Mistress Shakespeare - By Karen Harper



When I opened my door at mid-morn and saw the strange boy, I should have known something was wrong. I’d been on edge for three days, not only because of the aborted rebellion against the queen, but because Will and I were at such odds over it—and over our own relationship.

“You be Mistress Anne Whateley?”

My stomach knotted. The boy was no street urchin but was well attired and sported a clean face and hands. “Who wants to know?” I asked as he extended something to me. He must have a missive saying someone was ill. Or dead. Or, God save us, arrested.

“’Tis a tie from a fine pair of sleeves meant for you with other garments too, once adorning Her Majesty’s person,” he recited in a high, singsong voice as he placed a willow-green velvet ribbon laced with gold thread in my hand. In faith, it was beautiful workmanship.

“Didn’t want me carrying all that through the streets,” he added. “’Tis all waiting for you at the Great Wardrobe nearby.”

“I know where that is, lad, but have you not mistook me for another? I have naught to do with the queen’s wardrobe.”

“Three figured brocade gowns, two fine sleeves with points and ribbon ties, a butterfly ruff and velvet cloak for the Lord Chamberlain’s players to use at the Globe Theatre. Since they be busy today, I am to fetch you to receive the garb.”

Of late certain nobles had given me donated garments to pass on to Will’s fellows. I’d done many things for the players behind the scenes, as they put it. I’d once helped with costumes, and that at court too. In the disastrous performance but three days ago, I’d held the book and prompted the players. I’d copied rolls for Will and his fellows as well as taken his dictation. Many knew I had helped to provide the fine cushions that padded the hard wooden seats beneath the bums of earls and countesses who graced the expensive gallery seats at the Globe. So mayhap the word was out that I was the Jack—or Jill—of all trades at the Globe.

Yet things from the queen’s wardrobe? It was said she had more than two thousand gowns, so I supposed she could spare a few. The Shakespeare and Burbage company had performed before the court both at Whitehall and Richmond, but after the catastrophe of the Essex Rebellion, three days ago, Her Grace was donating personal pieces to them? Surely, she had heard that they had staged Will’s Richard II, a play some whispered had intentionally incited the rebellion against her throne.

I’d told Will—another of our arguments—that promoting that tragedy at that time could be not only foolhardy but fatal, so thank the good Lord the Virgin Queen valued her favorite plays and players. The promised garments must be an olive branch extended to them. At least this would prove to Will once and for all something else I’d argued for years. Elizabeth Tudor was a magnanimous monarch, not one who should be dethroned or dispatched before God Himself took the sixty-seven-year-old ruler from this life.

“One moment,” I told the boy. “I must fetch my cloak, for the wind blows chill.”

And blows ill, I thought, as I put away the pages of As You Like It, so-called a comedy, for it was larded with serious stuff. Will and I had been feuding over what was love, and I was looking at a copy of his role as Jaques, the part he’d written for himself. Like this character, Will had been “Monsieur Melancholy” lately and, looking closer at Jaques’ lines, I’d been appalled by what I’d found. And though Will and I were not speaking right now, I meant to take it up with him too. More than once he’d stripped our tortured love bare for all London to see, devil take the man, and he meant to do it again in this play!

“We’re off straightaway then,” the lad called over his shoulder as I followed him out the door into the courtyard. I lived in the large Blackfriars precinct, but it was still a goodly walk to the Wardrobe. Ever since I’d set foot in London eighteen years before, I’d loved this area and Will did too. When we were young and even more foolish than we were now at thirty-six years of age, Blackfriars was our fantastical place. We’d oft pretended we owned a fine brick mansion set like a jewel in green velvet gardens among homes of