Prologue - Stratford, April 25, 1616


I have sat this long night after the funeral poring over these documents. There are many deeds and other legal papers, snatches of poetry, thoughts on plays and characters, and what appear to be witticisms to be used in verbal competitions whilst drinking at taverns. It is perhaps ironic that my father-in-law should have died of a fever contracted at one such drinking bout, or perhaps it was God’s judgment.

Those do not concern me, other than perhaps the deed for the purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse, a notorious Catholic underground meeting place. Why should he have selected, as a purportedly casual investment, an old, decrepit building for which he paid one-hundred-forty pounds, more than twice the amount he had paid for New Place?

There are other papers of a much more personal nature that trouble me deeply. They are memoirs, letters from friends and relatives, and more than one note of a secretive nature from fanatical rebels who attempted to do the country harm. I do not even mention correspondence that might pass as proverbial love notes from two of his paramours. All in all, these are obviously the papers of an unrepentant Papist.

They name names, including Thomas Campion, that are anathema. They describe thoughts that are both heresy to the Church of England and treason to the Crown, as well as conspiratorial acts. While they do indeed describe family members in loving terms—most particularly his father, John, from whom he obviously gained most of his beliefs and consequent attitudes—even those histories are of a nature that is divisive and inflammatory. It is the long history of a life—indeed, many lives that stretch back to demonstrate how those of our forefathers impact our own—but it is a life that was, in the end, dedicated to the pagan precepts of Rome. It is little wonder that, upon his deathbed, he desired to receive the last rites from a Benedictine, Friar Thomas Combe.

It cannot be doubted that my father-in-law contributed much to the poetry and dramatic literature of this country, but that is mere entertainment, a bagatelle. Very little of what he wrote was intended to glorify God. Most of it is of such a secular nature—indeed, I might say bawdy—that I only wish I had the power to destroy that as well.

For that is what I shall do. Whatever others might think of my actions, posterity will pay little heed to these documents other than as a possible tool for cutting the wounds in our fair land even deeper. On that matter I can agree with him, when he wrote near the end of his days: “Religion has split the kingdom like a sword cleaving a skull.” Should I then allow these poisonous papers to seep more deeply into that wound? Or should I cast them into the purifying flames and hope that, in some small way, I do my duty as a devout Puritan and humble servant of God to end the misery such documents would only help to fester?

My father-in-law made me the executor of his will, so it is clearly God’s will that these papers should have been put into my hand. It is therefore completely within my rights, as well as my power, to destroy all that I have witnessed this long evening. I believe I know well my duty both to the Church of England and to the Crown. While I have not consulted on this matter with my beloved wife, Susanna, my conscience is thus clear in burning every last scrap given to me by my father-in-law, the late William Shakespeare.

The Shakespeares - Stratford, January 1532


As the bluebird flew, it was less than four miles from Snitterfield to Stratford. But it had been a cold, wet winter and few birds, let alone the fair weather type, braved the light but freezing rain that fell. The roads were still deep with mud. Slogging along them was more like wading through a trough and smelled much the same. Still, a man and boy trudged wearily along, their heads held low to help the sodden caps they wore protect their faces from the incessant drizzle.

As the pair approached the outskirts of Stratford, the man lifted his face to inspect the road ahead. The city lay hard on the northeastern bank of the Avon. Although the river was running high, they approached from almost due north. Here unusually wide and well-paved streets invited them to ease their weary legs, weighed down with the muck of the country roads. At this sight, the man exhaled his pent up breath. He had been assured of this, but was relieved to see for himself that one bit of information in life was more fact than the fancy of his informant, Vicar John Donne.

“Almost there, John.”

The boy nodded stoically.

As they stepped on to the pavement, both man and boy inspected the city before them. With more than ten times the population of their village, the buildings seemed immense and stretched forever. A huge house, rising near the center of the town, dominated the lesser buildings around it. A large church steeple rose near the river to the west, somewhat away from the dwellings and businesses of the secular world. Endless plumes of smoke curled fitfully from the tall chimneys. These added their own gloom to the sky, but promised warmth and cheer inside those dwellings. Both males hurried forward.

The man navigated the route he had been told some days before. There were no signs or numbers, but there were only a dozen or so streets in all. The town had been laid out in a grid, with three main streets running roughly parallel to the river and three others intersecting them. Smaller, more narrow streets crossed in between as the city had grown. The pair walked along Henley Street to Rother Market. They turned left into Ely Street, which led from the town hall to the riverside.

At length they stood before the supposed door they had come to seek. The man’s heart beat rapidly within his breast. Their own home was a one-story cottage with rough timber framing, lath and plaster walls, and a thatch roof. It was a typical tenant farmer’s dwelling. The two-story house before them was framed from elaborately-carved timber in front, with brick for the walls and tile for the roof. The upper floor was cantilevered out a few feet. This provided some shelter for the door, although the stiff wind blew the rain onto the soggy pair beneath it.

Although most tradesmen had their shops on the ground floor and lived above, the man saw no sign this was anything but a dwelling. Inspecting the building next door, it was clear that it was the shop of a tanner and bootmaker, and he deduced that the owner of the house rented a separate space to ply his trade. This was indeed the abode of a prosperous man. Not wanting to display any uncertainty in front of his son, the man knocked as firmly as his twitching nerves allowed.

It was a scant moment before the door opened. A short, squat man stood before them. The trio looked at each other for several seconds. It was the father who broke the silence.

“G’day t’you, sir. I seek the home of Alderman Thomas Dixon, master tanner and bootmaker of this fair town.”

A smile broke out on the round face of the man inside. “And you have found him, sir. I presume you are Richard Shakspere?”

“That I be, Master Dixon, an’ pleased t’make yer honor’s acquaintance.”

“Please, let’s not stand on formalities,” Dixon insisted, and then seemed to notice the man’s clothing. “Nor on my doorstep in this frightful weather. Please, enter our humble abode.”

The man and the boy crossed the threshold into the dry, warm room. Richard took his cap off as he entered, gently removed the boy’s cap, and held them in his left hand as he wiped his right as best he could on the shirt beneath his coat. Then the two men shook hands.

“In light of our future acquaintance, I beg you to call me Thomas,” Dixon declared.

“An’ if you should be so kind as to address me as Richard, that I will, sir.”

“Very good, then, Richard. Again, welcome into our home.”

“And a very poor welcome I call this, good husband,” came a high-pitched but genial voice from behind. “Will you not get this good visitor, and especially this poor, sodden child, in beside the fire?”

Looking past his host, Richard saw a tall, thin woman approaching at a rapid pace. Dixon gave a quick glance up to the heavens, but turned on his heel to bow to the woman.

“You are, of course, most right, my darling wife. Whilst I fetch our guest a draught of something, will you not take the boy upstairs to get out of those wet clothes?”

The woman nodded curtly. “Come along, my boy. We’ll get you dry right quick enough.”

The boy gave a quick glance to his father, who nodded imperceptibly. The boy followed the tall woman. As they left the room to ascend the narrow staircase, Thomas waved his hand in invitation.

“Please, Richard, come near to the fire.”

Shakspere approached the small fireplace, rubbing his hands at the warmth and cheeriness of the modest blaze. He gave a great sigh of relief, and then his body shivered at the sudden change of temperatures. As steam rose from his wool clothing, he observed how different Master Dixon’s attire was from his own.

Richard’s heavy, drab coat covered the plain wool tunic that reached below mid-thigh. Dixon wore no coat, but his much shorter tunic sported decorations at the hem, neck and cuffs, and the chest portion was pleated—which did nothing to flatter the man’s portly physique. Most telling was the fine fabric, linen or possibly silk, which was common in large towns where mercers imported luxury fabrics, some reportedly laced with gold. Both men wore codpieces, but Richard’s went over dark-colored, baggy wool trousers, cross-gartered with bands of lighter cloth. Dixon wore opaque hose with a fancy belt, and fashionable shoes with buckles and pointed toes. Richard’s plain working boots, which came to his knees, were covered with mud.

“It must have been a freezing journey,” his host said with compassion. “May I offer you a comforting libation?”

“Aye, sir, anathin’ that comes to hand would be most grateful accepted.”

As Richard moved closer to the fire, Thomas moved off to fetch a drink. In a matter of moments he was back with a tankard in his hand.

“A good ale, if I may say so myself,” he said. “Our fair town is well known for the quality of our drink.”

“Aye, sir, so I’ve heard. Ta.” Richard drank. He did not wish to appear uncouth, but could not help smacking his lips in appreciation as he wiped them dry. “A wonderful brew, Thomas, most decidedly.”

Dixon smiled and nodded, but let the silence hang as his guest finished the pint quickly. It would be rude to rush into their business. “There, then, I’ll join you in another, if you don’t mind.”

Richard nodded gratefully. As his host left to get more ale, he looked around the room. It must be as large as his entire house. It was much cleaner, and the furniture was made of finished wood. A few small paintings hung on the wall, and a large cross with three tall candles below stood in one corner. This was indeed the house of a man of means, and a good Catholic as well, he’d be bound. His eyes smarted as he thought of what he must leave behind in this house, as fine as it might seem.

“Here you are, Richard, and I offer you a toast to our bound future.” Thomas offered his guest a full tankard once again.

As Richard accepted, the men touched tankards, then drank deeply.

“It must have been a frightful journey this morning,” Thomas repeated, more from courtesy than curiosity.

“Aye, though much worse for the lad,” Richard agreed. “His poor, short legs were sometime sucked right in up to his knees, an’ I had t’reach down and pluck him like harvestin’ a carrot.”

“Ah, yes!” the host boomed with cheerful laughter. “That I can well imagine.”

“It would ha’been much worse if we’d had t’cross the river, howsomever. Although I do hear it’s nay so bad, thanks for that new bridge.”

“Ah, that’s a gift of our great benefactor, Sir Hugh Clopton.” Dixon rubbed his hands enthusiastically. “He made a fortune in London, but returned to his home in Stratford about 1480, y’see.”

“Did he.” Richard took another drink.

“Aye. Before the time of Sir Hugh there was but a poor frame of timber, and no causeway to come to it. Many poor folks either refused to come to Stratford when the river was up, or coming thither stood in jeopardy of their life. Sir Hugh destroyed that great evil by funding a beautiful bridge with fourteen massive stone arches and a long causeway, and he also left much money to be distributed annually to the deserving poor of the town. His remains are buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church,” Dixon declared as he crossed himself, “and well deserving of that great honor.”

“I daresay he were a great man,” Richard agreed, clumsily crossing himself as well.

“That is true. In 1483, he erected a monstrous house of brick and timber on Chapel Lane near the corner of Chapel Street, with more rooms than you could count, ten fireplaces and two barns. He called it New Place. You must have seen its roof and chimneys as you made your way here.”

“Aye, that I did,” Richard agreed, trying to sound interested.

Thomas could sense his guest had far more important personal matters on his mind than fine bridges and large houses, and his excitement abated once again. Both men looked into the fire, as if reluctant to discuss the business at hand. After a moment, Thomas again broke the silence.

“Will you not take off your coat and sit a while, good Richard? ‘Tis a long way back to Snitterfield, and I fear the return will be no more cheery than the journey here.”

Richard shook his head. “Nay, thank’ee most kindly, but I must be off directly. I’ve two others, y’know, my eldest, Henry, and my daughter, Joan. They’re more able to look out for themselves, but still I should be back by nightfall to see them safe.”

Thomas took a small drink. “I understand, good sir. Father Donne made it clear that your … your tragedy left you their only guardian.”

A pain stung Richard’s eyes momentarily, but he blinked it back. Life was as it was in this world. “Aye, sir. But for that, I would’na let young John go for the world. He’s—” Richard had to clear his throat. “That is to say, he was my dear wife’s favorite.”

Thomas nodded. “Well, we shall do as well by him as we can, I assure you.”

“He won’t be a burden to you,” Richard claimed.

“No, no, I’m certain not.”

Richard’s shoulders drooped. He nodded gratefully and took another drink. After a moment, Thomas again broke the silence.

“So, you are a farmer, I understand.”

“That I am, sir, a tenant farmer of the honorable Robert Arden of Wilmecote. A stern man, but fair, if I may say so.”

“Um.” Each man gulped down a bit more drink. “And yet you wish to apprentice your son with me.”

Richard shrugged. “With no insult intended, Master Dixon, I canna look after poor John now. He’s not yet five, as y’know. I must spend my time in the field in order to provide for the others.”

“Yes, yes, I understand completely,” Thomas assured him. “So Father Donne informed us. I have a great respect for John Donne, as good a cleric as I ever met. As vicar of Snitterfield, I presume Father Donne baptized the boy himself?”

Richard nodded that it was so. Dixon smiled at the thought, but concern came over his face again almost immediately.

“Yet, I cannot help but wonder if he will take to the work of a tanner of leathers.”

Shakspere worked his mouth with difficulty. “I apologize for the short notice. But John’s a good lad, and a right quick one, if I may say so myself. He’ll take to yer trainin’ like a duck to water, given some encouragement, and I fancy he’ll make you proud as a bootmaker in good time.”

“I’m pleased you think highly of your boy, good Richard. I must confess I had hoped for someone, well, with some previous knowledge. I’m an excellent bootmaker, but not a skilled glover. When looking for an apprentice, I had hoped for … well, someone a little older and with some knowledge of the craft.”

“Yes, so Father Donne said.” Richard cocked his head a bit to one side and looked apologetic. “Oh!” he suddenly blurted, as though Dixon had dropped a hint. “I near forgot.”

The farmer reached into his pocket and carefully extracted some coins. These he held out to his host with great deference.

Dixon looked at them a moment. “Ah, yes, the apprentice fee,” he murmured. He abruptly swept his hand in the air. “I’m certain you’ll need it more than I for the good of your other children,” he said. “And, if John is as you say, I’m certain he’ll more than repay us for his lodgings as he perfects his trade.”

Richard did not retract his hand. “I’m sure you mean it as a kindness, Master Dixon, but a Shakspere always pays his debts.”

“Ah, yes,” Dixon said, accepting the coins. “To be sure.”

At that moment there was a noise on the stairs and the men looked up to see Mrs. Dixon and John coming down. John’s long hair was now dry and neatly combed back, and he wore a gown that was a little large and had clearly been cut for a girl. Richard thought he looked like a miniature version of his wife. For a moment, his throat was painfully tight.

“Ah, Maude,” Thomas said, “allow me to introduce our guest formally. Richard Shakspere who, as you know, has come to apprentice his son. And a fine looking … little … lad he is, to be sure.”

Mrs. Dixon kept her hand lightly on John’s shoulder as she led him to his father. As they shook hands, Richard wondered if the woman was as severe as she looked. Father Donne had assured him they were kind people.

“My honor, ma’am,” he said.

“Tush, it’s nothing of the sort,” she replied. “But it is my pleasure. John seems a very quiet and obedient lad, and I’m sure he’ll work hard to learn my good husband’s trade.”

“That he is, ma’am, and I know he will.” Richard looked around the room once more. “You look to be good, God-fearing folk, and I’m certain you’ll take good care of my boy.”

“That we are,” Thomas assured him. “Both as devout Catholics as you may find in this strange and uncertain time, and we’ll treat him kindly.”

“That we will,” Maude said firmly. Then her voice softened. “We had the one lass a few years back, but God saw fit to take the little angel back to His fold.” She crossed herself quickly, and the men did so as well. “We shall raise him up proper, an’ you don’t mind, Mr. Shakspere.”

Richard nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Then he knelt down beside the boy and spoke tenderly.

“Now, John, you must be certain to pay close attentions to whatever these good folk say, and to heed yer lessons well. Be enthusiastic in yer work, and sincere in yer devotions as these good people urge you in them. Is that clear, Son?”

“Yes, Father,” came the timid voice.

“They canna’ love you as I do, but they will be kindly, and you must be ever so obedient.”

“Yes, Father,” the boy whispered again.

Richard gazed at his son for a moment longer, then cleared his throat. “Well. I’ll not hug you, as the missus would only have to dry you once again. We’ll shake hands like men, won’t we, Son?”

With that, he held out his hand. After a very slight pause, the boy put his tiny hand in his father’s. Richard shook his son’s hand solemnly, tried to make a smile, and then stood to go.

“Well, as you cannot stay now,” Thomas said, “please feel free to come and visit at any time. We should be glad to have you, and to meet your other children.”

Richard nodded gratefully. “Thank you, Thomas, and you, Mrs. Dixon. I’ll say God be with you, then.”

“And God be with you as well,” the couple said in unison.

Then Richard stepped out of the house, clapped his cap back on his head, and strode off once more into the gloomy day. Blinking hard, he did not look back.

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