‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ – A Playlet

2019 Colorado Shakespeare Festival – A Summer of Romance, Friendship, and Personal Loss

All 2019 CSF plays, from Elizabeth’s reign, are romances with some of his strongest women heroines taking the lead. The plays, Twelfth Night (1601), As You Like It (1599),  Romeo and Juliet (1596) are premiering this season in reverse chronological order.

Part I – Twelfth Night ends with a song ‘When that I was a Little Tiny Boy, the Wind and the Rain … A great while Ago the World Begun, With hey, ho, the Wind and the Rain…’. The last year of the Elizabethan era, the story of his life, her (Eliza’s) reign.

Will delves deep into personal loss and that of his friend and Eliza’s favorite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The second performance of the play took place on Candlemas night, February 1602, the anniversary of the baptism by water of Will and Anne’s twins, on the day commemorating the ancient Jewish ritual of Mary’s presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith, is still mourning her brother, Hamnet, having died 5 years before at 11 years, when Will was traveling that summer.

Will’s heroine in the play, Viola, takes on her twin brother’s identity, thinking he has drowned in the violent storm that has cast her on the coast of Illyria. Olivia, having also lost both father and brother, like unto his Queen falls, falls for her anagram, the disguised Viola. Meanwhile a third anagram, Malvolio, imprisoned like the fallen favorite, Essex, while his Queen translates the play for his substitute, Italian suitor for his Eliza’s favor, fumes in a ‘madhouse’ as hid friend described it in a letter, plotting rebellion, a political suicide, that will lead to his execution.

But the first night of Twelfth Night almost surely took place just one year before on Twelfth Night 1601 in the weeks leading up to the abortive Essex Rebellion and the visit of the Don Virgonio Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, of Italy, a distant cousin of Elizabeth whom she entertains by her side at the play that night.

One year later the play on Candlemas takes place at Middle Temple only yards from Essex House and from the place where Shakespeare began the story shadowing the last decade of civil strife between Essex and his rivals, a shadowing began in Middle Temple’s Rose Garden with the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, the name he gave to the earlier English Civil Wars in his first plays about Henry VI.

Was the performance on Candlemas, 1602 at Middle Temple, for Will, a moment of personal closure for his family and his friend whom he had attempted one last time to save the previous year?

Read the second part, Background Notes, before seeing the play at CSF.    

A Fortnight Before the First Night of Twelfth Night

A room at the backside of the Globe with a large entrance from the street; Will Shakespeare bicycles in stage right through the open door, grabs his traveling pack, heads over to his writing desk, against the wall, center left, he puts the pack down and standing begins going through the letters on his desk. The year is 1600, the month November, late afternoon, two months before the first production of Twelfth Night, three before the abortive Essex Rebellion, four before the end of an era with the Earl’s execution at The Tower.

Richard Burbage a man of large stature and friendly countenance, the lead actor of Shakespeare’s company and his best friend in London enters from upstage right, walks briskly over to Will.  Will turns and as they embrace as old friends who have gone through a great deal together.

Burbage: Will! back from Stratford!  We were hoping to see you soon. How was it?

Will: What. Oh …. How are things here at the Globe?

Burbage: Great, we’ve been packing them in 2000 each night.

Will: Holding together is it? ……..The building I mean

Burbage:  Yes.  All the timbers are.  Some drainage problems in the pit.  No time for the groundlings to go out between acts to relieve themselves, but the nut shells dropped every night provides a conduit for the piss

Will: Well, I guess that we’re lucky that our late leader and family of our chief sharer/owners come from the building trades, a true profession of joiners.

Burbage: Yes and proud of it. We’ll always remember carrying the theater in pieces on our backs over the Thames here like Samson, from Shoreditch to Southwark, won’t we.  ……Ha .. ’bout two years ago in the dead of winter  …. (then seriously) So! How are things back in Stratford?

Will:  Not so good.  A little out of joint you might say.

Burbage:  Your father ….

Will: Yes, he is starting to fail and I fear …….and the younger one, Judith

B:  Yes, I know the feeling …. Contemplating a big hole in one’s life, no elder Burbage to guide you to the right decisions

Will: I’m only so glad we finally got the business of the family coat of arms completed.  It means so much to him … and to me.  Will and John Shakespeare, Gentlemen at last.

B: And Anne and the younger ones …. you were about to say?

W: Anne, Mary and Susana will be all right but Judith .. Judith, she hasn’t still got over the death of her brother though it’s been four years….  and myself not very much of a presence  … more like a shadow coming and going, my father has been the only male prop  ….. You know how it is with …

B: twins …. Yes there is that special bond there as if each could feel the pain directly of the other even past the grave.

Will: And I didn’t make it back until the last from Kent ….. not realizing how bad it was getting so quickly and all that business with Lord Cobham suddenly taking over the company for that year

B: Made everyone especially nervous with his taking offence at your having named the fat knight after his grand ancestor; having to make the quick change in the tiring room from Oldcastle to Falstaff.

Will: You learn one great lesson.  Be careful who you might offend.  They might turn out to run your company one day

B:  So you were saying ….

Will: Did I tell you how much she needed us all there? 

B: The storm?

Will: Yes the storm.  One night that August shortly after Hamnet’s burial this storm came through.  Thunder and lightning but especially the thunder.  You know how it is in the hill country around Stratford.

B: You’ve told me, but it’s hard to imagine.

Will: The Cotswolds act like a giant reverberating bowl with your head in it.  Someone hits it with a hammer, the sound is magnified ten fold and absolutely frightening.  This was the worst I had ever heard.  Anne sent me immediately up to Judith.  Sussana was OK with her mother.

B: It’s always difficult in those first days.

Will:  I began to make up this story about a father and a daughter exiled from someplace in Italy cast away in a small boat in the Mediterranean just far enough away from England to distract her, stranded on a deserted island with only a few possessions and his prize books.

B: Books! ….Books, that’s a Will Shakespeare special for you.  I suppose one of those was your Ovid?

Will: Yes…. As a matter of fact it was!. ……Anyway the story calmed her down…. I embellished on the one about Ceyx and Alcyone.

B: The one with the terrible storm and Juno’s messengers coming to Alcyone in her dreams at night to break the news gently about Ceyx’s drowning? 

Will: You know, Dick, that Ovid’s story was based on his own experience with a storm in the Aegean on his way to his own exile?  But no mind …. I remember how the story comforted Judith and how the magic power of sleep could cure all pain and ills and inner tempests and release us and help us maintain contact with our loved ones through our dreams.

B; And that helped her through it all?

Will: At least through that night.  She began to nod and then dozed off and I just sat there for a very, very long time.  It helped establish a bond that wasn’t there before to begin to replace the one she had, we both had, …lost.

B: Sounds entrancing.  Maybe you can use that story someday if you run out of material for a play.  Well …look Will, settle down for a bit.  We’ll need to get down to business pretty quick with the Christmas schedule at Court and especially the Twelfth Night festivities.

Will: Have we any ideas yet?

B: No but George Carey, ….I mean Lord Hunsdon’s  been up to see the Queen this morning to find out.  He should be back shortly,

….and I hear that our Eliza wants a new play, one she hasn’t seen before … (hesitant, anticipating Will’s reaction) short notice, I know, and no fat knight to fill in for a fortnight …

Will: (Will is taken aback, but then seems to regain his composure as his mind begins to search) … Hmm … seems like the Queen was expecting a number of visiting dignitaries when I was about to leave for Stratford.

B: Yes, the new ambassador from Muscovy from Boris Gudonov, his master, the one who lately seized the throne after the death of the feeble-minded Tsar, a worthier act to follow that of Ivan the terrible, than the father’s natural son. 

Will: Sounds like quite a forbidding character just from the name.

B: Yes I heard that he’s tying the peasants back to the soil as serfs.

Will: Backtracking, isn’t he, from where we have been headed since 1300?

B: But the Queen needs allies even in far off barbaric Russia, I’m told, with the Danish power controlling the Baltic fisheries and now with James’ Scotch marriage alliance with them. We’ll have a league with Muscovy confirmed over bread and salt by Twelfth Night.

Will: We might be able to come up with some new material there.  Something different from the play we saw at the Temple a few years ago when we were performing Errors…

B: Or just take another pass through your revisions of the Navarre play

Will: What else?

B: Something new and unexpected.  The Queen has a visitor from Italy.  Don Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano.  Came over from France after the marriage …. you know another French alliance …. This time between Navarre, himself, and the House of Medici.  Don’t know much about him yet, the Duke, that is, but he seems to be a distant relative to her Majesty, come ask her support, I hear, for his title to his little dukedom back in Italy

Will: H’mm Italian; need to refresh my store of memories here.  ……What else are you not telling me, Richard ….?

B:  Er … they say Orsino ‘ill be her at her side, her special guest at the Twelfth Night festivities, a favorite to replace you know who ….

Will: At last a more pliant ‘suitor’ … and I don’t suppose he knows a word of English, so she will need to translate for him while we perform … this could prove to be very interesting … see what more you can find out …..

So what is happening to the former prisoner of Essex House now that the Queen denied him the renewal of the revenues he’s had for ten years from the duties on sweet wines.

B: We’ll talk later about that. …..Nothing good will come of it, the poor Earl is ruined like your precious Jew, Shylock. 

Will: (not letting it go ….reacting to that last remark) You think I shouldn’t have let that manuscript of the play out to the printer? 

B: With that little addition as the Jew exited the courtroom? “Nay take my life and all! …. You take my house when you do take the prop that doth sustain my house’…..

Will:  Well …..

B: Timing is all isn’t it? ……playing with politics isn’t safe, especially when the Queen and Essex are at war and Mr. Secretary’s watching from behind the arras. 

Will: And I suppose you’re right telling me the advice came a little late for the Earl ….. if  he didn’t get it from his own best friend Francis all those attempts we and he worked on him since France, Gray’s Inn, poor King Richard, the Venetian tale   … from seeing the plays, stumbling out of the Irish bog that way and surprising the Queen, half undressed, in her chamber, like Acteon in the headlights …. Got his rasher of bacon over-cooked again.

B: Will! …..We’ve been so careful , but knocking twice on the same door of the Queen’s affairs, so close in time … wasn’t that taking too many chances?  There’s more than just you, your calling ….to think about…

Will: You mean ….

B: Yes me, ‘your sweet Prince …

Will:  (half listening fumbling about on his writing desk) It seems I saw a letter here from Ireland concerning Sir John Harrington, the Queen’s godson, you know, that seems to concern the Earl.

B: Will, Will!!! what …..you’re not ……   Amelia was right, you know Will, you can’t change the world alone …….. 

Will: (surprised)  Why have you seen my dark lady bitch lately …excuse me … my constant critic of the feminine gender

B: Yes …..just briefly near Whitehall … we exchanged a few words  ….she was your better part once, your best friend if I remember ……..

Will:  So you’ve told me ….

B:  Will! Listen!  I don’t want to spend my last days in exile with your Ovid and the wild Goths in some frontier settlement of the Roman Empire … please!!

Will: All right then, the two of you will work on poor Will til he finally sees the light

B: For your own good … and all of us … for all the good it will do anyway for the Earl

Will: Well just an idea for now ….. You’ll tell me more …..Look maybe you’re right, my Horatio, need to think about it, let’s talk about this later in private.

As Burbage starts to leave the way he came in, somewhat frustrated with Will.

B: Will! … Remember, our Eliza will be at the top of her game!  Translating the action for that young Italian Duke, she’ll be paying close attention. 

If you must, be gentle Will!  Just remember what I told you last month, how Ben’s Cynthia’s Revels was turned down, back in the doghouse, he is.  That’s not Will Shakespeare’s style, that’s why she’s taken more advice from you than any other.

Will sits down again fumbling through and reading through letters on his desk.  He picks up one particular one perusing it for a while, looking a bit worried, reading out loud, “He wrote to me and said and I quote exactly ‘It was like a mad house …. the wild desperate talk of all his friends … I fled from there as fast as I could but as his best friend I had to write to you ….”  Then Will opens a book and finding something that catches his interest he begins to read intensely…… ‘a girl caught in a storm, almost drowns, assumes the identity of her brother to secretly pursue the Duke she loves, so skilled she attracts a lady’s attention, almost tragically’ …. he picks up a quill pen, dips it into the ink and begins to write with a deliberate intensity apparent to the audience. He begins to read his notes out slowly loud to himself…..  

Hmm … Viola, Malvolio, those will go nicely with Olivia … a good, world turned upside down, Twelfth Night story, an anagram jumbled up in the reflection of Narcissus’ pool and Echo’s cave … Maybe, my friend Burbage, you are right to caution me.  If she’s on her mark, we can’t mention our heroine’s name too early in the play; have her see how her older self’s fallen in love with her younger image and turn her to think too soon of the poor mad Earl … mustn’t follow Ben’s lead   

But we’ve come so far together, the Earl, Southampton, Mountjoy and I since those first days, the Night of Errors at Gray’s when we tried to save my poor cousin Southwell and by call to toleration heal the breach of the two twins of the Church  …. One last attempt Will for all it might be worth

The room darkens to indicate the passage of time in the late afternoon, then brightens as if candles had lit the early evening.  The sun, when it shines at all in London in winter, begins to set around three in the afternoon

Suddenly Burbage and Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain who is the nominal sponsor of Shakespeare’s and Burbage’s Acting company and ultimately oversees the licensing of plays enter the room together. Will Shakespeare stands to greet them, a rough manuscript outline of the story in his hand.

Coming soon: PART II – Twelfth Night – BACK GROUND NOTES

About Sid Fox

Sid Fox renewed his interest and study from his Hebrew School days (where he was inspired by Deborah Pessin's insightful series 'The Story of the Jewish People') when he read James Michener's "The Source". Sid eventually taught a two semester Sunday class for adults at their home when their children were at Sunday School. It was based on 15 years study of the Bible, the three hundred years of modern research and Biblical Archaeology areas he continued to pursue as he branched out to Shakespeare, the Classics and other interests.

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