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A Forced Marriage

a Shakespearean romancelet based upon the bare genealogical facts of an ancestor chosen at random.


Jane Seyliard

  married to Sir Richard Cotton, 1578, in St. Olave’s Jewry, London.

  died about 1593


     “Sir Richard!  You mustn’t!”  Jane hissed, pushing her grasping, middle-aged suitor away as vigorously as one could push a wealthy, if debauched, Knight of Queen Elizabeth’s Realm, which was not very vigorously at all.

     A word from Sir Richard to the Queen could close down the playhouses.  London was already on edge with rumors of a Spanish Armada sailing for England’s southern coasts.  Attendance was down in the playhouses, what with half the town fleeing inland, and the other half rushing to Dover, hoping to watch a sea battle.

     Jane had become Sir Richard’s mistress when the war scare caused his father’s household to flee to their Midlands estates.  The 40 year-old knight of the realm, let loose upon London with his father’s money, yet without his father’s watchful eye, had launched upon a spree of debauchery which led one night to his appearance at her tenement door, attended by armed guards and an irresistible proposition.

     How could she refuse?  She was hungry.  The whole acting troupe was hungry.  Sir Richard’s patronage could see them through the season, if she kept his favor.  Jane had to become the fat old knight’s lover; no matter that she loathed him, no matter that she ridiculed him when she ate with Will, the young pickpocket who worked the playhouse.

     Will was hungry too.  When he picked a pocket in these hard times, he stole food.  He shared his stolen rolls and meat-pies with Jane backstage between performances.  When times were better, Will stole coins from gentleman’s purses and jewels from noblewomen’s clothes.  Sometimes Jane would go out on the streets with the child, posing as his mother.  Dressed in costume finery borrowed from the theater, with the freshly scrubbed young master by her side, no one ever suspected them of their crimes.

     What Will liked to steal most, however, was books.  He would bring them to Jane’s corner of the croft-holder’s tenement she shared with other members of the troupe.  The actors would teach the two to read by acting out and dramatically declaiming passages from the pilfered printed works, and steal plot ideas from the juicy revelations they found in stolen private journals.

     “Richard!  You mustn’t!”  Jane cried again, struggling for real this time.

     “I can, Woman, and I will!”  the sweaty knight growled.  “The court is off to war.  The city is deserted.  You will marry me in St. Olave’s, Jewry, this very afternoon!”

     “But, Sir!”  the young woman pleaded, her pushing fists turned to a desperate grasping at the jeweled lapels of the debauched knight’s greasy cloak.

     “You cannot marry me, a commoner, a penniless woman, a bawdy woman,” and here Jane sobbed in shame, “A woman of the theater!  What will your father say?  What will your father do?  You cannot possibly marry me!”

     “You will be my consummated wife long before my father returns from the Midlands.  From that moment, you will have no past before me.  You will have no existence beyond me.  You will be the Lady Cotton!  The deed will be done.”

     “But what if I don’t desire the deed be done?” Jane thought as her foul knight grasped her arm and kissed her roughly on the lips.  His sour breath nearly made her faint, made her helpless as Sir Richard’s armed guards carried her roughly from the theater, to become the unhappy Lady Cotton.

     Only Will, the pickpocket, saw them carry her away.  Only Will, the reader, saw her tears.  It was Will, the future poet, who watched her go.  It was Will, the broken-hearted, who said, “I will not forget you, my dark lady.  I will never desert you, pretty Jane.”

     It was Will, the future playwright, who, upon her death in 1592 from loneliness, said,  “I will never write poetry again!  I will be a hack of the theater; a piggy, greedy, glover’s son.  I will suffer as my dark lady suffered, with a surfeit of riches and a dearth of love.”

     …and so became Will Shakespeare.   


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