Christian Science Monitor
The Late Mr. Shakespeareby Robert Nye
From the pen of the writer whom Peter Ackroyd called "one of our best living novelists" comes a work that is rich, strange, and wonderful. Welcomed in Shakespeare’s own land as the most original, exciting, and provocative novel about the playwright since Anthony Burgess’s classic Nothing Like the Sun, Robert Nye’s The Late Mr./i>
From the pen of the writer whom Peter Ackroyd called "one of our best living novelists" comes a work that is rich, strange, and wonderful. Welcomed in Shakespeare’s own land as the most original, exciting, and provocative novel about the playwright since Anthony Burgess’s classic Nothing Like the Sun, Robert Nye’s The Late Mr. Shakespeare is a literary event. Our guide to the life of the Bard is an actor by the name of Robert Reynolds, known also as Pickleherring, who asserts that, as a boy, he was not only an original member of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, but also played the greatest female roles, from Cleopatra through Portia. In an attic above a brothel in restoration England—a half century after Shakespeare had departed the stage—Pickleherring, now an ancient man, sits down to write the full story of his former friend, mentor, and master.
Ancient he may be, but fond, faithful Pickleherring has forgotten not one jot, and using sources both first hand and far-fetched, he means to set the record straight. Gentle readers will learn much that will open their eyes. One by one, chapter by chapter, Pickleherring teases out all the theories that have been embroidered around Shakespeare over the centuries: Did he really write his own plays? Who was the Dark Lady of the sonnets? Did Shakespeare die a Catholic? What did he do during his so-called lost years, before he went to London to write plays? What were the last words Shakespeare uttered on his deathbed? Was Shakespeare ever in love? Pickleherring turns speculation and fact into stories, each bringing us inexorably closer to Shakespeare the man—complex, contradictory, breathing, vibrant. Robert Nye has given us an outrageously bawdy, language-loving, and edifying romp through the life and times of the greatest writer who ever lived. The Late Mr. Shakespeare proves how alive he was.
“Nye brilliantly weaves together almost all the known facts about Shakespeare, a great many of the spurious anecdotes which have been attached to his life, and a tissue of rare inventions of his own.”— Times Literary Supplement
“Anyone who loves Shakespeare will love this book. . . . Wildly inventive and satisfyingly steeped in the dramatist’s work.”— Sunday Telegraph
Christian Science Monitor
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Read an Excerpt
A never writer to
an ever reader:
In which Pickleherring takes his pen to tell of his first meeting with Mr Shakespeare
For instance, William Shakespeare. Tell you all about him. All there is that's fit to know about Shakespeare. Mr William Shakespeare. All there is that's not fit, too, for that matter. Who he was and why. Where he was and when. What he was and wherefore. And then, besides, to answer several difficult questions that might be bothering you. Such as, who was the Dark Lady of the sonnets? Such as, why did he leave his wife only his second-best bed? Such as, is it true he died a Papist, and lived a sodomite? Such as, how come he placed that curse on his own grave? All this, and more, you will find answered here. But better begin at the beginning, while we can.
Who am I? Reader, I will tell you suddenly. My name is Robert Reynolds alias Pickleherring and my game is that of a comedian and believe me I was well-acquainted with our famous Mr Shakespeare when I was young. I acted in his plays. I knew his ways. I played Puck to his Oberon. To his Prosper, I was Ariel. I washed my hands sleep-walking too, as the Scottish queen. Why, once, at Blackfriars, the man was sick in my cap. I loved the lovely villain, ladies and gentlemen.
By the time I have finished I think you will have to admit it. There is no man or woman alive in the world who knows more than old Pickleherring about the late Mr Shakespeare.
I call to mind as if it was just yesterday, forinstance, the first time I ever clapped eyes on the dear fellow. He was wearing a copataine hat. You won't know those hats now, if you're under fifty. They were good hats. They wore good hats and they wrote good verse in those days. Your copataine hat was a high-crowned job in the shape of a sugar-loaf. Some say the word should be COPOTINK and that it comes from the Dutch. I call a copataine hat a copataine hat. So did Mr Shakespeare, let me tell you. I never heard him say that his hat came from Holland. And in his tragical history of Antony and Cleopatra he has the word COPATAINE. Which part, friends, he wrote first for your servant: Cleopatra. I never wore a copataine hat myself, but then I was only a boy at the time we are speaking of.
I was living in those far-off but never to be forgotten days in a cottage made of clay and wattles just outside the north gate of the city of Cambridge. That cottage stood by a fen. Fatherless, motherless, I was being looked after by a pair of sisters, whiskered virgins, Meg and Merry Muchmore, two spinsters with long noses for the smelling out of knavery.
It was the pleasure of each of these ladies in turn to spank me naked while the other watched. I think they liked to see my little pintle harden. Meg's lap smelt of liquorice but there was no pleasing Merry. I had a well-whipped childhood, I can tell you.
All their long lives these two weird sisters had dedicated themselves to piety and good works, and I, the bastard son of a priest's bastard, conceived in a confessional, born in a graveyard, was one of the best of them. I mean, what better work than Pickleherring?
I was a posthumous child. Of my father, I heard from my mother only that his mouth was so big and cavernous that he could thrust his clenched fist into it. How often he performed this trick for her amusement I know not. I know only that he could do it, and that also he had some interest in the occult. That is an interest which I do not share.
Reader, don't get me wrong. I believe in ghosts and visions. I pray only to be spared from seeing them.
My mother died when I was seven years old. She smelt of milk and comfrey fritters. She used to tell me tales by the chimneyside. It was from her sweet lips that I first heard of Tattercoats and of Tom-Tit-Tot and of Jack and his beanstalk. She sang to me, too, my mother all the old English songs.
I remember her singing me to sleep with a ballad called O Polly Dear. But she died of a fever and then there was no more music. My bed was under thatching and the way to it was up a rope ladder.
I had never before been spoken to by a man in a copataine hat. Mr Shakespeare was tall and thin, and he wore that hat with an air of great authority. He had also a quilted silken doublet, goose-turd green; grey velvet hose; and a scarlet cloak. Never believe those who tell you he was not a dandy.
This first meeting of ours took place in the yard of a tavern called the Cock. A small rain fell like brightness from the air. Ah, what a dream it seems now, seventy years away.
One thing I can tell you that you'll perhaps not learn elsewhere. Mr William Shakespeare never minded a bit of rain. He sat under the springing mulberry tree that grew in the middle of the Cock's back yard. He had a damask napkin over his knee and a little knife of silver in his hand. He was opening oysters.
As for me, I had climbed up on the red-brick wall to keep him in my sight. My friends mocked me. One of them said the man was from Wales, and an alchemist. They said he could make gold, and fly in the air. They said he was in Cambridge for blood for his lamp. I pretended not to care. I did not want his art, but I had no father.
'Pickleherring's mad again!' piped my playmates.
Then they all ran away and left me on my own to face the necromancer.
Mr Shakespeare must have seen me watching him. But I don't believe that his eyes ever left the oysters.
His voice was soft and gentle when he spoke. But it was the sort of softness that you stop and listen to, like the sound of the theorbo.
'Boy,' he said, suddenly.
I nearly fell down off the wall. Instead I said, 'Yes, sir?'
I was shaking in my boots.
'Say this, boy,' he said. 'I am afraid, and yet I'll venture it.'
What kind of spell was this?
I looked at Mr Shakespeare.
He looked up from his oysters and looked at me.
Something in his look made me take him straight. So I forgot all about spells and I said the words he said. I said them simply. I do not think I can say that I said them well. But I said them more or less as he said them, which is to say that I spoke the speech trippingly on the tongue, not mouthing it, not sawing the air with my hand.
It was, as I learned later, the way he liked it. He never could abide the ranting sort. Truth to tell, I had never then acted in my life, so I knew no worse. Also, I was afraid, which helped me to say that I was as though I meant it.
My performance seemed to please Mr Shakespeare.
He took off his hat to me.
'Good,' he said. And then, 'Good, boy,' he said. And then again, after a little while, 'Good boy,' Mr Shakespeare said finally.
He swallowed an oyster.
'Say this,' he said. 'Say that.'
I mean, I can't remember now all Mr Shakespeare bade me say then. He sat there downing oysters while I recited. Sometimes he said 'Good' and sometimes he said 'Good, boy' and once he said 'Good boy' again and more than once he said nothing but just wiped his mouth with his napkin.
I do recall that he asked me at last to sing.
So I sat down on the wall and I sang for Mr Shakespeare.
I had a good voice in those days.
I sang for him the ballad of O Polly Dear.
The sweet rain fell and the drops ran down my face and I sat there in the rain, legs dangling, singing O Polly Dear that my mother used to sing to me.
Mr Shakespeare listened with his eyes as well as his ears.
When I finished he nodded and he clapped his hands three times together.
It was the first applause I ever had.
Then at Mr Shakespeare's instruction I jumped down off the wall.
In which Pickleherring makes strides in a pair of lugged boots
The first part I ever played for Mr Shakespeare on the London stage was that of young Prince Arthur in his play of The Life and Death of King John. That's why he asked me to say I am afraid, and yet I'll venture it. It is what that poor boy says before he kills himself by jumping from the battlements of the castle where he is confined.
When I jumped down off the red-brick wall and into the back yard of the Cock Tavern, Cambridge, Mr Shakespeare stopped eating his oysters and he asked me my name and where I lived and who my father was. So I told him of the cot beneath the thatch and my fatherless fate.
As I spoke to him of fathers, I saw tears run down his cheeks. I thought it was rain.
'O my poor Hamlet,' Mr Shakespeare said.
Like a fool, I repeated the four words.
Mr Shakespeare flushed. His face was all at once a crimson rose. He blinked at me in anger through his tears. I think he thought that I was mocking him. Then he must have realised that I'd mistaken what he said for another speech to try. He pinched his nose between the thumb and the first finger of his left hand, shaking his head a moment as he did so. When he looked at me again his eyes were dear.
'Do you have perfect pitch?' Mr Shakespeare asked me.
I told him that I had. (It was a lie.)
Then Mr Shakespeare took my hand, unsmiling, and he promised me that if I chose to come with him to London and join his company he could make me a player like himself.
My heart thumped in my breast. I felt as if I had suddenly grown taller by an inch.
Well now, my dears, it happens that this part of Prince Arthur might contain the key as to why Mr Shakespeare first noticed me and thought to give me employment as a player.
I think perhaps that I put him in mind of his son.
I was wearing, do you see, a pair of lugged boots. Those boots were all the rage that year of our first meeting. They were boots of soft leather, hanging loose about the leg, turned down and fringed. I think they called them lugged because the fringes looked like ears.
Be that as it may. I learned later that young Hamlet Shakespeare begged for a pair of these boots to wear as he lay dying. He was eleven years old. It was Mrs Shakespeare herself who told me that she got them for Hamlet to wear as he tossed on his death-bed. He never so much as walked in them anywhere.
So it might be that my lugged boots were what caught Mr Shakespeare's eye.
But then (you ask me), what has this to do with that other boy Arthur in King John?
Permit me to tell you.
Little Hamlet died not long before I first met Mr Shakespeare. I think that Mr Shakespeare was still writing King John in his head that day in Cambridge, and that in any case he was thinking of his own son when he has Queen Constance in Act III Scene 4 lament the fate of her son Arthur in these lines that follow:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form: Then have I reason to be fond of grief.
Of course, I could be wrong. My linking of the writing of this speech with what Mr Shakespeare may possibly have felt about the loss of his own (and only) son might deny the man's imagination or at the least insult it. Or it could be that I mistake or misconstrue the way the mind of a poet works upon the things that happen in the poet's life.
I confess that I never dared to question Mr Shakespeare directly in the matter. But I remember a night at the Mermaid when having recited those tender lines which he gave to Queen Constance, I expounded my theory and quizzed his fellow playwrights as to what they thought.
Mr Beaumont said I was right, and wiped away a tear.
Mr Fletcher said I was wrong, and that my supposition accused Mr Shakespeare of a want of heart, or a want of imagination, or of both wants together, and only went to prove my mediocrity.
Mr Ben Jonson said nothing, but belched and hurled a flagon at my head.
It was an empty flagon, naturally.
Ladies and gentlemen, Beroaldus (who was a wise doctor) will have drunkards, afternoon-men, and such as more than ordinarily delight in drink, to be mad. I am of his opinion from my own experience. They are more than mad, much worse than mad.
Speaking of which, before we quitted Cambridge finally Mr Shakespeare saw fit to try to teach me the joys of tobacco. He was not one of those who suppose that plant divine in its origin or its powers. But he liked his white clay pipe. He gave me sweetmeats also, and called me his doxy. It was not for such things that I loved his company.
As to why Mr Shakespeare liked mine, if he did, who now can rightly say?
I suggest only that the least that can be supposed leaving lugged boots and young Hamlet out of it is that the great man was pleased when he found that rainy afternoon that I said his lines plainly and true even when perched upon a red-brick wall. And perhaps it pleased him further when he discovered that I had some rudimental feeling for the shape of English verse. The Sisters Muchmore had taught me rhythm on the arse with their striped tawse.
For whatever reason, or none, Mr WS took me along with him like a prize bull-calf when he went back to London to rejoin his company of actors.
They were called the Lord Chamberlain's Servants and they played at that time at the playhouse called the Curtain, in Shoreditch. Our master was Mr James Burbage, a stubborn old man with an anchor on his thigh, who died of a surfeit of lampreys the Easter after I made my first entrance.
I wore my lugged boots and I made great strides.
Meet the Author
Robert Nye is a novelist and poet who was born in London. His other novels include Falstaff, Mrs. Shakespeare: The Complete Works, and The Voyage of the Destiny. He lives in Ireland.
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