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We Haven't Got There Yet
By Harry Turtledove, Jillian Tamaki
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
Quotes from "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" by Tom Stoppard
Copyright © 1967 by Tom Stoppard
Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Rushes on the floor, rustling underfoot. Fire roaring in the hearth. Something savory roasting — sometimes, something once savory but now forgotten and scorching — over the fire. On a bright morning, the shadow of St. Paul's slowly sliding back and away as the sun climbs higher. Small, sweet curls of smoke rising now and then from a pipe of tobacco in the hand of a man of newfangled habit. Always, always, ale in the air. Sometimes, too, the acrid aftermath from a man who's had all he can hold and one more tankard besides, and cannot dash to the street quick enough to give it back to the gutter.
Bread Street. The Mermaid Tavern. 1606. A new century taking hold, and a new king.
Sunset coming — no, sunset here. One of the serving maids goes from table to table, lighting candles from a twig she's thrust into the fire. She is a pretty little thing, just about ripe — fifteen, maybe even sixteen. The theatre folk who've crowded several tables together near the hearth slow their banter for a moment to ogle her.
When the banter picks up again, someone mentions Hamlet. A player from another company looks over at William Shakespeare. "Ah, the Prince of Denmark," he says, drinking up. "I had forgot that was yours."
"Well, it is." If Shakespeare sounds touchy, who can blame him? Sure as the devil, who remembers the poet? "What of it?"
"Some play to be given on the morrow called it to my mind. What names gave you that pair of Danes, the old friends to Hamlet?"
"Why, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz," Shakespeare answers — names common as Baker and Johnson amongst the lesser Danish nobility.
"So I thought." The player nods to himself. "The pair of 'em figure in tomorrow's performance at the Rose."
Rage rips through Shakespeare. "May Satan scour all whoreson cullionly barbermongers! Milklivered, scurvy villains! They will steal, sir, an egg out of a cloister. But their filching is like an unskillful singer, for they keep not time. And meseems they pillage from Hamlet in especial."
He hates the horrible botch a printer made of the play. The man must have got what passes for the text from an actor in the production — one who does not know it very well. And all Shakespeare can do is complain. Go to law over a pirated quarto? There is no law to go to in such cases. Even if there were, it would cost more than he can ever hope to squeeze from a rascally printer!
He turns to his friends and his fellow topers in the Mermaid. "Shall we by our silence give them leave to do what they will with mine own words? Or shall we take arms against this sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?"
He cribs from himself, from the very play the wretches at the Rose purloin. Does anyone cheer his cleverness? Does anyone so much as notice? The ale has been going around for some little while, and nobody seems inclined to care about such things — not even Richard Burbage, who first gave the lines life on stage. But some muzzy shouts and raised tankards more or less promise he won't beard the bandits alone tomorrow afternoon.
* * *
More or less. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. Less today. Shakespeare waits outside the Rose. He waits, and waits, and waits some more. His friends? His fellow topers? They must have something else to do. Wherever they may be, here they are not.
"Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly," Shakespeare mutters. Which is true. And which does him no good whatever.
The signboard mocks him. It is not put there deliberately for that purpose ... he supposes. Or maybe it is. Without his friends — and fellow topers — at his side, at his back, he feels less sure of ... well, of everything. Deliberately placed or not, there it is. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD — a play by Tom Stoppard.
Shakespeare grinds his teeth, which pains him — one has started to ache. He keeps putting off a trip to the dentist. Who in his right mind does not? As well visit the torturers in the Tower, and pay for the privilege besides. But part of the hurt lies in his spirit. Not content with stealing his characters, this very superficial, ignorant, infected Stoppard has taken his line as well, and taken it for a title.
And Shakespeare has to spend a penny to get into the Rose to see precisely what Stoppard has done to him. He would like to spend a penny on the back of the bacon-fed, malmsy-nose knave, or on the blackguard's face. Now, though, he can only hand the prentice villain at the door his coin and go in with everyone else out for an afternoon's amusement.
He takes some somber satisfaction in noting what a tumbledown wreck the theatre is. If only it could have tumbled down altogether before offering this abortion! The Globe, no more than a furlong distant, puts it to shame. Yes, the Rose deserves a fire.
It is also small next to the Globe. To try to make up for that, they stuff it as full with folk as a tennis ball is with feathers. Shakespeare has to elbow his way through the groundlings to approach the stage.
"Have a care, thou rude unpolished hind," warns a young man in a sailor's spiral-striped trousers and golden ear-hoop.
Shakespeare sometimes wears an ear-hoop himself, but never one so large and gaudy. He looks down his nose at the sailor, who is several inches shorter. "Sir Patrick Spens' fortune to thee, whip-worthy rogue," he says, and feels better for warming his wit before turning it on the day's proper target.
A trumpet sounds — a long, blaring note. The crowd quiets, as much as a crowd ever quiets. A stout woman next to Shakespeare crunches nutmeats, one after another, as if she means to go on doing it all through the play. From the intent look on her face, she does. His cheek tooth twinges.
Two men stroll out on stage. By their clothes, they may be prosperous merchants or not so prosperous aristocrats. Are they counting the house, making sure the moment is ripe to begin? Their manner is so unaffected and natural, Shakespeare needs a moment to understand they are players.
He has never set eyes on either of them before. That also makes him slower than he might be to realize they purpose performing. He has thought he knows every player in and around London, at least by sight. Has some company from the provinces come in to strut its stuff — his stuff — on a stage in the capital, even if only on this mean one? He thinks he should have heard of it. Evidently not, though.
Both players carry leather sacks that clink, one nearly empty, the other correspondingly full. Shakespeare stands on tiptoe and leans forward, intrigued in spite of himself. It is a pretty bit of business. Nor is he the only one it draws in. Nothing like money to make a crowd pay heed.
The player with the almost-empty sack takes a coin from it. The coin flashes gold as it spins in the air. It is surely brass or gilded lead, but flashes gold regardless. The other player catches it. He gives it a brief look.
"Heads," he announces, and drops it into his bag.
Without changing expression, the player with the starving sack takes out another coin. He tosses it. Hungry eyes follow it as it too flashes gold. Groundlings and gallery folk must know it is not real. Shakespeare knows. His eyes follow it regardless. Ah, if only it were!
Smooth as silk, the player with the stuffed sack snatches it out of the air. He looks at it, as he had with the first coin.
"Heads," he says, and into his sack it goes. The clink is less melodious than real gold would give.
They run through the same rigmarole six or eight more times. "What's toward here?" calls a man in a butcher's stained leather apron. Several other groundlings, including the plump woman still crunching away, scratch their ... heads.
Shakespeare scratches his head, too, perhaps for different reasons. What an odd way to open a play! No prologue to set the scene, no announcement of who the characters are and what they are about. He sweats blood every time he starts setting goose quill to paper. How to get across what the audience needs to know without setting it yawning?
This thieving Stoppard, whoever he may be, answers the question by not answering it. He cares not a fig for what the audience needs to know. And, somehow, he makes the audience care not a fig with him.
When one of these players declares he's won this game seventy-six times in a row, damned if titters don't go up from the crowd. The claim is obviously impossible. Any fool knows a coin will not turn up heads seventy-six straight times. And any fool knows no one will be fool enough to let himself lose a game seventy-six straight times. Which makes Shakespeare and anyone else at the Rose with a groat's worth of wit wonder why these players play this game this way.
And Shakespeare suddenly wonders whether this Stoppard will tell his auditors what they need to know. Whoever the rascal is, he plainly has a cozening heart. Shakespeare almost admires him. With reluctance, he does admire him — but for the title, the unknown poet hasn't stolen anything from him.
No. Not poet. Playwright. The two players — the one still steadily losing coins, the other as steadily winning them — speak prose, not blank verse. Shakespeare curls his lip at that. By their dress, by their manner, these men seem too highly placed in life to speak prose. Prose, to his way of thinking, is for gravediggers and other such base mechanicals. He has a long-practiced knack for putting ideas into verse. He's always thought any other playwright would have it, too.
Little by little, he also notices they speak a peculiar kind of prose. He has no great trouble following what they say, but more often than not wouldn't say it that way himself. No one sentence in their disjointed maunderings about why the coins keep coming up heads seems any too odd by itself. Taken all together, they leave him frowning even more than he is already.
The players have an odd accent, too. Shakespeare has heard a good many in his time, but he can't place this one.
After the count reaches eighty-eight, the nameless fellow who is winning says, "I'm afraid —"
"So am I," the other, also still nameless, breaks in.
"I'm afraid this isn't your day."
"I'm afraid it is."
What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Why would the player who is losing a fortune fear this is his day? What can be worse than that? If he is afraid to find out, maybe Shakespeare also should be.
When the count reaches ninety-one, the one who is losing snaps, "You don't get my meaning. What is the first thing after all the things you've forgotten?"
"Oh, I see," the one who is winning answers brightly. The beat he waits is well timed. "I've forgotten the question."
Shakespeare snorts laughter. The woman murdering nutmeats beside him doesn't stop chewing, but her eyes slide his way. Even as her jaw works, the corners of her mouth turn down. He sees something funny that she's missed, and she dislikes him for it.
A bit later, the one who is losing says, "There was a messenger ... that's right. We were sent for."
Shakespeare leans forward again. If they are sent for, someone has a reason to send for them. He wants to know who. He wants to know why. The playwright has intrigued him that much, anyhow. But then, maddeningly, the players go off at another tangent.
That also irks a groundling standing near Shakespeare. He throws a small cabbage at the men up on the stage. The one who keeps winning gold pieces ducks and comes out with his next line as if nothing has happened. Shakespeare smiles in spite of himself. He cannot imagine a player who lets heckling faze him.
"We were sent for," says the player who is winning.
"Yes," the other man agrees.
"That's why we're here." A beat. "Travelling."
The player who is winning all at once takes fire. "It was urgent — a matter of extreme urgency, a royal summons, his very words: official business and no questions asked — lights in the stable-yard, saddle up and off headlong and hotfoot across the land, our guides outstripped in breakneck pursuit of our duty. Fearful lest we come too late!"
This is exciting stuff — or it would be, except that the losing player's pause makes the excitement leak away like air from a pricked pig's bladder. "Too late for what?" he asks.
"How do I know? We haven't got there yet," the winning player comes back in calm, reasonable tones.
"Well, hurry along then, and go somewhere, you dunghill grooms!" someone bawls at them from the packed mass around the outthrust stage.
Whatever else the players may do, they don't hurry — or go anywhere. The one who is winning thinks he hears a band. Shakespeare and the rest of the audience hear nothing. The one who is losing offers up something that sounds like a logical proposition at a university debate ... but it is utter madness. He invites the other player to demolish it. The other player ignores him.
Just when Shakespeare decides the band is another bit of madness, real instruments begin to play backstage. Out comes as sorry a troupe of tragedians as Shakespeare has ever seen. They tootle and bang away, just far enough from staying right on tune to be annoying.
Next to Shakespeare, the woman with the nutmeats chews to the beat of the drum. He is sure she has no idea she is doing it. Her fat-padded face shows fresh interest: the two strange simpletons won't be all this play has to give, anyhow. And Shakespeare too stares more intently, remembering the title of this piece. He'd brought just such a tatterdemalion set of actors to Elsinore. Could these be ...?
Their boy, who will play the female roles, is a monstrous, tarted-up libel on womanhood. By contrast, the fellow who is obviously their leader swaggers enough to make Burbage jealous. But Burbage has earned his swagger; he heads a real company, not this scurvy convocation.
The leader wants the troupe to perform for the two simpletons. He wants them to perform for anybody, and the simpletons happen to be there.
"We can do you a selection of gory romances, full of fine cadences and corpses, pirated from the Italian; and it doesn't take much to make a jingle — even a single coin has music in it," he declares grandly, with a sweeping wave Burbage would admire. The members of the troupe flourish and bow, raggedly. "Tragedians, at your command," the spokesman says.
"My name is Guildenstern, and this is Rosencrantz," says the man with the bulging leather sack. Now — at last! — they own names. Shakespeare is about to explode. These prose-prattling mountebanks, his characters? The fellow with the empty sack whispers in his friend's ear. Friend nods and speaks again: "I'm sorry — his name's Guildenstern, and I'm Rosencrantz."
Ragged laughter rises in the Rose. Shakespeare joins in. He is too startled to stop himself. How can a man not know his own name? The befuddled soul on stage seems to have no trouble at all, and to be too troubled to have the faintest idea how troubled he is.
If his — Rosencrantz's — trouble troubles the tragedians' spokesman, that worthy likewise gives no sign. He merely replies, "A pleasure." He goes back and forth with Rosencrantz, still trying to talk him out of cash in exchange for a performance. At last, after a weary bow, he says, "Don't clap too loudly — it's a very old world."
That only bewilders the woman beside Shakespeare. He wishes it struck no chord in him. How many times has he played in shows that won nothing but catcalls and cabbages? How many times has he wished he could play in any show at all? Even a hurled cabbage may still have good bits. Along with a stale roll, it can make a supper of sorts. And, to a man out of sorts, even a supper of sorts looks good.
Back and forth they go, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern against the spokesman. Much of it is clever. A few lines lodge in Shakespeare's memory. The playwright is also more open about the things some boys who play women do than any Shakespeare has heard before him. How he got his lines past the Master of the Revels ... is a question for another day. Too many other, more urgent, questions, flood Shakespeare's mind now.
Up on the stage, they do more with coins. Everything keeps coming up heads — against the spokesman, even Guildenstern uses this to his advantage. Then one last coin, which the spokesman tries to keep under his boot. Rosencrantz elbows him away from the golden disk and puts his own foot down on it. Disgruntled — no performance, no possible profit — the spokesman mooches away.
Excerpted from We Haven't Got There Yet by Harry Turtledove, Jillian Tamaki. Copyright © 2009 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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