First page of the book

Prologue

After the sound of three clarion calls, the prologue emerges in his black velvet cloak.

He proclaims on the stage with only a stack of books and a décor of a white timbered wall.

When the drummers on the balcony start to play in the three–quarter time, the curtains open and I come up in my taffeta costume with the crisp, clean collar and white stockings.

I stomp on the boards with my heels to the rhythm of the drums and stare into the gaping maw of the audience. I take off my hat and spread my arms wide.

To the fast beat of the drummers I call out in a loud voice:

‘My name is William Shakespeare, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564’

I bow, walk stately backwards and disappear behind the scenery on the right

After a daring silence I come out on the left and sit upon the stack of books.

I now let my voice lift an octave higher: ‘My name is William Flut, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564.’

My own laughter rolls through the room and washes against a rock of incomprehension.

‘My pieces are performed all over the world and they think they know everything about me, where and when I was born, where and when I would die.’ I bow to them and with a jaunty wave I leave the stage.

The drumming dies away while in the background, a large stage set piece of the Globe Theatre is pushed forward.

Scene 1

In 1609, the Plague is sweeping through London again. Outside the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames there there is only one horse drawn carriage. My co-actor Richard helps me to close the big doors of the theatre, again by order of the government.

We carry my travel chest to the carriage where the coachman has his face half covered his face with a black cloth.

‘To the docks please!’

When the whip cracks, I turn once more to look back at the large wooden amphitheater that has recently been covered with plaster and has a thatched roof. On this summer’s day we drive past the flowering rose gardens. Further on the stench from the soap factories and the tanneries is quite unbearable. I give my colleague a fragrant sprig of thyme to hold in front of his face and I tie my own scarf across my nose .

At the brothels and the arenas where bears and bulls are bitten by dogs for entertainment , it is completely deserted. The horse’s hooves clatter loudly as we cross London Bridge and we turn left onto Lower Thames Street. The stench seems to get even worse here.

‘William, look, corpses on the street and even dead children in the porche doorways!’

The whip flicks and the horse goes from trot to canter.

‘Yes, let’s get out of here! This is terrible!’

After fifteen minutes, the carriage stops at a busy intersection. Here I get off and Richard will travel on to join our theatre company ‘The King’s Men’. By ship, the group will sail along the coastal towns to give performances in taverns and in covered courtyards. We say goodbye and I step into a larger carriage with several other passengers, heading towards Gateway. Everyone looks straight ahead and keeps their nose wrapped and mouth covered. In the harbour I am told that a large galleon, the ‘Cedo Nulli’ will sail soon today. I fear the officials like the Plague; in the hollow heels of my boots gold nuggets wrapped in wool are hidden. My father, a glove maker, did this very ingeniously. Only by turning sideways, you can loosen the heels. If officials discover that you are carrying out a lot of money, it will be unceremoniously taken from you. It happened to my hero Erasmus, Thomas More’s best friend.

I stay calm and converse with the person behind me but can hardly suppress the shaking and sweating of my body.

“Name?”

“William Shakespeare.”

‘Destination?’

‘The Netherlands and via Rotterdam, Delfshaven to Tergouw.’

By answering extensively, I hope to give the impression that I have nothing to hide. This time I have to take off my wamtube and boots. I put my hat on the shafts of my boots and after the search, the sheriffs inspect my purse. Books, goose feathers, rolls of paper, ink pots, nothing remains untouched. I pretend that I don’t care about them rummaging through my belongings. I stand half with my back turned to the officials, talking to a fellow traveler about contemporary theatre performances. Suddenly the men are tapping loudly with my wooden pipe molds on the table.

‘Weapon flasks?’

‘No gentlemen, I use these wooden moulds to make pipes. There in that leather rag is the clay. Wait, I’ll put a white-baked pipe in half a mold for you to see.’

‘Is there gunpowder in those bags?’

‘Hemp seed gentlemen!’

They look at me sharply again and probably judge me as an average peddler. Then I am allowed to finally go on board. I drag my old sailor’s travel chest towards the ship where a porter helps me onto the gangway. I walk further along the deck and descend to the hold where I lower myself exhausted into my hammock.