A new week and a new chapter to kick it off. Personal tragedy for our hero, who returns home, all his sins remembered.
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I stood before my own door in Stratford in the failing light, much wearied from hard travel having made in one day such trip that should take two, but in my new familiar with death did know it too well to think I had beat it hence, for in the unnatural calm of my household I could feel death’s residence.
I had returned to my rooms from St. Paul’s to word my son was now dire ill, my wife requesting I make home with all haste, but death doth travel with such speed as it pleases, and in such time as took her message to reach London and me to reach Stratford, it likely had already borne my son to such destination as now too much colored my thinking. So I stood fearful of my own doors, the varied melancholies of my recent experience such that my shames and my fears and knowledge of my petty avarices and banal secrets eroded such pretended honor as by which I once did enter this house as a worthy master. Seeming to sense that I had come this long distance but could of my own power come no further, the door opened, my Anne standing, her face some aged from our last meeting, and me knowing her heart likely aged much more.
“Our Hamnet is dead,” she said.
And only then was I able to take those final steps that brought me to the threshold to take her in my arms, but she was stiff and unyielding in my embrace and quick to break it, and we made into the house, my daughters waiting quiet, but their embrace more true, and so I held them long, some shamed that I did need from these children draw such comfort that I should, as their father, have offered instead.
“I received your message only this evening past and made such speed as I could,” I said to my wife, even in my own hearing of these empty words knowing I had near a week previous heard Hamnet ill, and had thought on it little since.
“He held life hard until just this morning,” she answered, “and oft asked after you. In your absence and the growing stature of your name, at least in compare to such simple folk as do still here abide, you had become some godlike in his eyes, and he did believe you held some power that would his ills reverse if he could outrun death until your arrival, and so I think you did in your neglect at least some prolong his life, and for that I do thank you. Now I have much wifely duty before his funeral and do beg your leave.”
She left to the kitchen, and I sat a long hour with my daughters, making a little talk of no consequence about such local matters as they could at their age understand, knowing well my son’s own body lay somewhere in these rooms, but fearing yet to look upon it, fearing also the company of my own wife and so did stick with these smaller women who were of such age that they could not all my sins remember or even yet understand.
In our chambers later, I shared news with Anne concerning the College of Heralds and the granting of our armorial bearings, thinking her knowing our son had died a gentleman, and that we could thus array his procession with his Coat of Arms might some little lighten her grieving.
“If such vain display doth please you, then by all means we shall have it,” she said, “as it is his right as your son. Your son. Though I did bear him and suckle him. Your son. Though I have these several years hence both fathered and mothered him. Your son. Though I did these last days comfort him and wipe the pestilence of fever from his brow and clean his filth as he was too weak to use the pot and try make light his fears in the press of death and did listen to him in his last breath ask instead for you. Your son. And so yes, such glories as you have won our name in your distant strivings, by all means, let us make them public so that all may know how well you loved Hamnet and that all may know him your son.”
Her face was bleached with scorn. “But your father will be pleased. And he has been most kind to us, at for that small mercy at least I do true thank you.”
I felt such burn of anger that I knew be kindled more by the truth of her words than by the hurt of her saying them.
“I had thought this such time as a husband and wife might find in each other comfort,” I answered. “And instead you give me venom.”
She turned to the chest nearest her, taking from it a paper which she threw on our bed. The pamphlet. “Such venom as this, which I only yesterday did receive so as to lighten those final hours in which I watched your son die?”
I knew sure she could see in my face the truth of it, and stood mouth agape trying to imagine what words could make safe passage and finding none.
“The great Shakespeare, whose quill pens such speech as to make men laugh or cry or quail or swell with pride, all as he likes it, stands dumb in the face of a simple woman? You, who have such words as to make young girls surrender first their virtue and then their lives have none to answer this commoner, made in her abandonment no longer even wife, but just maid and nurse?”
“Anne, I . . .”
She spun, shaking her head. “No sir, please. Prithee silence some small while longer so I can still clear have my say, for once you gain you speech, it will sure flow such that I can hold mine own thoughts clear no more, but instead will be such clouded in your arguments as to doubt all I know be true, and then must also hate myself as I do now so rightly hate you.”
She paced by our bed some moment, her lips moving, but no words issuing forth, as if keeping her on congress, but then again did turn and speak.
“Though I be some years your senior, I know you have long thought me such fool for my poor schooling and so weak as my standing as woman would require that you thought I could neither know nor bear the truths of this world. But lest you think this so, I tell you now true that I understand well men’s lusts and their weaknesses and never did imagine that you could live so long apart and not of occasion seek some satisfaction. I knew this true at some hurt, but did never speak it, nor withhold from you my wifely duty during any time when you sojourned here, nor even, again in truth, let it much diminish mine own affection for you, which was true. And being a woman and thus in truth stronger, so was I true.”
She was quiet again, again pacing, her silent speech with herself continuing as if in rehearsal. And then stopping again, facing away this time, speaking again.
“And I do know what marriage means. It is not in common a matter of heart but a matter of office and dowry, such that in usual a wife may share a name and bed and progeny, and still be in her husband’s mind much like his cow or barn, perhaps more valuable than the former, cows being oft short lived, but likely in value held lighter than the barn as it will the next cow contain, and the next. And while there may be some blandishment in courting, a woman does know her place.”
She turned toward me, her face now awash in tears which I had not heard in her speaking, as if she had become such in custom of weeping that she did it now without sign or notice, but instead like breathing, as if grief were now not some transient affliction, but instead a true part of her being.
“But Will, you did make me believe it other. Against my own heart and mind, me being even in our courting of sufficient age to know the nature of the wifely office, you did with such constant sweetness and such jeweled words have me think myself special, and thus us special, and thus love possible, even so that I did grant my nakedness and favors and heart and soul unto you even before our marriage, thinking in your care their keeping safe, when I could have held some back as my own and thus have those defenses that other women hold to make this insult less dear. Instead I am unarmed and unarmored and feel the barb of each sling and arrow total and to the bone.”
And she turned and paced again into another rehearsal, my heart already bleeding from her deft performance, but me daring not speak, knowing I owed her silent attention to all such as she had want to say, thinking that I had in recent days my own soul examined, chiseling away at that false statue of self that was my previous imagining to find instead this much lesser and flawed figure with which I must now reconcile, but in her words feeling not the chisel, but a hammer that showed me not just flawed, but reduced complete to some worthless gravel. She continued.
“When I gave myself to you complete and in secret and as yet unwed, you were simply son to a glover, though with much wit, and so I did imagine you would a witty glover be, and me a glover’s wife, and that fitted me fine, Will, as glove to my hand. But you found this new ambition, and as I know that a man will to his ambitions cleave as he will to no woman, I let thee go, and not with any hesitation, but instead my blessing, even knowing at that cost would sure exact. And while I never supposed you would be complete faithful, you did well maintain the comfort of our household and increased its wealth, have when at home treated me with such tenderness as you had in youth, and so I supposed that you did care for me in such best fashion as you could manage, and felt I could expect no more from any husband.”
She snatched the pamphlet up again from the bed. “But in these particulars I do not read a man seeking convenient solace from such place as he might in private find it, but instead in public pursuit of some younger thing, some better thing than that of his having or experience, a man caring more for his lust than for his reputation. Or mine. Or, then, for me.”
She let the pamphlet fall to the floor. “But your son is dead and while I know now you have no true heart for me, I do believe you had some for him, and so now you in your pain for him seek my comfort, none other being available.” She pulled her gown over her head and stood before me naked, her hands to her sides, those tears that still did stream running from her face to her neck to her breasts to her belly, her breasts now sagged, her belly showing the cost of her children and her age, and her thatch showing half gray. “I do true understand my wifely office, sir, and cannot in law withhold it, but do warn you that comfort is a matter of heart and not of flesh, and as I have no heart left for you, I have also no comfort, and I am sure this aging sack of skin doth much pale in compare to such virginal pleasures as you have late received, but take of it what you will. Just know that you do take. For nothing is offered.”
And she stood still and naked before me, her speech clear finished and in both form and content better than any with which I could answer.
“I will not insult the further Anne, with any claim that what you read be false,” I said.
“I am most gracious thankful for your kind favor, my lord,” she answered.
“Nor will I try to excuse the matter, having thought on it much and suffered for it dear these few days hence.”
“The girl then, being much fortuned to be dead and thus beyond such agonies as no doubt you have borne, unless such rules of hell as we have been told be true, but even then her suffering sure be no equal to such that your fine mind must be able to invent for itself.”
“Anne, I do not wish to argue the matter with you, for I have no good words to make my wrong be right or even seem so, though I will have you know that the beauty I beheld in that poor girl that I full admit I did poorly use was a mirror of thine own and of that fair affection we did taste so sweet in our youth. And so, while you may true blame my lust, it was a memory of such lust as you did once inspire, your favor having been to my taste so sweet that my heart had hungered it for all the years of my absence. And so I sought in this girl a surrogate for our own love, not just such trivial satisfaction as might some pent need relieve, but instead that intimate congress that I have, only with you, ever known. And I was a fool to think I might find it in any arms other, which I did almost immediate realize, and then did take that girl’s favors no more, at which she realized that she could not have my love as some other did already hold it entire, and it was in despair of this that she chose her end.”
For a short moment, the fierceness that had so informed Anne’s features softened such that I imagined my words had found some purchase, but then her aspect changed to such sadness that did trouble my heart even more, for to have earned Anne’s hate did hurt me dear, but to know myself also to be the instrument of this grief did cut much deeper.
“I finally understand the truth of you, Will. I had imagined you words’ true master, but in truth you are their slave. Such lies as you just uttered you believe be true, as any idea you can frame in words claims equal credit for you with every other. So if you can by some trick of poetry say night be bright and morning in its mourning be dark, you are so joyed with your agile wit and the music of those words that you hold them true, even as you burn a candle to write them, night in fact being night and no other. And so, all these years when I did hold you true as I had never sensed you false, it was only that you could not feel yourself false, your own pride being such that you imagined any phrase of your creation must so please God, your hand being such akin to his own, that it could hold no lie, and so your deceptions were much complete, you having first so complete deceived yourself. Oh Will, you have stopped my hate and made it now full grief, for I had believed myself betrayed, and betrayal, being the retraction of such love as once was offered does hatred make. But I now know that such love was not in truth ever offered, but I was even in those sweet remembered days of youth just one figment of your imagining, and no more real or false than are those characters with which you have peopled the admitted stages of your life, for in your mind, all life is but a stage, and we poor players that do there strut and fret our hour at the mercy of your imaginings.”
She stooped, retrieved her gown, and dressed herself, and then shook her head at me slow as if at a child she had learned was not in fact willful but failed at its lessons as it had no gift for them.
“Will, I prithee forgive my harshness, for I no longer have strength for it and must save such strength as I do yet still hold to bear my shame.”
And I, too, now to tears. “I hope your judgment wrong, but current have no answer for it. But will tell you this in plain and in words tricked with no poetry. You have no shame to bear, as any evil either current or past is mine alone, you only ever having been true to me and gentle, and in your office as either wife or mother always a faithful servant of your duties.”
She smiled slight, as if expecting my ignorance. “As if my shame was yours to forgive. As if, had I made you cuckhold, you could walk proud through town, my having said you hold no shame. As if your daughters could say to their tormentors to hold their tongues, you having called their barbs dull.”
I looked down at the floor, upon that pamphlet whose injuries I had counted, until this night only slight. “So this has not been received by you alone?”
“You must at least feel true grief for your son to not have felt some eyes upon you on your arrival, as I have felt them burn deep each time I even pass a window.”
“Surely our friends must pay this little account, such Puritan antics being in London quite common, and, their vile intent familiar, their contents also being much discounted. This will quick pass, what scandal it offers melting like some spring snow, and the public’s eye drawn to the scandal next and the scandal next.”
“Have you been gone from Stratford so long as to forget its climate? It does not snow here so oft as it does in London, such weather as this being unnatural to these climes and so it will be the conversation for some years.”
I considered this careful. “Anne, I do in my heart and in your sight bear full all guilt in this that I have earned, and will too willful bear such public shame and scorn as to it attaches if that be your will. But if it will your own burden relieve, and that of our daughters, then I do have such art of persuasion to have all believe these charges false, for even here most must know this sort of mischief common in London, and oft directed at those of my art.”
Anne sat on the bed, looking much wearied, her tears finally stopped and all feeling fled her face which now laid flat and barren.
“And so you make me share your shame. Knowing that in affection for my daughters, I will not have them bear this and so must assent to your lie and, in my assent, be party to it, admitting that first willful chink to my honor. And so I say yes. Go. Be false to our neighbors and with my blessing.”
I nodded. “Any lie I tell accrues to my honor, not yours.”
She smiled weakly. “For that lie at least I thank you. But the hour is late. I am much tired and we must come morning bury our son. I ask you let me sleep, and alone, as my sorrow will sufficient fill this bed.”
Alone in that room normal used for guests, I sat awake long that night, finally giving up hope of sleep and did fancy for some time that I could end this seeming endless grief as my life had late become, my dagger near and my heart feeling such that it would, I think, welcome the company of the blade.
And I thought it queer how that despair I first had felt just one night past when I was sure my death at hand, which at the time did seem so oppressive and so fearful now seemed so seductive. How somehow knowing such horrors as at the end did us all await made the thought of having to bear those horrors over long years so harsh that the idea of surrendering to them immediate and hoping that, in that surrender, we might escape our consciousness, which was the only avenue by which such fears could reach us, and thus, by surrendering to death instead defeat it seem thus sweet.
And then knew, too, in this vain exercise, the truth of my wife’s words, that my mind would make true any such that I did think, and then make it false and then make it both, and that whether from cowardice or hope or stubbornness or just simple sloth, I would not take arms against my see of trouble and by opposing end them.
So I instead took my quill and sold my words to my work, a character I had now decided to name in honor almost after my son asking a question for which I had no answer. To be or not to be . . .