddy and rough like boiling ham, grew crimson with this discomfort, and his convulsions rose as if to disgorge a Devil’s sprite, which in some respects he was, for at the climax of the coughs which had his wife arched back from her husband’s exhalations, he disgorged a pellet of phlegm like a small custard at the water with a slap that bounded back from the sleepy trees on the bank for any like a slap upon a child.
Just under the surface it lay and turned like a fanned fish. Milord spent some time examining the product of his exertions and seemed satisfied with it before starting downriver again. But the frond of phlegm accompanied them in the current, keeping apace with his gentle rowing and milady could not peel her eyes away from it and was to tell him to row faster and leave the hideous mark behind when she was distracted by the first appearance.
Downriver blackest smoke laid across the sky, and the boat rowed into the shadow wherein the sun was hidden by this smoky cloud. This is a sight of England as crops raze and fires catch, but no fields need razing in April, and milady talks of how the smoke was a drift from where she could not see, and laying low upon the land like a black cloud sunk from the sky. That was neither an anxiety nor of such strangeness to much distract them, save from the stink, but the noise of sudden hooves was heard and they were drawn to a sight of horse, five perhaps or six, rush to the bank, and such was their alarm that milady and her husband caught the fright of the animals as they turned and raced as if fleeing some hellish predator. Saddled and caparisoned in light armour of a kind unseen in those parts - or in any part as my lord would later say - these new sights gave my benefactors great anxiety as if invaders from an unknown land had reached the banks of our old English river. Then a sight of blood upon the lead horse as if a man had slid from saddle, and a wound of horror in a poor beast’s flank had master and mistress in quickest fear for their lives.
My master lay forward in mid stroke as if froze by a wizard, leaning on the oars as if to start the pull, and the blades stayed above the river dripping back the water they had lifted a moment before. Then the horses were gone but my lady was staring past lord William downstream with such an eye that he turned his head to look, though this movement was one his neck resisted for fear of collapse.
At the river’s edge sat a young man of pleasant face, but troubled. Before they came so close, she saw or sensed alarm about his handsome head, then saw the blackening on his face. His stare of fear and stupefaction was of a man whose day took him to that place where the spirit withers, and sat him there as if the smoke had brought him forth. Blood too was on him and lady Anne gasped. He, like the horses, was dressed in armour of a new and simple kind, a cuirass covering a leathern jacket with white-cuffed sleeves. But by his side stood a sword thick of blade and long, no rapier but a mightier weapon with a basket hilt almost like a Scotch broadsword, stuck in the earth, and perched upon the sword was a helmet of a sort William had neither seen in London or in any point between. High and open with a metal neck and peak it also wore a visor of three spare and simple bands of steel. The face would be protected from a slash and yet the eyes could see as well as if no helmet sat upon the head - a neat design. As he stared he washed some wound upon his leg that split cloth britches. His boots were high and spurred, but t’was his eyes that held Milady in some fearful spell, for they were hollow and troubled. He called and neither heard, so lady Anne made tilt to tell him so and he said louder, “Parliament or King?”
Neither knew what this meant and sat till William feeling that discourtesy was least the troubles that this man of danger needed for a rise to do some harm, replied, “Aye sir, indeed”. And then their boat was floated into smoke and all disappeared: the sky, the land, the man. Now sudden heats within their chests trapped both, and Anne thought to die. The cannonades of cough came fast again from Will, but only heard, for she saw naught for smoke. The rise of phlegm, its peak, despatch and smack upon the river remained unseen but still disgusted her.
We lose the Shakespeares at this point, adrift in the smoke. A page is missing so we shall never know if there were further engagement with the young man. From the description of his dress and armour and his question it is impossible to dismiss the likeness to a wounded Roundhead. There were several skirmishes in the Stratford area during the Civil War. Of course, this was several decades after William died.
Elisabeth’s record takes up again further downriver while Shakespeare relieves himself on the bank and Anne waits in the boat. It would seem our great poet was afflicted with the middle-aged gentleman’s blight.
...for this natural voiding took much time, and milady grew intemperate at him wetting trunks and bush, then stopping, waiting for another squirting then a drought, and the cycle of drought and squirt and trickle stopped then off again until in surrender her eyes turned to the prayer book.
When sure the stream was dry, Will wandered back, vexed by this mark of age, and stood at careful tying of the buntings of his codpiece, and stretched to see upriver where the smoke had sunk upon them. But now the scene was clear; horses, smoke and soldier gone and yet the worry of what this bespoke did dally. But naught to do but row, and after awkwardness in boarding, and like to fall full long upon milady, my master this time did find the rowlocks and did pull them to the current by the eastern bank where the oar lifts trailing willow like a heavy skirt.
Wind ruffled young leafed willow wands and higher trees with that soft sound of new and breezy days that is so welcome after winter. Milady Anne is dreamy and quick to let the sun and sound and gentle pull of oars drift her to content and to that place that’s near to sleep. The sun was warm upon her lids, the prayer book heavy in her hands and the notes of all the breezes sweet to her ears, and yet the thought of what they had but seen pressed down upon their spirits and left Will to row in silence, and she to sit in stiffness with the fear of what they might be rowing to. Was this a war the news of which was yet to reach them here? What meant the question ‘king or parliament?’ Or was an old feud blown about the landed families where cousin sets on cousin? English it was he spoke no doubt, but not with sound of those from here. Nor was his face familiar, and they knew the visage of every soul in every parish there about. So which parts came he from?
A little voice, a child’s voice but strange, came to her with the breezes. No words, just sound, a child in fear it seemed, and looking out indeed Anne saw a child in black hood beneath a feathered turban in the water to her chest, with arms held high and a bright burn of sun within her hands, like a fairy caught a sunbeam glowing gold. At first Anne thought to look upon some holy sight, a baptism of a creed unknown in Stratford, or worse a child in plague or leprosy so hidden was the face in black and this some pagan’s way to ask old gods for help, a whipping out of all the evil sprites that plagued the child perhaps, for deeper in a pace or two in water to his thigh, a man in white shirt, yellow waistcoat and a hat milady feared be of some wizard’s office, set about to lash the river with a fine whip as long in the stiff bind and fall  as in a branch. And what he of sound mind doth spend a fine day whipping rivers? My lady feared that they had come upon a necromancer.
The world would sometime pass and drop strange things and sicknesses, and folk would weave queer ways of cure with bonds of witches, and sometimes with old Lucifer himself, such is the want of parents for a struck down child. And sure there was that strangeness in them, for as their boat approached she saw the child was not with hood but of a black face. This mark of illness took milady’s breath away. A face turned black? By what? But Will on turning said “Negro” of the child, for he had seen such creatures come for trade to London, and were naught but ordinary men of different hue with but the same appetites as Englishmen and as English men and women, did start their lives as children. So this was a child of woman born - not sprung from trees by demons whose face was black as Anne’s was fair. Such creatures are never seen in Stratford, and my lady held London as a nest of strangeness, of hellish women, babes with teeth, and men as dark as shadows.
Upon the bank silks fluttered in a canopy on four gold poles all gathered to a summit of a golden orb crested with some kind of bird. Beneath it lay a table of white linen bearing bottles and silver as if they were to eat, the which of ordinary human needs my lady could not imagine, what with the man leathering the river with his whip and my lady asking of herself what had the Avon done to need this punishment? Silk, silk everywhere, upon the field in canopies and also tiny breeches laid out upon the banking so the shadow child could wade, and in the child’s shirt was silken splendour all aglow, and my lady saw the fire between his hand was only sun on glass that seemed a drinking vessel, but no piggin, noggin, bombard, but a glass of fineness shaped as a bell on a stem and filled with ruby wine. Above his or her turbaned head - for Anne could not say which sex this tiny creature was, if such creatures had a sex - above the creature’s head the fall of whip sailed back and forth, but with a quiet sound not cracked, and finest spray flew upwards into rainbows as the hatted man made passing motions back and forth, back and forth, then let the fall rest on the water, whereon a twine sat on the surface in long and wriggled line as if asleep. There was a grace to this strange ceremony and then she saw ‘twas not a whip but a long, fine pole and twine looped down the pole into a wheel upon the handle. This seemed strange. Now Will was looking too and wondering what habits his loved river had attracted.
They heard a noise as if a ratchet turned and Milady thinks the wheel upon the handle of the whip thing made the sound. The twine peeled up from the river and drew in. He was winding like a weaver on the wheel, a small wheel on the handle. The pole was fine as willow, and bent and trembled as he wound in twine from out the river, and Anne was feared of something monstrous being pulled from under, but when the twine leapt from the water the man did grasp it gently and look upon the end where naught but tiny feathers of the brightest hue that glinted in the sun were seen. He looked at this small thing as if it were a treasure, and cleaned it with his fingers, the pole now tucked beneath his arm, then turned towards the wine and saw our pair and stared as if upon an unknown creature and milady fair felt chilled by his black look. Black child, black look. She felt a scout was sent from Hell and this was Death at flaying souls beneath the Avon.
They coasted closer and he raised his hat, triangular, an odd shape for sitting on the head. And what beneath surprised her more. He was a younger man yet wore a wig of grey. If he were set to hide his baldness why a head of old man’s hair when he is still yet young? And all was tied behind his head in ribbon, with a tail of hair no longer or more gracious than that upon a small pig’s arse. Thus he stood with hat held out and by his side in water to the neck a small black head a-shiver, and the Shakespeare’s drifting past and nodding with all manner of fearful, friendly signs until the man did speak.
“Wrong fly, I fear.”
“Indeed,” said William with nary a clue what fly or what or where. At that moment from the summer sky fell rain, not harsh and neither soft, but wet enough to drive the Shakespeares to a line of willow on the other bank. On looking back upon the man with wand and black child, there was nothing. No wand, no canopy, no silks. All gone so fast it could not be. And then the Shakespeares slid beneath the willow fronds and all was shut away.
They lay there for a while, and heard the rain a-patter. Such was the thickness of the willow and her young leaf they were mainly dry, and Will lay back within the boat, each lost in thought of the day’s strange things. T’was but a Saturday in spring but left them now with fears of what awaited them downriver by their home. And yet the man and child seemed not perturbed by news of any battle. Strange they were but not like those who knew of fighting, and but a short draw downstream from that sad soldier and the smoke. These things did beggar of all thought.
Milady then confessed that she and Will did want to stay behind that willow curtain and they did till long the rain had gone. And as they waited, or did hide is more the case, milady saw a pouch float by, a strange pouch of green and yellow come floating by the boat. Will lifted it and poured the river from it then held it up. It was small and of a fineness and material that neither had yet seen. Thin as a moth’s wing and tough. It would not tear. Perhaps t’was French. The inside seemed to be of silver leaf so fine and flexible the silversmith that fashioned it must have been an alchemist of sorts. The outer side was painted rich and queerly and in shapes and letters that were near impossible to read. The script was strange and difficult, but there was a slope and shape enough, and slowly Will read out to lady Anne “Walkers” then, “Cheese and Chives”.
This simple bag, come fast on what they had seen, held threats of purgatory. It was the Devil’s bag. My lady close to tears and fears that only priests can calm asked, “What means this, Will?” but he as having none of thought to meaning, stared like a man at death, and she upon an impulse snatched the sack away and sent it back upon the river whence it came. “Row on, Will. Row for our souls!” and Will did take upon the oars a size of stroke that had them out and swift nose fast to Stratford. Then came a sound of music; that of bells, but unlike any bell they heard in church or street playing out across the scene and pausing, then reprising. ‘Twas strange enough to have Will hesitate and listen to this eerie, bonny sound. Though tuneful as it was, it had a cadence that was strange. Anne listened too and wondered what this ghostly sound bespoke, and what phantoms came thereof..
Either Anne or Elisabeth (or both) was obviously graced with a musical ear because there is a transcription of the tune in an early stave in the manuscript. I had the organist at the local church, who is a committee member of the Snitterfield Historical Society, examine a copy of Elisabeth’s notation and he transcribed it into the modern stave and played it with remarkable results. Naturally there is no time signature to Elisabeth’s notation, but there is no doubt that the tune the Shakespeares heard that afternoon in 1616 is identical to the melody “O Sole Mio”, lyrics by Giovanni Capurro, melody by Eduardo di Capua, composed and first performed in 1898.
This composition has become universally popular through a series of commercials as ‘Just One Cornetto’. One surmises the ghostly bells the Shakespeares heard were the chimes of an ice cream van.
Safe in the current and my master rowing harder than was fair for gentlemen of later years, another torment came at them as if the Furies were abroad. My lady spoke of how her eyes were fixed on Will for fear of looking out on any other awful thing, but that suddenly she said his face was as if Old Nick had climbed aboard behind her, such was the terror that transfixed him, and he took to rowing once again but this time with a vigour that exceeded any he had known in youth. The boat kicked forward like a horse and Anne’s head back with each stroke from Will who had about him now the strength of Hercules, all drawn from horror and from fear. She did not dare to look for terror of seeing swarms of devils flying down the river at them, but describes what Will her husband did look upon. But first there came to her a sound, quite distant, as of thunder, yet not of thunder, like the roaring of a distant giant bull, the Minotaur perhaps, bellowing destruction. She once did hear a house collapse a street away and there was of this that sound, but longer, going on as if the house condemned to fall and fall and fall, a row of houses all a tumbling.
What Will had seen, he said, was as a bird but not a bird, climb unto the sky. It was some distance off he thought, a giant bird, white, and greater than the Guildhall in its size, with wings that did not flap but glide, but glide in upward flight into the sky, and from its tail there came a smoke that made new clouds. A Devil’s bird it had to be, a phoenix rising from the fires of Hell and laying sulphur fumes upon the sky in curse, and all the while the chimes did play as if to welcome them to all the devils, demons, succubus and goblins rushing out to...
Again unfortunately we do not know what Anne and Shakespeare’s further conclusions were for what I interpret as an aeroplane rising from Birmingham International Airport. The narrative is interrupted here by a large stain that has obliterated the script and defied all forensic efforts to discern what lies beneath. We believe the stain is wine, but wine of a more recent vintage and therefore not Elisabeth’s. I suspect my late great-grandmother as the most likely culprit, as after an admirable early life in animal charity, she was rarely able to keep the stopper in the decanter beyond eleven o’ clock and was usually found sleeping with the dogs when the fish paste sandwiches and Battenberg were brought for tea.
We rejoin the Shakespeares actually in the town of Stratford. But a very different Stratford to the market town they knew. They are now on dry land. I calculate from their descriptions that we find them on the green in front of what is now the splendidly refurbished Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
...and carts that had no horse pulling but ran themselves and seemed of metal all in bright colours, and sounds were of a kind from Hell. Noise came at them from everywhere, from carts that rolled across the bridge so fast they must have been the chariots of wizards. Some were tall with painted sides and huge and square like houses with rows of windows and smokes farted from their behinds. Others small, and flying back and forth, and all so fast no horse could gain on them. In each windows of the clearest kind showed people in them looking out. And in the streets and on the meadow creatures all about in clothes that barely hid their nakedness and sounds that dinned Shakespeare ears with terror. And these men and women looked down at them, for they were tall and shouted forth and laughed and pointed at poor Will and Anne, and she did say they pushed small boxes to their eyes that issued forth fierce flashes brighter than saltpetre and without the smoke or noise. And these were nearly giants, these creatures, come of every colour, hue and shape, some dark just like the child that waded in the river holding wine, and some had strange large faces with eyes that had a hidden look, and spoke not in words but sounds like those whose tongues have been removed. They bowed as if in grace to fool poor souls and put up to their eyes small boxes with the fire that flashed and blinded, then they bowed again and smiled and lady Anne and Will were terrified.
Their purgatory had begun but neither could determine when they’d died, nor why they were in hell. What wrongs had they to answer? She raged that it was William’s fault, in plays with words that caused offence unto Almighty God and He had placed them both in Hell. She struck him several blows that she should be condemned for sins of his.
What puzzled most were banners standing in a line with William’s name. They stood outside a building by the river all red with brick and pictures and much glass, but glass as clear as stillest water. And all was near in size as a cathedral, and from a line of poles his name did flutter out as if he were expected in this hell. They looked about for something that would show them where their house might be, for everything was changed but somehow known. The river seemed the same. The bridge was where it always was but all the rest was but confusion.
Then Will grabbed milady and set off at speed and ran into the middle town and she dragged after. On a street a long red wagon did almost hound them down and sent a trumpet call in warning that shook poor Will so bad he pissed his hose and cried real tears and could not run but waddled like a duck all sodden in the legs.
It saddens me to think of master William in this infant state. His was a quiet, thoughtful look upon the world, even tho’ much he put to parchment was filled of horror as much of sweetness like to himself was also there, aye full of wit but in a quietness in keeping with the gentleness of soul he carried softly in him. That fire and blood that runs within his pageants comes from where I never saw, and yet my lady said he ranted at the end, which makes me sad. But sad he was at times and his face betook a darker look and I could find no word to say when this melancholy spread within him and kept me back from him. And now he is gone I wish I found the way to ask, for he would look as lonely as a man I ever saw and that thought shames me now that I but stood and watched him in his sadness. My lady blamed the death of Hamnett and said he wrote a play in Hamnett’s name full of sadness and of death. Perhaps it was the poor boy’s death that came within a plague time that put William in this melancholy. I never knew the child but he did seem to be with Will in spirit and they say he never was the man he was once Hamnett left this earth.
But then he was a lover of a clever jape or wit and had a gift that no doubt came from strutting many years upon his stage, which was to listen to a voice and then to make that voice himself in all its tune and tones and falls. And he would stand and I would see him goading at a carpenter and thatcher to tell him how of this was made or that was broke or ask a drover if a sheep could be trained as a dog and stand and listen as these men delivered to him their yays and nays and tales of this and that. Soon enough when they were gone their voices would return and argue with each other in a din of nonsense that would have me weeping in my laughter. For all the voices came from Will himself, a gaggle of them, or a crowd sometimes, but if I shut my eyes I could not place between Will’s voices and the men themselves, and often I would sit in fear that one of them would come upon us and hear how Will would have them naught but asses. But those of higher station too were listened to and bowed by Will then mocked at home with Lady Anne and me, where Will would live some ceremony again with all the officers and mayor, his servants, scribes and secretaries, but have them in a mockery of themselves. And this could last for near as long as any ceremony ever did so my belly ached and Anne would ask for pity’s sake that Will be quiet for fear he kill us with his wit. Even the King with his strange Scotch was never spared, and it did sound as if he visited the Shakespeare house, so often was his voice heard in that home, and Will would spit as like a shower of rain, for so he said the King did spit and spout when speaking and all about him ended wet. And even now I think I must have heard the King, but all it was was Will. Nor was milady safe from his skilled playfulness for often he would cry to her from one end of the house as in my voice, a-cursing her for all her expectations of me and being like tyrant that needed more a slave than lady’s help. And Lady Anne would storm forth to that room to box my ears to find her husband all alone and laughing. His Devil’s tongues and voices were heard by me and many times my heart has beat to burst with overhearing both my lady and my master derogate me like a skivvy full of insolence and Anne bent to despatch of me and he encourage her and then I find that it was Will alone inventing all this scene behind the door. “He sorrows that he cannot clown his stuff upon his silly platforms so he makes of us his fools” said lady Anne, but I do think she misses all his japes.
Oft he would tell me “Never leave this place sweet Liz, for here is all a soul doth need”, and he would chide my wants of men and say that women are the ballast of a man and I must seek to find a man as gentle as a flower, as simple so that I can lead him where I ought, although my mistress had not led him much because he went to London. And then he feared his daughter Judith was attached unto a man who was a feather for every wind that blows, he said, though what of that had meaning none did fall on me, for I do still not know what by it William meant. But all say of Judith’s Richard that his arse is barer than a horse’s and his tapster’s maids have bellies big as puddings. Poor Judith. And she, of like her father, much is taken with the gift of clowning and of voices and of sweetest recitation. Poesy doth girdle round her head like winds of heaven. She hath her father’s gifts, and wit is sometime all she has between that whoreson husband and a life half broken by his misery.
Susana though is with a goodly man, a doctor, but though he celebrate and add unto her fortune, it seems in Will to sharpen all his sadness at poor Judith’s fate. Each sun hath but a cloud an inch behind. Sadness and laughter hath too fierce a conflict in him and that in league with dignity doth make Anne’s tales of how he was in those last days the more to bear as burdens to the sweetest memories I have of him, for in that strange town on that strange day that seemed to leap from Beelzebub’s hot breath when God and all the angels were a-turned away, they lost each other for a moment then she saw him o’er a road, face pressed against a window glass and in some kind of shop were dishes, cloths and drinking vessels, many with his name and painted in an image of a man as bald as eggs and bearded. Festooned like flags were tiny shirts emblazoned with the words Alls Will and this strange bearded man was painted on them too. Who was this man to whom they gave her husband’s name? There was a passing trick that had a likeness in the look, but distant as holds between cousins, and lord Will always had a head of hair, not so thick as in his youth, but still a thatch that others of his age were envious of and he was proud. But to that moment, Anne caught him by the arm to lead him fast away but he did pull and soon she found herself within this strange room with window glass as high as walls and clear as air and Will did pick a plate which had this face upon it but with William’s name beneath and ‘Swan of Avon’ writ beside.
“What swan is that?” said Will and she could see a blackness in his brow. At that a woman painted like a mask and wearing but a shift - no skirt or hose but legs and flesh bare up unto her arse, as being of a whore or come from a mounting in the back approached them shouting “Yes, can I help?” My lady thought she spoke this in a tongue that had a favour of some sort of Warwickshire. And she was full of hotness, such that Will in fear and seeing legs uncovered to the join did drop the plate and Anne remembers as it fell the plate was spinning and the face upon the plate a-winking at them till the floor whereupon it shattered everywhere. The whore did shout and put them both to flight.
One thing they knew. The church. They ran and Will though younger needed her to carry him within the door. At last within they found some silence, and yet the church tho’ known seemed different. A woman with her hair piled high upon her head and lips as red as blood and wearing strange eyeglasses sat up from in a box and said “That’s next week.” But Anne had seen a thing down at the chancel and was pulling Will. He wished to sit and catch some breath but at the chancel was a statue of a man with quill in hand and parchment rolled for writing. That statue was not there the week before, nor were the graves, for there upon the floor were stones and on the first a blue sign saying, The grave of the poet William Shakespeare 1516-1614. This was a dread for they were in that year of sixteen fourteen, and behind this deathly message was a stone engraved also...
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased here
Blese be ye man yt spare these stones
And curse be he yt moves my bones
And Will saying “I wrote me that on Tuesday.” Then saw they the graves of Lady Ann herself and Susana their daughter by the name of Hall by Ann’s stone. “When will we wake?” called my lady in her despair. But Will had moved unto a case upon the wall that gave the death of Wm Shakespeare as Aprille 23, a few days hence, no more, and it did prick my lady’s conscience whenever she recalled what she did next, for she would say how her hand did rise and strike poor Will. At that a man of many greater years than both, whose ears were plugged with what did look like sealing wax, approached and spoke gentle but with mystery of, “..one pound eighty five for adults, but fifty pence reduction for seniors.” But Will had fainted.
My lady hath no memory of how she got her ailing husband back to bed in New Place, but said the waking nightmare ended soon and all returned as was before.
To talk of this caused her such pain that she did say it to me once. Thereafter was forbid and I have never asked again. My lord went to his maker soon after this great mystery and my Anne spoke of how he was a baby in those last days, of how the gift of speech he had blessed the world with was taken from him and he stared at her in fear all day without a word and wept. I saw him once and remember seeing naught but fear upon his face till close to death when peace came to him and milady said that his voice returned but for a moment to say that Hamnett waited for him by heaven’s gate, if heaven would have him for he had never been a man of church, and felt he would be forced to plead his case before the Almighty’s bench. “Leave the argument to Hamnett, sir” was the last my lady ever said to this great and goodly man, for he did smile and close his eyes and he was gone.
Samuel the carter was sent for me, and lady Anne and I laid the great man out and saw him to that place in the church where he had seen himself a few days before, and there he lies and often I go to sit and think on him and on my lady who now has gone to join him.
I know not what causes were to bring these things about, or what the objects were my lady spoke of being so fantastical that they still lie beyond my dreams. I often wonder what became of he that sat upon the bank with wounds or that black child or where the bird that soared without a movement of wing did fly to. But I have stayed content now this is wrote to let the memory fade, for this dark day did give my lady many blacker moments in recall and she was a one to laugh at things and see the good in all for most. This day and then the death of her sweet boy, her Will she knew from when his chin was smooth, was as a cloud that lay upon the sunset, always in her view. But she was wont to laugh and smile right to her death, sweet mistress, and I miss her happy face.
As for the sign upon the grave they saw ‘tis true. My master was a poet. Of the word and of his spirit up until those sad last days.
Elisabeth’s chronicle ends here with a signature and a date of 1626 thus leaving a discreet space after the death of Ann Hathaway before appending this astonishing tale. Elisabeth married a farmer and lived to the age of seventy-two, a formidable age then. One of her children became a Justice of the Peace and another was imprisoned for sedition but rose to celebrated service in Cromwell’s Model Army. Who knows, he may have been the wounded boy watching the Shakespeares from the Avon’s bank.
As you may appreciate, this tale - though a jewel of England and undoubtedly authentic - leaves with it a conundrum. The world always seeks the ready explanation and that which has no explanation is dismissed as the sad objectification of attention seekers, lunatics or vegetarians. But we know little of the mysteries of time, of parallel universes, and of any inadvertent ability an individual might have to switch from one time continuum to another and back. After all, we are but what we perceive. And yet I am to believe that in the fields of psychology and physics there are new theoretical ideas of time being not a single stream but like a shower of parallel streams that cascade together but at slightly different intervals. When tested these theories may yet provide a simple and scientific explanation for the strange experience of prophecy and second sight which is dismissed in our rational times as nothing more than symptoms of delusion or show business.
So how does one present this document to the nation without the risk of public humiliation or having aspersion cast on the intimate nature of the family breeding? One has no desire to lose one’s CBE. My great Uncle Arnie’s theory was to the point and brief: “Magic mushrooms. Obviously.” But Arnie was a man who rejoiced in having been “last in the queue for imagination.” I must say I find it rather amusing to think of the middle aged Shakespeare and Ann as recreational drug users, chilling out up the Avon and having one last bad trip that led to his demise. He would not be the first to go to his grave hounded by Hieronymous Bosch-like hallucinations.
Do we really know what life was like in the evening days of Shakespeare’s time? Do we know what powers people had then? How they thought? What they took? There was an abundance of plants that could induce many different kinds of altered states. Are we sure where the boundary lay between their superstition, madness or intoxication, and in which of these states their notions of reality abided, or how these experiences fashioned their views? After all, water was contaminated and the whole nation drank beer for reasons of health. So no person in the kingdom was ever entirely sober. What national philosophies and convictions grow from a lifetime of mild but permanent intoxication? We know what is fantastical when sober can seem utterly natural after a couple of decent Burgundies.
The truth is that we do not really know the sensations or experiences of another time - despite the tedious television programmes that purport to recreate such experiences. They cannot, because in them we have creatures of a modern technological and scientific society re-enacting lives from a time when the universe and the ideas of life and death were fundamentally different. We may reproduce medieval farming techniques but we have no idea what the inner lives of a 13th century peasant or an Elizabethan were like. Yet we insist on judging the world in all its history by our own traits and thinking, and presume that the experiences we have today are the sum total of all experience that has ever been available to the human condition.
If one may remind one’s self of the Bard’s observation..
There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.