We came out of the courtyard into another alley. Shakespeare, of course, was there.
He led us back to the green and we sat together there, him on a stone at the green’s edge, Tim and I on the grass in front of him.
Shakespeare in his prime – I guess. A man in his late thirties, or early forties, prematurely balding, with a little dark beard, lively, compassionate eyes, a rather swelling, spreading figure, but a general activity about his demeanour and presence. A figure of note.
“You should know first that I am no philosopher, by which I mean that I am not a man of system and rigour. I have no coherent theory to unfold. I like to get involved, to get into the heart of things, to live life, live lives. I do not stand back and abstract general lessons. That said, I do feel that certain attitudes, certain approaches, if you will, have emerged as I have developed my perspectives thorough my work. So I might be able to outline some useful ways forward for you. I might.”
He paused, looked mildly on us, seemed to be wondering about us. “I really want to ask you question,” he said, at last, “but I know that’s not why you’re here, so … give me a word or two to contemplate, and we will be fair set. He who slakes my thirst with a few precious drops, I will try to help to free his mind.”
“I do not know what to say,” I muttered.
“Tell me what drives you, quickly, just one idea that leaps to you.”
“The need to understand who I am,” I said, then paused and blushed.
“And you?” Shakespeare said, looking curiously at Tim.
“Me …” Tim hesitated.
“No,” Shakespeare said, smiling benevolently. “Don’t over-think it. Just say …”
“I’m looking for forgiveness,” Tim said, then scrunched his face up in an odd contortion, looking as if he’d just bitten into a particularly tart lemon.
“Thank you – I’ll use that. Now, what can I tell you? We have your language, I suppose. But in my time, there were not so many words to define our preferences. But let’s start with Marlowe – flamboyant sodomite, we may have termed him. Gay icon, I think you prefer. He was magnificently perverse, marvellously out there, unconventional, rebellious, dangerous, absurd. He lit up the night with talk alone. You were in his power, under his spell as soon as you were in his company. The wit was relentless; everything he said sounded like an extraordinary soliloquy from a masterpiece. It really was exhausting to be with him; he wore you out with his endless exuberance. I felt shabby, slow-witted, ordinary in his shadow. But he was also sensitive, sympathetic, considerate – at times. He would take me aside and prompt me, encourage me, talk me up. He made me believe that I could write like he wrote – that was the height of my ambition to begin with. When it came to the bedroom, he was insistent, determined. ‘Any man who does not love boys is a fool, a scoundrel, a dullard,’ he would demand. He saw it as a mark of refinement, of connoisseurship to be able to appreciate male beauty. And I was convinced. With Marlowe, you were always convinced. When he died, I started to think of him when I wrote: what would Marlowe do? That drove me on for a good while, until other influences took over. Like Bacon, Oxford …”
He paused, as if remembering. I could not resist speaking – in Paradise, I kept having these flashes of confidence, saying things I might not normally dare say in similar circumstances. “Some say that Bacon or Oxford wrote your plays for you,” I said, immediately amazed at my own temerity.
“They did,” Shakespeare replied, mildly. Then he smiled, as Tim and I gaped at him in wonder. “I have always been a good reader, good listener, good absorber. That’s my talent. I learned so much from Marlowe, from Bacon and Oxford: read, heard, immersed myself in their ideas. That’s how I wrote: rapidly, violently – almost. I let ideas possess me, and began to possess them: then I was able to find a way of voicing them, of Marlowing them, perhaps. I was Marlowed, I guess, when I wrote my sonnets. I understand his feeling for masculine beauty when I saw that young man – and no, I will not name him for you – because he was fine, brilliant, perfectly beautiful. A specimen of human beauty, indeed. I was breathless in his presence; overwhelmed by his nonchalant, charming, easy manner; excessively anxious to please his ready sense of the absurd. I wanted to charm him into that knowing, rippling, generous smile that he would inflict upon me whenever I said something that pleased him. I lusted after his refined taste, wanted him to take me up within his subtle connoisseurship. ‘Squire me’, I begged him. He did.”
“But you loved women too,” Tim prompted.
“I did. I have no time for those who dismiss anyone, any type, without consideration, without knowing. Ha! Or should I say, I find it hard to make time for them! But yes, women drove my desires powerfully. I suppose I was interested in the crossing of the boundaries, the in-betweens, what you would call androgyny, I suppose. The boys dressed as girls on stage, intrigued me. Then I made the boys dressed as girls dress as boys again. And for Rosalind, my gorgeous Rosalind, I made the boy, dressed as a girl, dress as boy, pretending to be a girl. Spinning stuff, huh? But the middle ground, the lovely boy/girl ambiguity, is only possible in relation to the extremes of masculinity and femininity at the edges. Only in this context does ambivalence seem sexy, slippery, possible, enticing, alluring, evasive, tantalising. If we were all middle-sexed, well, there would be nothing fizzy about it, would there? It would be bland. It’s in the wider world that the particular takes on special meaning; it’s amongst male men and feminine women that androgynes seem extraordinary. So I love men, women, and I love those that are partly both. I have taste.”
“Is that possible?” I asked. “Is there really such a thing as … a bisexual? Maybe it’s just confusion, self-delusion.”
“You cannot delude yourself,” he replied. “Scrupulously avoid an unpalatable truth, perhaps, but to tell a lie, you must know that you are not telling the truth, so … Well, enough of that. Sexual ambivalence is entirely possible, I would say. I would bed any fine body. But that’s not it. What matters is love, is it not? And you can categorise love any way you wish, but really it is always the same thing. Love is the matter in hand: love, the opposite to hatred, the force that accepts, appreciates, sympathises, understands, embraces, takes interest in the other, in others. Love is the human essence. Love is the awareness of the other’s needs, desires, hopes. Love is careful, simple, open. Love does no hurt, real love. You can love many, but only in so far that your love causes no pain. Love is loyal, faithful, genuine. Love whosoever you can love; love them if they will be loved. Let us love.”
I sat there on the green, looking up at Shakespeare’s benevolent face, feeling the warm sun on my back, feeling something stirring within me. I imagined that this was a moment for me, a moment in which I could begin to be me, a moment in which I could understand myself for the first time. But as this realisation began to take shape, so its essence, its form slipped out of view, faded, disintegrated. The clarity dwindled into cloudy uncertainty. The day was still bright, but my mind was not. The sense of real knowing had been so very temporary; I could not recover it, only seconds after it first bloomed into my consciousness.
“I am trying to make this make sense for me,” Tim said, absently.
“He talks so ordinarily,” I whispered to Tim. “Is he really Shakespeare?”
The playwright seemed to overheard me, because he said, “I wrote plays; I did not live them.”
“And he is able to communicate with us, in our time, in our language, here, because all is immediate and simple and fine here,” Tim added.
“I do not know what to think about any of this,” I said. “What is happening to me?”
“Whatever you want to …” Tim said.
“Travel on,” Shakespeare suggested. “You should see more, hear more, live more, before you decide anything.”
So we took to our feet, shook the playwright’s hand, each in turn, then set off together across the green, on to the next encounter.