Cover image for The slaying of the shrew
The slaying of the shrew
Hawke, Simon.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Forge, 2001.
Physical Description:
255 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
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Will Shakespeare, Symington Smythe and their band of thespians are contracted to provide theatrical entertainment at a rural estate as part of a wedding pageant. Then the headstrong Bridge turns up dead, and overheard conversations contain conspiratorial plots against the families involved.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The first installment of this series (A Mystery of Errors [BKL N 1 00]) was such an immensely enjoyable read that it's hard to imagine the author equaling it, let alone topping it. But topped it he has: the second adventure of those Elizabethanera amateur sleuths, theater apprentice Symington Smythe and wouldbe actor-writer Will Shakespeare, is in every way superior to its predecessor. Perhaps this is because Hawke doesn't have to reintroduce the premise and can jump directly into the story. Perhaps he just has an even firmer grasp of his characters and their time. Whatever the reason, this splendid novel is a pure pleasure to read, from beginning to end. His blending of real and historical events is seamless, and his skill as a storyteller is abundantly evident. William Shakespeare is so famous, we often tend to forget there was a time in his life when he was not the Shakespeare we learned about in school. Hawke's portrayal of the world's most influential playwright as a young man discovering his artistic gifts, looking for a little excitement, is utterly charming and should be a delight for fans of the Bard. This series should be required reading for all fans of historical mysteries. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

Will Shakespeare and Tuck Smythe, the Elizabethan era's answer to Holmes and Watson, return for a second amusing stint as amateur sleuths (after 2000's A Mystery of Errors). Tuck laments his apparent lack of talent as an actor, though he wants nothing more than to strut his time upon the stage, while fledgling playwright Will wants to make his mark as a wordsmith. Along with their fellow members of the Queen's Men, the company playing at the Burbage Theatre in London, they have been hired to perform as part of the entertainment during the wedding festivities for a wealthy man's daughter. Merchant Godfrey Middleton wants no expense spared for his daughter Catherine's nuptials on his estate not far from London. The bride may have a thoroughly sharp tongue and a shrewish manner, but Tuck is aghast when he overhears two anonymous men plotting to murder Catherine and take over Middleton's fortune through a marriage to his younger and seemingly promiscuous daughter, Blanche. Though Tuck and Will try valiantly to keep Catherine from danger, a murderer strikes, and the race is on to identify the murderous suitor. Avid Shakespeareans will chortle as they identify elements of this plot that will later find their way into the esteemed works of the great playwright and the clever way in which Hawke makes such spirited use of the canon. Tuck and Will are an endearing pair, and if the inventiveness of this tale is an omen, Hawke can keep them detecting engagingly for quite some time. (Dec. 11) FYI: Hawke is best known as an author of SF, including the Time War series and a bestselling Star Trek novel. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-A lively whodunit with William Shakespeare and his bumbling sidekick, Tuck Smythe, an aspiring actor, as detectives. They are part of the entertainment at the wedding of the daughter of a wealthy merchant when Tuck overhears two men plotting a murder. The shrew, a woman who voices her opinions, is slain on her wedding day, and the people around her have secrets and hidden motives. Characters from the familiar play seem like live people. This delightful Elizabethan romp with many plot snippets from Shakespeare's other plays is a great way to get high school students interested in the Bard and his works.-Irene F. Moose, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Slaying of the Shrew 1     THE PLAGUE SEASON WAS A good time to be out of London, especially since it often meant the closing of the playhouses. And although Smythe much preferred the excitement of the city and working at James Burbage's Theatre to the quiet, uneventful country life he'd left behind, carts passing by outside one's window loaded with stinking corpses rotting in the summer heat had a way of mitigating London's worldly charms. Nevertheless, when he found out that the Queen's Men were going on the road, he was much less concerned about the plague than the possibility that he might not be asked to come along. He was not, after all, a shareholder in the company or even one of the key supporting players. The boy apprentices who played the female parts were of much more value to the Queen's Men than he was as a mere ostler who only played occasional small roles and helped out with odd jobs around the playhouse. He had no stake in the profits of the company, other than wishing they'd do well, and to date, the only roles that he had played were small and insignificant, mere walk-ons of the sort given to ordinary hired men such as himself. Even those, as undemanding as they were, he knew he'd botched, for the most part. If not for his friend, Will Shakespeare, whom the company had learned to value for his versatility, he was convinced they would have let him go by now. "Nonsense," Shakespeare said, when Smythe confided his worriesto his roommate. "There's always a place in the theatre for a handsome lad with a good leg, a stout chest, and a fine, strong pair of shoulders." He spoke without putting down his pen or looking up from his small writing desk, which was pushed up against a bare wall opposite their bed in their lodgings at The Toad and Badger, in St. Helen's parish. Smythe frowned. The poet's wit often had a biting edge and he could wield it as adroitly as a cutpurse used his bodkin. He was not sure if the remark was meant to chide him. "And just what do you mean by that, pray tell?" The irritation in his tone caused Shakespeare to look up from his work and sigh, then glance back at him over his shoulder. His large, unusually expressive dark eyes, the poet's dominant feature in a somewhat sallow face that was otherwise not especially remarkable, held a look of exasperated resignation. "I mean, Tuck, that there are other attributes to be valued in a player aside from his ability to act. And 'tis indeed a fortunate thing for you, my friend, for of a certainty, you are no great threat to Ned Alleyn and our colleagues at the Rose." The company was still smarting from the defection of Edward Alleyn, formerly their featured player, to the Lord Admiral's Men, who played at the Rose Theatre. Together with the recent death of the long-ailing Dick Tarleton, whose comedic talents had been a large factor in their company's success, Alleyn's departure had been a severe blow to the Queen's Men. They still had their enviable name, for there could be no more august patron than Her Royal Majesty, but their fortunes had, of late, been on the decline. Smythe knew that the frustration of seeing a rival company's star in the ascendant while theirs was on the wane was in part responsible for his friend's sarcastic remark. But he also knew the larger fault was his own, not only for interrupting Will while he was trying to work, but for putting him in the awkward position of standing up for an inferior actor simply because that actor happened to be his roommate and his friend. "Well, I deserved that, I suppose," Smythe said, glumly. Shakespeare sighed again and put down his pen. He pulled off his ink-stained, calfskin writing glove, which had no mate for he had made it for himself for this specific purpose, dropped it on the table and then turned around to face him. "Right then," he said, placing his hands upon his knees and regarding him with a steady, direct gaze. "Let's have it. Out with it." "Out with what?" asked Smythe. "Whatever matter stalks the labyrinthine mazes of your mind like some perturbed spirit," Shakespeare replied, dryly. "Give vent to it, for 'tis clear that I shall have no peace til you have unburdened yourself." "Nay, Will, I have distracted you enough already with my own concerns. You must return to yours and work upon your sonnets, for 'tis that work which pays our rent." "You contribute your fair share," Shakespeare responded. "And in truth, 'tis not as if this sort of work requires great labor, though it does seem laborious, betimes. A poet who sings the praises of some aristocratic popinjay for a few pounds is little better than a trollop who kneels for a few shillings. Yet if fortune must condemn me as a dishonest sonneteer, at least I am an honest strumpet in giving forth to the best of my ability. But now we stray. Of late, my friend, you have been ruled by a most bilious humor. Ever since you learned that the Queen's Men were going on the road, you have been sulking like an errant schoolboy sent indoors to learn his hornbook. This sullen truculence of yours is most unseemly. What ails you, Tuck?" "I have already given you the cause of my distemper." "And I have sought to reassure you. Never fear, Tuck, you are coming with us, that I'll warrant. With Ned Alleyn and Dick Tarleton both departed, one for a more prosperous venue and the other, presumably, for a more virtuous one, the Queen's Men need all the help that they can muster." "But, Will, I can scarce replace either Dick Tarleton or NedAlleyn," Smythe replied. "I can neither clown or dance a jig, nor, in truth, can I act with any great ability." "Well, in truth, you cannot act with any ability at all," said Shakespeare. "As for clowns and jig dancers, they have had their day. The groundlings may still find some amusement in the brainless caperings of that oaf Kemp and his ilk, but it shall not be long ere that sort of thing begins to pall upon them. One can only see so many clownish jigs and pratfalls before the novelty wears off. On the other hand, people never seem to tire of comely lads and lasses, and you, young Symington Smythe, are a fine, handsome figure of a man whom lads and lasses both find comely. What is more, you not only have a way with horses as befits a proper ostler to the gentry and nobility, but are a skilled farrier and smith to boot, and have the strength of a bull, qualities always of great value to any company of players on the road." "So then, you hold that my only attributes are my strong body and good looks?" asked Smythe. "Well, for my own part, I find many qualities in you to value as a friend, but so far as the company may be concerned, it does help to have some attractive people on the stage. And aside from one or two apprentices who have the comeliness of youth, the Queen's Men, sad to say, are not a very comely lot." Though he knew that Will meant well, Smythe did not find the poet's words encouraging. Ever since he had seen his first play put on in the courtyard of a village inn by a traveling company of players, the very Queen's Men who now played at the theatre where he was employed, he had nursed a childhood dream of becoming a player himself, but unfortunately, his father had not supported him in that ambition. A man with considerable ambitions of his own, Symington Smythe the elder had been scandalized at the notion that the son who bore his name wanted to become something as disreputable and low class as a player. He had secured his own status as a gentleman with great expense and much currying of favor and had his eyesset upon a knighthood. Having his only son wishing to become a player was simply unacceptable. Instead, in the belief that some hard work would knock some sense into his head and at least teach him a decent and respectable trade, he had him apprenticed to a smith, his own less fortunate younger brother, Thomas, who had not stood to inherit the estate. Living with his uncle, a strong, but steady-tempered, patient and amicable man, Smythe had learned the craft of smithing, growing ever stronger as he grew ever more adept. He always had a love for horses and a natural way with them, which had also made him a good farrier. But above all else, he learned something from his uncle that few people could teach and fewer still could master. The art of making blades was Thomas Smythe's true passion. He could work metal with extraordinary skill and had taught his nephew almost everything he knew. His Uncle Tom believed he had a gift for it and a good future in the guild, but though he had picked up his uncle's love for the demanding craft of metalworking, Smythe's dream of acting on a stage had never left him. When at last he learned that his father had bankrupted himself in his vain and injudicious pursuit of a title, he decided there was nothing left to prevent his setting out for London to pursue his dream. A series of serendipitous events had brought him closer to the realization of that dream than he would have thought possible after so short a time in London. While still en route, at an inn near the outskirts of the city, he had met a fellow traveler named Will Shakespeare, himself on the way to London with hopes of finding work with a company of players. They fell in with each other and decided to share quarters and expenses, since neither of them had much money. Soon afterward, a chance encounter with none other than the flamboyant and controversial poet, Christopher Marlowe, had gained them an introduction to Richard Burbage, whose father owned the theatre where the Queen's Men played. However, though they had found employment at the Burbage Theatre, Smythe's first attempts at acting as a hired man had revealed a shortcoming ofwhich he had not previously been aware. He had, it seemed, virtually no talent as an actor. "Do you see no hope at all for me as a player, then?" asked Smythe, morosely. " No hope?" Shakespeare shrugged. "Well, I would not wish to see a man left hopeless, least of all my closest friend. Nor would I wish to lay the burden of false hope upon him, either. Let us say, instead, that I see little hope. But do not despair, Tuck, for by the same token, I see little hope for myself, as well. Methinks I might fare better as a poet than a player, but 'twould seem Chris Marlowe has little more to fear from me than Ned Alleyn has from you. Yet, be that as it may, 'tis grateful we should be, for we have work while many others in these hard times go a'begging." "True," said Smythe, folding his arms behind his head as he lay upon the bed, staring at the ceiling. Times were hard in England. People were flocking to London from all over the country, desperate to find work. It was difficult enough just finding lodging in a city where small rooms such as their own were often occupied by entire groups of unrelated people, sleeping on the floor and making do as best they could. As if in afterthought, he added, "I should be thankful, I suppose." Shakespeare stared at him for a moment and then shook his head. "That is not the end of it, methinks. There is something else that troubles you, quite aside from your apprehensions about your standing with the company. The very air around you is oppressive with your melancholy. What disturbs you, truly?" Smythe grimaced. "Nothing, really. Except ... well ... I was thinking of Ned Alleyn." Shakespeare frowned. " Alleyn ? Why, Alleyn's gone now. What has he to do with aught?" "Well ...'twas more in the way he went." Shakespeare frowned. "He went because he could not improve his fortunes further here and had an opportunity to do so elsewhere. He was a shareholder in the company, but then he could rise nofurther. He knew full well that Dick Burbage stands to inherit the Theatre from his father, while Philip Henslowe has no son to take over the Rose, only a daughter who ... Ahhh! Now I see it! You still have your mind upon that dewy girl, Elizabeth! You think that if Ned Alleyn can succeed in marrying a theatre owner's daughter, why then, perhaps you might do the same with the daughter of a wealthy merchant who owns a part of ours." "Well--" "Well, nothing. I advise you to put that thought straight out of your mind, my friend. You have about as much chance of taking Elizabeth Darcie to wife as I have of gaining immortality." "But what of Alleyn, Will? Was not his situation much the same as mine in most respects?" "'Twas nothing like," said Shakespeare, with a snort. "For one thing, Ned Alleyn, for all of his insufferable pomposity, happens to be the greatest and most celebrated actor of our time. While you, you great buff ..." Shakespeare stopped, cleared his throat, and then continued. "Well, you are my friend, Tuck, but we have already dispensed with our discussion of your dubious abilities upon the stage. Philip Henslowe knows full well that Alleyn will draw audiences to the Rose, much to our disadvantage, and it only stands to his advantage to seal Ned to the Rose through marriage to his daughter. For his part, Ned Alleyn stands to gain, as well. Henslowe's daughter, from what I hear, is a buxom, young and pretty lass with a most amiable disposition, but the main attraction is, of course, the Rose, which Alleyn would then stand to inherit through the marriage." "Aye," said Smythe, "which was precisely why I thought that a player and the wealthy owner of a playhouse and other diverse ventures could, perhaps, despite differences in class--" "Henslowe is a wealthy man, I'll grant you," Shakespeare interrupted, "or at least he seems wealthy to the likes of us, but remember he is not a gentleman and has no real ambitions to rise above his class. He is the owner of a brothel, for God's sake. Henry Darcie,on the other hand, is truly wealthy, one of the most successful merchants in the city, and he longs to improve his lot in life with all his heart and soul. Already, he stands well above you, and through his daughter, hopes to rise still higher. Having her become involved with a mere player would work contrary to those hopes, regardless of how skilled or popular that player might become. And in your case ... well, the less said of that, the better. In any event, Henslowe's interests are not the same as Darcie's. Were you to bring in audiences ten times as large as Ned Alleyn might attract, 'twould still make no difference in the end. Through hard work and diligence, and perhaps a minor miracle or two, there may yet be some small hope for you as a player, Tuck, but as a suitor for Liz Darcie, you have none. None whatever. You may as well give it up, my lad. The girl may have graced you with a smile or two, but she is unattainable, believe me." Smythe was moved to argue, but he checked himself. On the face of it, there was nothing Will had said that he could logically dispute. And yet, despite that, he was certain that Elizabeth had feelings for him. That day when they first met at the theatre, there had been a spark between them, he felt certain of it. And then later, when she had found herself caught up in a web of intrigue, a devilish plot designed to turn even her own family against her, she had come to him in desperation, seeking help, and once more, Smythe had been convinced that something quite significant had passed between them. When he spoke to Will about it, the poet had done his best to dissuade him, arguing that Elizabeth Darcie had felt threatened and so had instinctively resorted to the age-old tricks inherent in her gender, using her seductiveness and vulnerability to gain a strong protector. And, Shakespeare had argued, it had worked. "She drew you into it, despite your better judgement," he had said, "and before the thing was ended, the entire company was placed at risk and I was very nearly murdered!" Smythe did not need to be reminded of how assassins had attackedthem in the middle of a production at the theatre. He would not soon forget that! But at the same time, Elizabeth was not to blame. She had been an innocent, a mere pawn in a complex foreign plot with implications that had reached to the very highest levels of the government. The role that they had played in helping to defeat that plot had gained them a powerful friend at court in the person of Sir William Worley, the master of the celebrated Sea Hawks and the right hand man of Sir Francis Walsingham, one of the queen's chief ministers and the head of Her Royal Majesty's most secret service. Smythe knew that Shakespeare did not truly hold Elizabeth to blame for that devilish affair or the attempt upon his life, but he also knew that Will was not without some rancor when it came to the fair sex. He did not know why, precisely. Shakepeare was rather close-mouthed on the subject, save when he was in his cups, and even then, he revealed very little. Smythe only knew that Will had left a family behind in Stratford when he came to London, a wife and children whom he never visited, but to whom he sent a good portion of everything he earned, for which reason, despite a very frugal disposition, he never had any money and was always struggling to earn more. Hence, his "strumpet sonneteering," as he called it, writing verse in praise of various courtiers who collected such fawning scribblings, paid for them, and often had them bound into small volumes which they then passed amongst themselves and exhibited in their homes like treasured trophies taken in some hunt. Smythe found it all quite comical and even childish, yet foolish as it seemed, in such trying times, it could provide some much needed income and, to a fortunate few, even a decent livelihood if their reputations grew and printers sought their work to offer for sale in the book stalls at St. Paul's. The true prize for an ambitious poet lay in securing the patronage of an aristocrat, as some of the university men had done. Many noblemen had their own pet poets, as Smythe thought of them, and in return for their support, these well-educated men of letters wrotepaens of praise for their well-heeled patrons, likening them in fulsome, cadenced terms to gods or heroes from Greek mythology or ancient history. Smythe had read several such slim volumes that Shakespeare had brought home. He had been amazed that men would pay good money for such drivel and had said so. "Drivel it may be," Shakespeare had replied, "but if 'twill help to pay our rent and put food into our empty, growling bellies, then to drivel shall I fix my compass and grandly sail forth." And so he did, often working late into the night by candlelight, writing at his desk, a small, crudely made trestle table now covered with candle wax and ink stains. He was often writing when Smythe fell asleep, and sometimes was still to be found writing come the morning. To date, he had not yet managed to find a wealthy patron, but he had sold some sonnets to a few well-born young gentlemen, thanks to an admiring word or two dropped casually by Sir William at court, and his name was beginning to become known as a rising young poet. He was yet a far cry from being a rival to the likes of Robert Greene or Thomas Lodge, but then he was still new in London and did not have the advantage of a university degree to buttress his ambitions. However, he did not let that deter him, not when it came to writing sonnets, nor when it came to writing plays. Thus far, he had yet to write a complete play of his own, though he had made extensive notes on various ideas. Shakespeare's first opportunity to show the company what he could do came when Alleyn left them in the midst of a production that had not been working to begin with. It was unclear who was the original author of the play, for companies frequently performed plays that were rewritten from earlier versions, which were often rewritten from earlier versions still, which in turn often came from other sources. The original author was often impossible to pinpoint, though as Smythe recalled, this particular production had all the stamp of Robert Greene upon it. Though he could not say that it was Greene for certain, the play had a pomposity and a pretentiousness, a smug condecension in itsmocking attitude towards the rising middle class that had all the earmarks of the university men--Greene, in particular--who seemed to despise the very audience for whom they wrote. Or perhaps, as Shakespeare had put it, for whom the companies performed the plays, for Will believed that the university men actually wrote less for the playhouse audiences than for one another. Therein, he insisted, lay their true failing. For the Queen's Men, the problem was, perhaps, less clearly defined, but nevertheless immediate. The play was a disaster and their featured player had summarily quit them for a rival company. Something needed to be done, and quickly. Seeing his opportunity, Will had stepped forth, volunteering to try his hand at doctoring the play. Dick Burbage had decided they had nothing to lose by letting him try. If the young ostler fancied himself a poet, Burbage had told the others, then why not see what he could do? So what if he was not a university-trained man of letters? Who was to say that he might not come up with an amusing verse or two that could add some much needed spirit to improve the play? It certainly could not, Burbage had admitted wryly, be made a great deal worse. Shakespeare had not only improved the production by deleting a few lines here and adding a few there, rewriting the most troublesome scenes, but he had continued to rewrite in stages, after each performance, until an almost entirely new and much improved play had emerged. The company was so well pleased with the result that they gave him the opportunity of looking over the other plays in their repertoire, to see if they might be improved, as well. For Shakespeare, this had brought about a change in fortune that had elevated him from the lowly post of ostler at the Burbage Theatre to book-holder and sometime actor. Both positions carried more prestige within the company and brought with them slightly better pay, but as book-holder especially, Will now had a great deal more responsibility. While not quite as important as the role of stage-manager who assembled the company, assigned all the parts, and saw to it that all the actors received their parts in manuscriptsheets of paper pasted together to form rolls upon which were written each actor's cues and speeches, the book-holder worked closely with the stage-manager, assembling all the properties and keeping them in good order for every performance, as well as acting as a prompter and arranging for all the music, fanfares, alarums, stage thunder and other incidental noises, and keeping track of all the cues and entrances and exits during the performance. Smythe, meanwhile, remained an ostler, though more and more, he found himself performing menial work around the theatre, sweeping and maintaining the stage, and making sure there were fresh rushes strewn across the yard for each performance. It was not quite the glamorous life he had envisioned for himself when he had embarked for London. Instead of basking in the warmth of audience applause, as he had so many times imagined in his daydreams, he often sweltered in the all too real stench of what they left behind after each performance. From time to time, there was a small part for him to play, but the company had learned not to depend upon his ability to memorize his lines, nor upon his execrable sense of timing. Smythe was at a complete loss to explain these shortcomings. His memory never seemed to fail him save for when he stepped out upon the stage, at which point it inexplicably went blank and he could not recall even the simplest, briefest line. As a result, he was never sent out on stage alone. To make certain he did not miss his cue, Will was usually there to shove him out in the direction he needed to go, and whoever was already on stage always stood prepared to prompt him if the need arose, as it usually did. For Smythe, it was exasperating, but he seemed completely helpless to overcome the situation. "Stage fright," Dick Burbage called it. "Tis a thing to which most players fall victim at one time or another. To some, it means merely an unsettled stomach and a slight trembling of the hands or knees, a sort of giddy, momentary weakness overcome the moment they step out onto the stage and plunge into the role. For others, it is a nearly unbearable, oppressive pressure in the chest, the heartbeating like a wild thing trying to claw its way free of the flesh, violent shaking and cold sweats, a paralyzing fear that becomes completely all consuming. And yet, for all that, it often goes away once they step out onto the stage and become caught up in the play. Most players get over it in time. Still, with a few ... . it never truly goes away." "What do such people do?" Smythe asked him. "Well, if they wish to remain actors, then they must act as if it does not bother them," Burbage had replied. "And if they cannot?" Burbage shrugged. "Then it must inevitably become evident to them that they might well become good ostlers, or perhaps masons, or smiths or carpenters or coopers, or else merchants, ironmongers, jewelers, butchers, saddle-makers, rivermen or scribes, but sadly, they never can be players. Lack of talent may be compensated for to some degree with industry and diligence, but nothing in the world may compensate for lack of courage. Mind you now, having courage does not mean having a lack of fear. It means having the ability to persevere in spite of it. The principle is the same, you see, whether one stands upon the stage or upon the field of battle. The soldier who faces enemy troops and quails before them is, in some respects, no different from the player who faces an audience and is struck with fear. The singular difference between them is that in the soldier's case, the fear might well cost him his life. And thus far, Tuck, I have never heard of an audience so hostile that they have actually killed a player. Still, there is always a first time, I suppose ... ." "Look, Tuck," Shakespeare said, interrupting his thoughts, "I have written enough for one night. I need a respite. Let us go downstairs and have some ale. You need to stop this lying about and moping. Most of the others will be down there still, discussing their preparations for the journey. At least, the ones who have not yet drunk themselves insensible. You need to get your mind on other things. There will be other girls in other towns, doubtless a fewpretty enough to make you forget all about Elizabeth Darcie. And they will doubtless be much more accessible." "Perhaps, but they shall not be Elizabeth," Smythe said. "'Twould never be the same." "Blow out the candles, then," Shakespeare replied, wryly. "All cats are gray in the dark, my friend. Come on, let us go and have ourselves a drink or two or three." They made their way downstairs to the alehouse of the Toad and Badger, where they found most of the members of the Queen's Men still enjoying one another's company after their last performance and their ordinary supper of meat pies, ale and cheese. Beer, the poor man's drink, was filling the small hours as they smoked their pipes and eagerly discussed their forthcoming departure. "Ah, Will, Tuck, come join us!" called John Fleming, waving them over to the table where they sat. "Dick has just been telling us about our new engagement at the commencement of our tour!" "What new engagement?" Shakespeare asked, as he signalled the tavern maid for a drink. "We are to be performing at a wedding," said George Bryan, a recently hired member of the company who had come to them from another troop of players that had been disbanded. There were fewer acting companies now that licensure was being more strictly enforced, especially in London, and only those companies with aristocratic patrons were licensed to perform. Smythe sat down next to Bryan and at once found a tankard of beer placed before him. He reached for it, thinking that he never used to drink anything but milk, water or his special infusion of herbs until he came to London, where no one seemed to drink anything but wine or beer or ale. Here, water was only used for cooking or else washing up. No one ever thought to drink it. Wine and ale, however, flowed as freely as the Thames and drunkenness was so common in the city as to be completely unremarkable. It was not unusual to see men lying passed out on the streets, utterly insensiblewith drink and vulnerable to any pickpocket who came along to lift their purses. Most citizens generally gave these supine souls a wide berth, however, especially at this time of the year, for it was by no means certain from outward appearances, unless one made a risky close inspection, whether it was a drunkard fallen into stupor or else a victim of the dreaded plague. Each year, when summer came, the plague took a heavy toll among the citizenry. There were so many new graves in St. Paul's Churchyard now that the minister complained about the stench of all the decomposing bodies. Smythe grimaced at the thought and took a drink, enjoying the feeling of the rich and heavy brew sliding down his throat. He had developed a taste for it, but reminded himself to be sure to visit Granny Meg so that he could obtain a fresh supply of dried herbs for his infusion, a recipe taught him by another cunning woman from back home. He had been strong and healthy when he came to London and he intended to do everything he could to stay that way, even if it made everyone think he was peculiar for imbibing a hot beverage brewed from weeds. However, the ursine Courtney Stackpole would not countenance such a curious concoction in his tavern, and so Smythe drank beer as he listened to Fleming and the others, anxious for more news about their tour. "There is to be a wedding celebration held at the estate of one Godfrey Middleton, a wealthy merchant and projector," said Richard Burbage, "who is a good friend of Henry Darcie, well known to us all as my father's partner and thereby part owner of our illustrious theater. 'Tis through the good offices of Henry Darcie that this special engagement has been arranged for us." "So then we are to be performing at some fat merchant's wedding ?" Shakespeare said, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. "'Tis to be a private performance for the guests, held in some dim, stuffy, and ill-suited hall?" "Nay, 'twill be the wedding of his eldest daughter, Catherine," said Dick Burbage. "And the performance will be held out of doors!" "A grand pavillion and a stage shall be built especially for the occasion on the grounds of the estate," said Robert Speed, another member of the company, who had the singular ability of speaking lucidly and clearly no matter how drunk he became. His bleary-eyed gaze was the only indication of his inebriated state as he raised his tankard in a toast to the efforts that would be made to ensure a fine performance and a memorable wedding. "Separate pavillions shall also be erected as banqueting houses and galleries to house the audience," he added in stentorian tones, "all of whom will come barging down the river in a grand progress like Drake's own bloomin' fleet after the defeat of the Armada! 'Ere's to 'em all, God bless 'em!" He emptied his tankard and belched profoundly. "There are to be three hundred guests or more, most of whom shall be participating in the progress," explained Burbage. "There shall be work aplenty for the rivermen, what with boats and barges all assembled in a flotilla to bear the wedding guests. And the theme for this grand celebration shall be that of Queen Cleopatra greeting Julius Caesar." "Oh, what rot!" said Shakespeare, rolling his eyes. "Indeed," said Kemp. "One would think that it was some elaborate court masque held in honor of the queen, herself!" "Very nearly so," said Burbage. "Godfrey Middleton seems intent on putting on a lavish spectacle in honor of his daughter, who is marrying into the nobility, thereby doubtless improving his own prospects for an eventual knighthood." "Ah, just what we need, more knights," Will Kemp said, puffing on his long clay pipe. "At the rate that knighthoods are being handed out these days, they shall soon be stacking them up like cordwood in the church." "Oh, and speaking of knights, there is to be a joust, as well," said Burbage. "A wedding joust?" said Shakespeare. "Well, why not? 'Tis an apt metaphor for the combative state of holy matrimony. Has adecision yet been made about which play shall be performed? Perhaps the groom, as Caesar, could be stabbed to death on stage while the bride, as Cleopatra, made a complete asp of herself in front of all the wedding guests." "I vote for that one," Speed said gravely, raising his tankard once again and quaffing it in a single swallow. "We have been asked to submit a number of suggestions for plays that would be appropriate to the occasion." Burbage said. Fleming added, "Master Godfrey, in his anxiety that everything should be just so, has apparantly appointed himself our personal Master of the Revels for this particular occasion." "We could perform The Unconstant Woman," Shakespeare said, with a straight face. Will Kemp snorted. "That should prove a popular choice with Master Middleton." The others chuckled. "You think perhaps The Holy State would be appropriate?" asked Bryan, seriously. "With Nashe's long, windy soliloquies and moralistic pedantry?" said Shakespeare. "Do you wish to entertain the wedding guests or stupify them all into a slumber?" "Well, then, what would you suggest, Will, as our aspiring resident poet?" Fleming asked, wryly. "Which play from among our vast repertoire do you suppose would be the best for such an occasion?" Fleming might have meant the remark somewhat in jest, thought Smythe, but at the same time, he marked the fact that no one laughed. It was the first time that anyone had suggested, seriously or not, that Will might one day hold such a position in their company and that no one laughed at the idea was evidence of just how much Shakespeare had risen in their general esteem. He felt pleased for his friend, but at the same time, he felt a little envious. "Well, to be serious for a moment--but only for a moment-I am not certain it is needful that our choice of play reflect on theoccasion," Shakespeare replied. "That sort of choice would not be without its risks, you know. After all, what gentleman would wish to see a group of motley players make comment, through their sport, upon his daughter's marriage? Were we to play something comedic concerning the general state of matrimony, then Middleton might feel that we were poking fun at his own family. On the other hand, if we chose something like Nashe's play to perform, for all its fine, moralistic sentiments and tone, then he might perceive his daughter and her husband were being preached to by their inferiors. Namely, ourselves." "Aye , he makes an excellent point," said Burbage, nodding. "While this shall not be a court performance, there shall nevertheless be a great many powerful and wealthy people in attendance. We want to make this occasion a memorable one, to all of them as well as Master Middleton, and not for all the wrong reasons." "Well, why not a comedy?" asked Kemp. "We could play something spirited and amusing that has naught to do with marriage, and yet would still entertain the better sort of people with its subject matter. The Honorable Prentice would be an excellent choice, methinks." In other words, something that would play more to his talents as the company's clown and jig-dancer, Smythe thought. It was a predictable response from Kemp, who liked anything that would showcase his abilities, but at the same time, it was not without merit. An idea suddenly struck him. "What about that new play you have been working on, Will?" he said, turning to Shakespeare. "You know the one, you have read me portions of it." "What new play?" asked Burbage, immediately interested. "You have been working on another adaptation?" Shakespeare glanced at Smythe with irritation. "Well, no ... not quite. 'Tis something new, entirely of my own composition ... ." His voice trailed off and he looked a bit uncomfortable. "Indeed?" said Fleming, raising his eyebrows. "What is the matter of it?" Shakespeare cleared his throat and took a sip of wine. He did not seem anxious to discuss it. Nevertheless, he answered Fleming's question. "It concerns a matter of identity," he said, "something I have been playing about with in a sort of desultory fashion." "Go on," said Burbage. "Tell us more. How does it begin?" Shakespeare paused a moment, collecting his thoughts. "Well ... it begins with an itinerant young tinker, an impoverished wastrel by the name of Christopher Sly, who is thrown out of an alehouse by his hostess for drunkenness and loutish behavior and for refusing to pay his bill ..." "A sly wastrel named Christopher?" said Fleming, smiling. "A bit of a dig at young Marlowe, perhaps?" Speed belched ponderously. "Sod Marlowe." "Bestill yourself, Robby," Burbage said. "Thus far, it seems a good beginning. Go on, Will. What happens next?" Shakespeare took another drink and cleared his throat once more. "Well, Sly staggers about and rails at her in a roaring, drunken speech in which he foolishly claims noble descent from the Norman conquerors and so forth, taking umbrage at her treatment of him ... ." "One could have some fun with that," interjected Kemp, clearly imagining himself in the role. " ... and then he falls into a drunken slumber in the road." Shakespeare continued, "whereon a lord and his hunting party arrive upon the scene. Finding him thus disposed--or indisposed, as the case may be--this lord, for want of some amusement, decides to play a trick upon the drunken tinker and instructs his retinue accordingly. They shall remove the tinker to this lord's estate, where they shall strip him of his clothing and place him in the lord's own bedchamber. All within the household are carefully instructed, when the tinker wakes, to treat him as if he were the lord himself who, having fallen into some madness for a time, had forgot himself andwas now miraculously and mercifully restored to his wits ... and to his loyal servants. And so, when the tinker comes to his senses, he is at first confused by all that happens, but soon comes to believe he truly is a lord, because all around him assure him it is so, even the lord himself, who plays the part of a servant." "Oh, I like it!" Burbage said. "It has great possibilities for witty banter and tomfoolery. I think we should submit this play to Master Middleton as our first choice! What say you, lads?" "Aye, 'tis a lighthearted and amusing sort of thing," said Bryan. "I can see how it would be received. I like it, too." Shakespeare looked dismayed. "But ... but, my friends ... the play is not yet finished!" "Well, we need not submit the entire book to Middleton for his approval," Burbage said. "I do not think that he would have the time or even the inclination to read it, in any event, what with all the preparations he must see to for the wedding celebration. A brief summary of the story should suffice." "Aye, a man of Master Middleton's position would not be bothered with trifling details," Fleming agreed. "There is quite enough there from what Will has already described to satisfy him, I should think, and if there should be anything in the final book he may find disagreeable, why, we could always change it in rehearsal, as we often do." "Indeed, it sounds like a fine idea to me," said Kemp, nodding with approval. "Put in a few songs, then add a jig or two, and it should prove just the thing to entertain the distinguished wedding party." Seeing the stricken expression on his roommate's face, Smythe suddenly realized that for all his good intentions, he had made a serious mistake, though he did not quite understand just what it was. Yet it seemed quite clear that what he had thought would be a welcome opportunity for his friend to have one of his own plays acted by the Queen's Men, and in front of an influential audience,at that, was instead regarded by him as a horrible disaster. And when he turned towards Smythe amidst the general discussion of how they might present his play, Smythe saw in his face a look that struck him to the quick. It was an expression of great alarm ... and of betrayal. Copyright (c) 2001 by Simon Hawke and William Fawcett & Associates Excerpted from The Slaying of the Shrew by Simon Hawke All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.