My class at school was set a project to write a story from the point of view of an audience member in the Globe theatre. This was mine.
I was used to being hit by now. My reflexes kicked in automatically as Master swung his cane at my head, wanting me to open his coach door for him. I scrabbled with the handle and bowled out, thankfully not on top of anyone, as had happened last time. (She’d been called Mary and was most gracious. She gave me an orange when Master wasn’t looking.)
Master forced himself through the door after me, mask dangling loosely from his hand. I took it before he could try to hit me again and strapped it over his pudgy features. He had the audacity to think that people would bother to recognise him.
The coach began trundling away as soon as we were out, and Master, unused to such rudeness was at a loss for words. Mistress had convinced him that acting as common as we could would add to our disguise. I almost pointed out that common people didn’t have servants, wear masks, or dress like overstuffed pigs, but I kept my mouth shut. Rule number one.
“Where’s this ruddy theatre then boy?”
Oh, because I know the ins and outs of London like the back of my hand. I did know, however, that we were in Southwark, the south bank of the river Thames. The driver had been talkative. “This way, Sir.”
I led him down a promising alley. Eyes- hollow, hungry, unfriendly- followed our every step. All this for a play. Rich people were strange.
All in all, it took us only five minutes to reach the Globe Theatre. It loomed over London, casting a shadow over us as we approached it. It wasn’t menacing as such- rather, it reminded me of a trusted yet strict school teacher. Not that I went to school. This unfortunate state of affairs was immediately brought home to me when I saw writing above the entrance that I could not read. I asked Master what it said, unusually forward for me, but Master glanced at them and swore he didn’t have time for servant’s questions. I heard a low voice at my elbow and an elderly man said softly, “Totus mundus agait histrionem. It’s Latin, my lad. The whole world is a playhouse.” I made to thank him but he was already lost to the press of the crowd.
Master pressed three pennies into my hand. My grip tightened on them involuntarily. That was more than I’d had the entire month, and he pulled it out of his pocket like it was nothing. I got five pounds a year, if I was lucky and managed to get some work on the side.
The doorman gave us a look as we approached, but I dropped a penny in his tin and finally, we were inside the great Globe.
I let out an involuntary gasp, something I’d thought only weepy heroines did, but then my behaviour could be excused at that point. The Globe Theatre was as big- no, bigger- than I’d imagined it. It stretched past my wildest imaginings and was open to the sky. A pleasant breeze caressed my face. I had heard tell that it was one hundred feet across, but that wasn’t possible, surely. No building could be that big.
The people seethed like an ocean of clothing- could there really be three thousand of them?- and the smell… to this day I shall never forget that smell. There was a small underlying scent of sweat, but layered on top of that was the roasting of good meat, the tang of oranges and fruits, the seductive scent of wine. I breathed in deep, relishing the short moments before my Master came to his senses.
I felt a sharp rap on the back of my head and sighed inwardly.
We advanced towards a stairwell, and I readied the pennies again. Clunk. We were let past. I wished we would stop on that layer- I may have been able to keep a penny for myself- but we moved on to yet another level. There was no way my master would be content to watch a play from the pit where the groundlings clustered. Clunk. There went my hope of some leisure of my own, but at least I was getting to see this. The others would be green with jealousy.
Master inserted himself into a seat with an unpleasant squelching noise. I couldn’t decide whether it came from sweat or lack of space, but was glad we were alone on our little balcony. I too made to sit, but Master hit me hard with his cane.
“No servant sits with his master, boy. Stand.” He tapped on the railings. I stood and leant on them. It was better than nothing.
It didn’t take long for a hush to descend. I wasn’t sure how the crowd in the yard knew we were to start, but their anticipation spread like a blanket of quiet over the entire crowd. We held our breath, ready to be amazed.
I wasn’t entirely sure what play we were seeing. I’d heard vague speculation among the other servants, but nothing solid. No facts.
I still don’t know what the play was, because I didn’t quite pay attention.
The first actor to appear onstage was about my age. He even looked like me- short brown hair, rubbing against the grain of fashion, a makeup free face, unusual in theatre.
He was beautiful.
It was as though, suspended in the air between us, was a mirror. I was the servant- dirty, ashamed, pride bruised and tucked into my Master’s moneybag like a few spare pennies. He was what I could have been. He strode about the stage like it was his- and to the audience, it was. We hung onto his every word, although I suppose I was the only one who was enraptured by the way he moved. I should move more like that- I tend to hunch, as though constantly coiled like a spring ready to jump from the way of a blow. His was an almost exotic elegance. At one point he strode out onto the apron stage, the platform which thrust right out into the crowd below him. God-like was he at that point and dirty hands stretched to him as if for benediction. I shivered at this blasphemy.
The play ended too soon. The audience ceased their jeering, cheering- all throughout they’d been making noise, almost drowning out the actors. I’d been at the point of throwing something at a particularly loud and vulgar man who’d been drowning out The Boy, but hadn’t been able to find anything suitably heavy. I’d had to settle for glaring at the back of his head in the intermission instead of buying food.
The jeers stopped as the actors bowed. Some were old men in dresses, others young men in young clothes that didn’t quite fit them. The Boy was at the end of the row, smiling. I found myself smiling too and stopped myself, lest master think me imprudent.
I’d expected William Shakespeare to come on stage and bow, but the actors left and people began streaming out into the fresher air. I was rather disappointed.
I have a name. “Yes Master?”
“Escort me backstage. I wish to meet this Shakespeare, this man who part owns this wonderful building.” His voice had taken on a mocking tone and he was clearly speaking more to himself than to me. “Wealthy, is he? We will see.”
I grumbled to myself as we descended the stairs. How was I to know how to get backstage? How was I to know how to meet with Shakespeare? How were we supposed to get back?
We stopped once in the yard. It was nearly empty, everyone having cleared out quickly to get back to their homes. Master rapped the ground with his cane impatiently. “I say!”
I wondered if anyone would notice me if I pretended to be a post.
“I say! Shakespeare!”
Had he no manners? Was he not bred a lord, or something along those lines? (I was never quite sure, and too embarrassed to ask.)
“May I help you, Sirs?”
Master and I turned at the sound of a voice. It was young, with a slight accent I couldn’t quite place.
I was suddenly glad for my sturdy boots, anchoring me firmly to the ground. It was The Boy- The Boy. The one who was me in a better world. I flushed, my eyes fixed firmly on the dirt beneath my feet.
“Yes.” Cue impudent Master. “I want to meet Shakespeare.”
The boy raised a brow- an impressive feat. Among the servants it was a badge of honour to be able to function brows like that. “Shall I call someone for you?”
“You do that, boy.”
The Boy quirked a grin that my Master didn’t see- he’d already turned superciliously away and was examining the stage with pursed lips. The Boy turned too, and hollered a name that I can’t remember- something odd, that I’d never heard before. A made-up man appeared before long, took one look at our little group, and gestured to Master. I made to follow, but was stopped by a sharp rap to the head.
“You stay here, boy.”
I have a name. You hear me? I have a name. “Yes, Master.”
They departed, leaving me with The Boy.
I turned angrily. “You have no right to call me that! I am a servant of- oh.” He was laughing.
“Then what shall I call you?”
I didn’t answer, but turned to the door with the express intention of waiting for Master. I didn’t want to meet this boy- I didn’t want him to be dragged down to my level. To know that there was someone out there who was living my better life was good enough- I didn’t want him to be real.
“I am Ezekiel.” He paused, waiting for an answer. I didn’t deign to give him one at first, but relented after a long enough period of silence.
“Isaac.” I paused for effect- perhaps watching a play had had an effect on me after all. “My Master’s servant.” I gave him a pointed glance. I am a servant, so please don’t speak to me. Leave now, before you’re tainted.
“You should consider joining our troupe.”
I jerked back as though stung. “I beg your pardon?”
A slip of paper was pressed hurriedly into my hand. “We’re always looking for new actors. It’s fun. It’s probably better than what you have now. You wouldn’t even have to play a girl.” He glanced around, then leaned so close to my ear I could feel his breath on my cheek. “I’d help you get a place. I hope you come.” He made to leave then turned around with a grin. “We’re doing Henry the Eighth next week- we’ve got a real cannon.”
And with that, he left.
Later, as I was wedged in uncomfortably close to my Master on the long ride home, him lamenting endlessly about how badly he was treated and how he didn’t get to meet Shakespeare after all, I clutched the slip of paper as if it were a lifeline.
In a way, I suppose it was.
I must leave this diary now. Ezekiel needs help setting up the cannon.